The Slipperiness of Meaning: Jean Kent launches ‘Instant History’ by Richard Tipping

Instant History, by Richard Tipping (Flying Island Books), was launched by Jean Kent at  Poetry at the Pub, in Newcastle on 18th April 2018.

Forty years ago — when I was such a new poet I would never have dared call myself one— I bought a book which is still one of my most treasured possessions. It was the catalogue for a touring exhibition of poems by Australian poets. There were only 75 poets included: one of them was Richard Tipping

 Richard had already published two collections by this time, and was a significant presence on the poetry scene. I didn’t know him personally, but I was certainly aware of his poetry. In the years since then, he became known both in Australia and internationally for his visual poems and his sculptural poems, many of which are now held in art galleries. But he has always also been a writer of finely crafted poems for the page, and Instant History is an important reminder of that.

In the beautifully produced, palm-sized format of all Flying Islands books, Instant History may look small, but in fact it is an extraordinarily large collection. Not only are there a lot of poems, their range is also vast. Thirty plus years of life and observation are distilled here, in the typical Tipping style, with dazzling wit, playfulness, precision and clarity.

 Richard’s delight in words is (to use one of his own words about the book) multifarious: simply reading the title and the names of the different sections – The Postcard Life, Rush Hour in the Poetry Library, Earth Heart, Kind of Yeah – suggests how he loves the slipperiness of meaning.

 Even the title Instant History can be understood in so many ways. Is it immediate history? The history of small instances? Or a nod to the way so much of our lives now is captured by the media and then forgotten?

Considering Richard’s gift for plucking the right couple of words out of air as if this is as natural as breathing, we might think it’s just another of his serendipitous , but very clever throwaway phrases … until we realize that there is also a poem in the book called ‘Instant History’.

This title, though, is not just ‘Instant History’. In brackets after that we find “Gulf War 1”. ‘Instant History (Gulf War 1)’ is a vividly shocking recreation of the way television and on the spot reporters changed the recording and receiving of news about war. Now that the transmission of news, both personal and public, is as instant as a click on a Smart Phone, it is chilling to be reminded of this time when, suddenly, cameras “at the place of the Arabs’ are “filling houses across America with worry”, the President keeps repeating “Read my lips. This war/ is not about prime time television”, and

collateral language
keeps bobbing its head up
out of the bloodied sand

where bodies have become pink mist
swirling in data smog.


Richard has been a film maker, visual artist and musician, as well as a poet, and his talents in all these areas are obvious in the poems. He has also travelled extensively, so not surprisingly there is a global awareness in much of his writing. There are poems of social and political commentary, postcards from everywhere, riddles, lyrics, meditations … and so many memorable phrases.  

I don’t have time tonight to offer more than a small glimpse into the surprises and treasures Instant History contains. But I’d like to mention one of my favourite poems from the travel section.

‘Snap’, is the poetic equivalent of tourist snap shots on a trip from London to Tokyo, interspersed with reflections on how “to find the Tao”. Moments all through the trip are observed with photographic clarity, giving glimpses of the world, gone in seconds, but vivid. There are acutely observed progressions from the confinement within the plane – “Jumbo shivering vast fatness / Dinners warming in the microwave” to the almost hallucinatory brilliance of scenes on the ground, at last, in Japan: 

…………….Globular persimmons, orange weights
glowing in bare branches

Old man, bowing to a crowd
of worn stone Buddhas.
Etched shadows on crystal moss

 and the wonderfully unexpected end, where

 …………….One hundred bobbing nuns
all laugh at once”

 In this poem, blank white space on the page gives a sense of time passing, or past. The way poems look on the page is important all through this book. It’s something I especially admire about Richard’s work. He also has a natural ear for the way words work, and there are some wonderful, pithy expressions of both the way language can degenerate into inarticulateness, and the power it has to work magic if we are alert to its possibilities—the way, for instance, a poem can be condensed to

…..a single

of tensile energy
transmitted on the tongue.”

 There are also tantalizing examples in Instant History of Richard’s typographic and sculptural poems, including one which is in the grounds of Lake Macquarie Art Gallery. This ‘earth sculpture’ consists of bricks laid into the grass in a circle. From the air, the bricks clearly form letters, which spell out Richard’s title of the work: ‘HEAR THE ART (EARTH HEART)’. There are no gaps between the letters, so if you are at ground level, you have to walk slowly around the circle to make sense of it … Other words then start to form – like ‘HEART’ and ‘EARTH’ and ‘HEARTH’. It’s a classic Richard Tipping concrete poem—surprising, enigmatic, charming and clever.

This poem in the earth is much loved by the swallows that live by the lake—they swoop and dive and circle around the bricks, “quick-dancing in the rising wind”, as Richard aptly describes them in a related poem.

In this book as a whole, I think there is also a dazzling combination of aerial views and close attention at ground level. Instant History is a book to dip into, like the swallows, for light-hearted joy, but it is also a complex, comprehensive response to the experience of living in our times, a ‘his-story’ which rewards careful, serious reading.

  – Jean Kent


Jean Kent is the author of eight books of poetry. Her most recent books are The Hour of Silvered Mullet (Pitt Street Poetry, 2015) and Paris in my Pocket (PSP, 2016), a selection of her poems from an Australia Council residency in Paris. With Kit Kelen, in 2014 Jean co-edited A Slow Combusting Hymn: Poetry from and about Newcastle and the Hunter Region. Samples of her poems and occasional jottings are on her website

Instant History is available from 

Skilful and Fluid: Cath Piltz Reviews ‘The Right Wrong Notes’ by Nathan Curnow

The Right Wrong Notes by Nathan Curnow ASM & Cerberus Press, with Flying Island Books 2015

right wrong noteThis is a collection of 59 selected poems from previous and recent publications including No Other Life But This, The Ghost Poetry Project, RADAR, with recent works appearing in The Rialto, Meanjin and Land Before Lines.

Curnow displays an interesting ensemble of moments, memories, and experiences through prose form, traditional stanza and some nice extended prose like ‘Gently Against the Grain’ (p 76). There are some very tender moments in the poems dedicated to his daughters, his wife and his father – an overarching theme as he reflects on fatherhood, or the implication of fatherhood, family and life. I particularly enjoyed the characterisation in ‘Goal Cat’ (p 32).

As a performance poet you can feel the message in a lot of Curnow’s prose. His pacing and rhythm delivers a sound punch and gentle ebb purposefully placed with such gems as ‘Broadarrow Café, Port Arthur’ (p 49), ‘The Doctor Asks the Elderly Poet to Read the Eye Chart’, and ‘Norman Lindsay upon visiting the Ballarat Art Gallery to discover that the entire family room he grew up in has now been donated and is now on permanent display’ (p 74).

Curnow’s writing is skilful and fluid, organising imagery so much without trying. His observations in Violent Light (pg 78), Slip Ice (pg 76) and I am the lion on the edge of your bed who has come to eat your heart (pg 72) delivers fascinating insights and snapshots surmounted into a short, sharp glimpse of the individual’s lives he portrays. An honest, reflective account of moments, memories, and experiences. Thoroughly enjoyable.

 – Cath Piltz


Cath Piltz grew up on the North Coast: writing, drawing and taking pictures. She is currently completing the Associate Degree in Creative Writing at Southern Cross University and has been published by Monstralian, in Byron Writer’s Festival magazine Northerly and in Southern Cross University School of Humanities and Social Sciences Anthology Coastlines 6.

For information on ordering a copy of The Right Wrong Notes go to

Go to the Makers, Not the Mockers: Beth Spencer launches ‘A Pocket Kit 2’ by Kit Kelen

Beth Spencer launched A Pocket Kit 2 by Kit Kelen, Flying Islands, 2016 at Poetry at the Pub, Wickham Hotel, Newcastle, Monday 30th May 2016.

pocket kit2I am honoured to be here to launch Kit Kelen’s twentieth book, and thirteenth collection of poetry, A Pocket Kit 2  — a little treasure house of poems from 25 years of writing and publishing.

I first met Kit back in the early ‘90s when I had a small job choosing a ‘new writer’ each week for a five min segment on Radio National. In a folder I inherited was this astonishing poem called ‘Republics’ — a visual and auditory feast of images and ideas and Australian vernacular mixed in with concepts from Plato. (Actually I’m guessing that last part, because I’ve never actually read Plato. But Kit is nodding, so that must be right.). So I rang the poet and got him to record part of it at the Newcastle ABC studio. And then sometime after that when he was in Sydney we got together for a very very long chat about poetry and poets and Australia, ostensibly for research for his PhD thesis.

A few years later I was at a literary conference and Kit was there so we sat together during a session that — as these things often do — put me in a semi-sleep state. I do love theory but my brain often objects to being forced to focus on it. Next to me, Kit was doodling away on an art notepad, now and then bringing out some pastels to add some colour. It was one of his marvellous line and colour works that you may have seen. I watched him doodle and the words of the speakers floated over me. (I was a little jealous that I hadn’t brought something to occupy my time too.) Then as they finished Kit immediately put up his hand, stood up and delivered an incisive and word-perfect comment and question directly relating to what they’d been talking about. It was very impressive, and says a lot to me about Kit, and about this wonderful little book.

I love the way he has forged such a dynamic continuity between his academic, creative and personal life — or between and within these states of being. This is a mind constantly engaged in play with everything around him.  Creativity, connection, ecology, politics, generosity, life, music, rhythm… Across worlds and across forms.

Indeed while writing this speech I was listening to a CD of his guitar tunes that he gave me about ten years ago.

Each poem is wild and playful, but also intricately honed: shaped and presented as an instrument for feeling and thinking and awareness. As perfectly resonant as the craftsman-made ukulele he might play for us later.

There is a line in one of the poems in this book that kept coming back to me as I thought about what I might say tonight:

go to the makers
not to the mockers

Undoubtedly Kit is a stirrer — in the very best tradition of that lovely Australian expression. But he is not a mocker. There is nothing mean or unkind in these poems even when they are biting and unflinching in their observations. From ‘Views from Pinchgut’, for instance:

Roll that gaze out onto a coin
poisoned with flour and blankets.
(The sun smiles over my gumboots and I
driven on by greed and luck. For the sake
of a good feed we murder our way across borders

Flog some sense
into the trees and ringbarking’s a miracle
of endurance but we go at it like there’s
no tomorrow.

Go to the makers, not the mockers.

This book is a pocket version of a much wider project of writing, creating, publishing, painting, doodling, building, critiquing, editing, curating, exploring and loving.  A book about how to live both lightly and deeply in the world, by someone who has made his whole life into a creative connective project.

This is a discipline — writing, painting, yoga in the mornings, and putting it out into the world at every opportunity.

And there is both a discipline and wildness in the writing that I love. From the opening poem:

embrace the poem
squander the soul

sleep to dream and wake to play
let everything go wild today

This is also a making and remaking of the self — within the canvas of history, memory, ancestors, imagining children, blokes, sheds, bears…

canvas is linen really
like a tent clouds abide in
there are rats have your pants
vultures all sorts
one lies down in it all
till the rags make ladders
next beanstalk’s got your name on it
next stop the stars

‘the priming of a painter’s canvas’

I love the back cover photo too —  Kit playing his uke under a tree full of children with a glorious smile on his face.

Kit back cover

There is a wonderful poem called ‘Imagining Children’ and I was reminded of a line I quoted in one of my own stories, from a woman who said that sometimes when you don’t have children of your own, your love is more free flowing: ‘all the children are your children’.

Kit, as many of you know, is currently Professor of English at Macao University in China. He has also taught in Japan and created and connected in an amazing range of places around the world. And this is a poetry and a life where ‘all the world is your world’ — all the world matters.

But while sailing around the world there is also a fine thread anchor that — fortunately for us — pulls him home. So it’s a cosmopolitan book that is also deeply Australian. A complex love song.

In ‘ping pong’ for instance, a moving poem to his Hungarian refugee father:

I remember your remembering
snow from Great War winters

ten years and you’re more than a hundred —
good innings even when you’re out —
we’ve still got the ashes

‘drongo’ ‘buckley’s’ — I learnt
Australia from you — and that there’s nothing like
the love of a country you’ve chosen for yourself..

In Paul Carter’s seminal book, The Road to Botany Bay, he talks about the way Cook named places according to what they reminded him of from his vantage point in that moment (‘Pigeon Mountain’ and so on) and contrasted this to the more territorial naming of the invaders and settlers who came after him. Those seeking out definitive names rather than playful ones. Carter refers to Cook’s as the ‘light glance’ as compared to the ‘possessive gaze’.

And I think there is much of that in Kit’s poetry. A light sharp joyful glance. Never definitive. Constantly stirring and shifting and remaking and shuffling  — even with his own poems.
And I think this is one of the strengths of poetry as a discursive practice. It allows room for others to bring themselves to the page. It creates connection. It creates space. It undoes itself even as it makes itself.

where was I

when the tree became me
mid-flight, like an arrow’s twang

where was the instant
green became me
danger was outrun

because I took
the tide to heart
and made a moon
my mood
and meant

where no word would
ashen I bent to turn the man
where?   where was I just then?

To me this also speaks to the importance of poetry, in all its forms — writing, art, music, nurturing life with a sense of lightness rather than possessiveness — for a healthy community; for a republic of souls.

What is a book? . This seems an appropriate question to ask when launching someone who has written and produced and published so many of them.

I was listening to an interview with the writer and filmmaker Sebastian Junger the other day and he talked about how we evolved to live in small groups. Nowadays there are too many of us to sit around campfires to figure out who we are, how we want to live, what are our values. We can’t do that anymore, but we need to; and in some ways, more than ever, as we have so many changes happening and so many ways to destroy ourselves and the world and each other.

And he suggested that perhaps the only way we can now have these kind of conversations —  which are vital — is through books. Only books can contain enough thought and information and ideas in an accessible and a cheap enough way to be shared throughout large groups of people.

He said, ‘Books are kind of sacred objects — sacred in the sense that I don’t think our society will survive without them.’

I’ve also been thinking about the play on words in the title here — A Pocket Kit.
A kit is a set of articles or equipment needed for a specific purpose… To kit someone out is to provide them with what they need for a journey.

Go to the makers, not the mockers.

In every book there is an entire universe. Cheap at the price. And these beautiful little pocket books are a bargain at ten dollars each.

Pocket books to suit your pocket. So you can grab a bundle, and explore. Or give them away as wonderful pressies. In these days where a card that gets thrown away costs $5, why not pay a bit extra, write your message inside one of these, and pop it in an envelope instead. Send something that contains a whole world, and that the receiver can carry with them — in their pocket, in their soul. Something never finished but that each reading tinkers with. Something alive as we bring to it our own moments and life.

Or as Kit has it:

in a book
are certain heavens

more than gods count
as in the pages of a tree
which tells its years in standing

And in the poem,

keep this book

walk with it
sleep with it
read it out loud

then when it
falls apart
you’re the glue

And finally, from his ‘Advice to Poets’:

worship the earth
the all we have

with the heart give
with each breath be given
do this with each word

Poetry, the breath of life.

I highly commend this book to you,  I thank Kit for writing and producing it, and for being such an extraordinary ‘maker’. And I hereby declare A Pocket Kit2 — in all its wildness and joy — alive and launched.

Beth Spencer and Kit Kelen at the launch of A Pocket Kit 2

Beth Spencer and Kit Kelen at the launch of A Pocket Kit 2

 – Beth Spencer


For more information about A Pocket Kit 2 and Cerebrus Press and Flying Islands books see To purchase a copy of A Pocket Kit 2, email directly to Kit at Pocket books are $10 each plus $2 postage for within Australia.

Christopher (Kit) Kelen is a well known Australian poet, scholar and visual artist, and Professor of English at the University of Macau, where he has taught Creative Writing and Literature for the last sixteen years. Volumes of his poetry have been published in Chinese, Portuguese, French, Italian, Swedish, Indonesian and Filipino languages. Japanese and Spanish collections are currently in preparation.

Beth Spencer’s most recent books are the verse memoir, Vagabondage, from UWAPublishing, and The Party of Life, a bilingual collection from Flying Islands/ASM. She has a website at

For more information about Cerebrus Press and Flying Islands books see

Eccentric & Sustaining: Bernard Cohen launches ‘The Party of Life’ by Beth Spencer

The Party of Life by Beth Spencer is a bilingual (English and Chinese) collection of poems published by Flying Islands Books which was launched by Bernard Cohen at The Friend in Hand, Sydney, on 14th November 2015.

sm-edged-front cover-Party of life

The Party of Life is a big book disguised as a little book. It is the Tardis of books. The inside of Beth Spencer’s book is much, much bigger than the outside—and I speak as someone with access to just over half the words in this book, about which more soon.

As befits its title, The Party of Life is also much bigger on the outside, existing in a warm social media space, which I think many of us have made our way through to get here. Typically, that space is bill-boarded by the generous tributes Beth pays to all who have helped with this book or may help even slightly at this later stage (thank you).

And from social media we are, in turn, linked to points in electronic media, including Beth’s radio/podcast performance of her moving and lovely poem ‘Forgetting’. Additionally, there’s the space mapped out by the Viscount Kit Kelen [ASM/Flying Islands Pocket Book Bilingual Series Editor] and Flying Island Books—to whom and which let us all raise a glass.

When Beth asked me to launch the book, she did this with her customary modesty and diplomacy, the request surrounded by disclaimers, but she also attached the text. I was actually hypnotised into it by halfway down page twelve. (I should note, though, that the text starts on page ten and that page eleven, other than three commas and a colon, is, to me, completely unreadable.)

In the very first poem of this big-little book, Beth manages to evoke an entire era with two words: ‘without helmets’. She gives us the totality of a way of existing with three words: ‘for eighty cents’.

inside pp Untethered

from The Party of Life by Beth Spencer. Photo curtesy of the author.

I have a vague recollection of the instead-of-a-suicide party. I don’t think I was there, but reading the poem, the milieu seems so familiar—the particular mix of music, song after epochal song, us all in black, that ghoulish bride—that I begin to recall the whole thing. Who I may have spoken with? No, no. The details of the conversations, hesitating about going to see Beth lying in a state?—did I know her well enough in those days to see her like that? Not knowing what to do with my hands other than to hold drinks, which in this possibly new memory I was gulping at much too frequently.

But not too much further into the book, Beth talks to me about this, she says:

This is a backwards poem,
an unreliable/selective memory poem.

The imagery is getting to me, too:

The shark coloured water
creaks against the bank
‘Hmmm… hmm…’
like a $90 shrink.

Here we are, rejected, confiding in the endlessly understanding bay. Beth’s easy control over the rhythms of Australian English:

I let myself get tipsy
on two middies in the pub


Michael says, ‘You’re a feminist,
but your sense of humour saves you.’

I could simply refer to half of this book, the left-hand pages, but there’s something lovely about bilingual texts, those that can be made out or at least sounded out and those, like this, which to me are visually beautiful; full of promise and of questions of what is possible to carry over from one vernacular to another.

For instance, a group of schoolgirls in shortened dresses

the store detectives off like alarm bells
as we passed.

inside bit tunnels

detail from The Party of Life by Beth Spencer. Photo curtesy of the author.

Something Claudia Taranto did not mention when introducing me was that I am the author of Mistranslations from a Chinese Vase’. Despite failing to read, completely, the right-hand pages [in Chinese]—these pages which join the book to a converging path through spacetime—I would like to read to you those parts [of the Chinese translations] which were accessible to me (knowing from the left-hand pages just what those missing words carried).

So I’m going to read to you [in English], from the Chinese, all the parts that I can understand:

, , , :
? , , ?
, , , : , , , ?
Glebe Point
Glebe Point
Weeties ? ?
? 1 2 100 3 4 5 6
7 8 & 9,
A : , 500 : : B ? C !
… ? ! ? ! !
2009 2 7
X Steeles Creek ? ? ?
? ? ? ? ?
Steeles Creek
1 : Snap
Bobby Brady 5 25 ? ?

And again, given the pleasures of translation, with its gains and decay of implication and universal possibility within this text’s generous playfulness and availability, I’m pleased to provide this alternative: ‘Multilingual Machine Mistranslation’ (so, one more misreading of Beth’s work):

Sound –
Red socks and Jane’s wit.

Miss George McIntyre
Sewing atheist work
Hanging clothes our dirty shoes.
a Blue – white T-shirt from T-shirt College.
(all Brown Female
According to the table), the following steps.
Wear $ 500
concluded Toorak Customers
as Researchers worry about shopping.

(Perhaps my translation needs more work?)

Finally, everywhere in this big little book there is love. The love in Beth’s poems is always eccentric and sustaining. ‘I loved the way / they leaned in towards each other / for stability’, she writes, of a mother and her suckling calf. ‘The rejected in love / come down to sigh in the park / at Glebe Point’ and, in ‘Love Poem’, which begins with fear, vomit, weeping, Bobby Brady’s donut and hairy armpits, really does resolve into love.

I commend The Party of Life to you. Everyone here should walk out with several copies, which are ideal gifts for upcoming festivities, for loved ones and for your employers, employees and amanuenses: highly portable, richly evocative, impeccably observed and moving.

And it is with great pleasure that I declare Beth Spencer’s The Party of Life launched.

– Bernard Cohen


Bernard Cohen’s most recent book, The Antibiography of Robert F Menzies, won the 2015 Russell Prize for Humour Writing. He is also founder and director of The Writing Workshop.

Beth Spencer’s previous books are Vagabondage, How to Conceive of a Girl, and Things in a Glass Box. The Party of Life is published by ASM/Flying Islands books and is available at events, at Booktopia, or direct from Beth at for $12 including postage.


Small Gems of Poetry: Beatriz Copello Reviews ‘Fixing the Broken Nightingale’ by Richard James Allen

Fixing the Broken Nightingale by Richard James Allen. Flying Island Books, published by ASM & Cerberus Press, 2014

fixing-the-broken-nightingaleFixing the Broken Nightingale is Allen’s tenth book and is beautiful inside and outside. This pocket book has on its front cover a photograph from an outstanding oil painting by Michelle Hiscock, titled “Evening, Woolloomooloo Bay”. What awaits the reader inside the covers of this book are small gems of poetry.

Allen talks to the readers, he engages them, he captures them with the stories he overtly tells and with those in which one is left guessing their meaning.

His poems go from the mundane to the sacred, from the domestic to the profound, from the nostalgic and sentimental to the carnal and erotic.

His first poem “Birthplace” flags what the reader could expect from the collection, a style which shares with us the mundane, for example: who has never written in a book? A phone or bus number, an address, or like Allen says

a recipe for a fruit cake, the departure and arrival times of the North Coast Mail and
the names of fourteen people who used to be alive.

Then the poet surprises us with the obscure, the abstract, the subsconscious, the personal. Allen completes this poem saying:

& across the back flap
the names of fourteen people
who used to be alive
frozen in a line
like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery.

The reader wonders: who are these dead people? Are they relatives? Friends? Symbols?

Another example of these dichotomies is clear in “how many umbrellas or love letters”. The poem commences wondering how many umbrellas he has lost in his lifetime, which is something that most of us have experienced. Then the poet turns this casual event into a conceit. He says:

……………………………………………..I imagine each of these umbrellas, all dead
and forgotten now of course, as giant origami love letters, which people I don’t know
opened to the plunging sky with delight and relief.

Allen completes the poem with the following heartfelt observation:

………………………………………………………………………..looking back, these
random forgetfulness may have been the major contribution of my life, popping up in
the lives of others like the tips of islands emerging in a world where the sea levels are
actually dropping to save beautiful but bedraggled shipwrecked wayfarers in a lost
play by a man still named Bill.

A lot of Allen’s poems are not only playful and intelligent but also reflective. In “wonderment as a question” he says:

Don’t try to lock down the mysteries
…………or you may find yourself locked up inside one of them.

……………………….Step freely in, like stepping into a waterfall.

Then you will find yourself neither outside nor inside,
underneath nor above, just
wet. Gloriously

Many of his poems muse on life and living, he does this in subtle ways, and he even adds humour. For example, in “Natural Disasters”, Allen commences the poem in a shrewd and serious manner describing himself as a storm, he says:

Here it comes
– oh my God –
the terror,
like a hurricane
out of nowhere,
hauling out
the roots of my trees,
jagged-edging my sky,
blowing my topsoil to who knows where.

But he finishes the poem in a humorous tone:

I am one of those places where natural disasters are likely to occur.

If I were to find me on a tourist map,
I would stay on the highway.
But this is my earth, this is my forest, this is my sky.

I am indigenous to this insanity.

The poet takes us from Surry Hills to New York; he shares with us his joy and his angst. He stokes our imagination and indulges us with his words, like in “Making an Appearance”:

You’ve been here all this time?

How did you get in?
I came in the back way.
But there is no back way.
There’s always a back way.

Where were you?
I was in my dungeon.
But there is no dungeon.
There’s always a dungeon.

Who is Allen talking about? Did he allow himself to fall in love? Who is in the dungeon? Is the poet talking about a personality trait? Is he a prisoner or is he holding someone his prisoner? “Making an Appearance” is indeed a poem that is intriguing and invites the reader to ponder.

Some of his pages seep sadness, others passion, others tell us of a man sure of himself who sometimes, not very often, lets his guard down like in the poem “The Time Machine in the Old House”. He says in the first six stanzas:

It’s a little frightening how the years have passed
And here we are in this same old bed.
We don’t seem to have aged at all
But the world has shifted around us.
I am a little afraid to get out
For fear of what I might find.

Allen’s poetry speaks the language of love and pain and we learn lessons hidden in his words. A very poignant poem is “what I did on my nervous breakdown”:

if I had been a lesser man
I might have become an alcoholic
a drug addict, a bum

I might have trawled the streets –
the memories of dead fish
smelling in my hold

if I had been a lesser man
I might have really
fucked up my life

but all I did was fuck up yours.

This poet is not scared of experimenting with structure, shape or form. He plays with words, as, for example, in the “testing how much” section of “Armistice”. He also has, in most of his poems, an incredible rhythm, a rhythm which contains movement. This made me think that “Allen the dancer” has embedded movement in some of his poems. His words dance on the page doing arabesques, pirouettes and chaines turns.

Deconstruction is another of Allen’s tools, he ‘deconstructs relationships’, emotions, experiences. He enters the very essence of life and analyses it, as he says in “The Optics of Relationships, or With this Poem I Thee Wed”:

Who I was in the past,
Who I will be in the future –
What distractions these are
From who I am now.

The finality of life also confronts the reader. Is the poet courting death? Imagining death? Waiting for it? Death is a neighbour, he proclaims in this poem titled “The Neighbour”:

Death has started visiting me of late,
lingering in the corners, and sometimes
butting obtrusively into conversations,
like an angry neighbour you had forgotten about
whose moods never change.

Yet there is life in his poetry, because living is suffering, living is loving, living is experiencing the everyday, the passions, the lovers, poetry … and as Allen affirms in “Flickering Enlightenment”:

The question is not how to die but how to live

Allen’s Fixing the Broken Nightingale is a treasure chest of poetry.

 – Beatriz Copello


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

Fixing the Broken Nightingale is available from


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Robbie Coburn


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

Decline and Fall is available from Flying Island Books:…/rae-desmond-jones-decline-and-fall/



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

Sydney and Newcastle Launches for ‘Notes For The Translators’

Notes For The Translators from 142 New Zealand and Australian Poets (ASM, Macau), edited by Christopher Kit Kelen, 2013. Sydney and Newcastle launches. SYDNEY – Monday 8th July, 7pm. Upstairs Friend in Hand Hotel, 58 Cowper St Glebe. NEWCASTLE – Monday 15th July, 7.30pm. Theatre Lane Hotel 189 Hunter Street Newcastle.

notesOn one level every reading of a poem is an act of translation. Using the written word to convey often complex and difficult meanings, imagery and emotions involves an act of ‘encoding’ by the poet and one of ‘decoding’ by the reader. A simple poem may suggest a single decoding while a more complex poem can suggest many. Of course when we refer to translation we are normally referring to the act of translating a poem from one language to another – an act which, of course, adds numerous levels of complexity to the act of ‘decoding’ the poem.

One of my favourite books poetry in translation is Moscow Trefoil: poems from the Russian of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam by David Campbell and Rosemary Dobson (Australian National University Press, 1975). In this volume each Russian poem has three different English interpretations/translations – a version that is as close to a literal translation as possible and a version each by Dobson and Campbell which attempt to ‘rewrite’ the poem in an English version. Such an approach highlights the issues for those of use who read poetry in translation, we must always be aware that we, in fact reading a collaborative work between the writer and translator.

Kit Kelen, in his introduction to Notes For The Translators, highlights some of these issues. Notes is, he says, a practical book – it is an anthology which consists of a single poem by 142 poets from Australia and New Zealand, together with notes by the poet designed to assist a translator in translating the poem.

Poets appearing in the anthology include: Adam Aitken, Ali Alizadeh,Richard James Allen Steve Armstrong, Peter Bakowski, John Bennett, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, Margaret Bradstock, Michael Brennan, David Brooks, Kevin Brophy, Hamish Danks Brown, Lachlan Brown,Pam Brown, Andrew Burke, Joanne Burns Michelle Cahill, Grant Caldwell, Coral Carter, Julie Chevalier, Eileen Chong, Jennifer Compton, Anna Couani, Alison Croggon, Jan Dean, Tricia Dearborn, Dan Disney, Lucy Dougan, Laurie Duggan,Stephen Edgar, David Eggleton, Marietta Elliott, Brook Emery, Diane Fahey, Rangi Faith, Michael Farrell, Liam Ferney, Barbara Fisher, Toby Fitch, Angela Gardner Carolyn Gerrish, Jane Gibian, David Gilbey, Vivienne Glance, Marewa Glover, Pip Griffin, Philip Hammial, Jennifer Harrison, Libby Hart, Dennis Haskell, Brian Hawkins, Susan Hawthorne, Dominique Hecq, Matt Hetherington, Paul Hetherington, Mark William Jackson, Andy Jackson, Alan Jefferies, Carol Jenkins, Murray Jennings, Judy Johnson, Jill Jones, Rae Desmond Jones, Antigone Kefala, Claine Keily Christopher (Kit) Kelen, S.K. Kelen, Jean Kent, Anna Kerdijk, John Kinsella, Peter Kirkpatrick, Andy Kissane, Yota Krili, Martin Langford, Andrew Lansdown, Rebecca Kylie, John Leonard, Miriel Lenore, Debbie Lim, Roberta Lowing, Myron Lysenko, Mark Macleod, Chris Mansell,Shane McCauley, David McCooey, Greg McLaren, Rhyll McMaster, Philip Mead, Sara Moss, Lizz Murphy, Les Murray, David Musgrave, Rosemary Nissen, James Norcliffe, Mark O’Flynn, Michael O’Leary, Ouyang Yu, Jan Owen, Geoff Page, Glen Phillips, Mark Pirie, Brian Purcell, Vaughan Rapatahana, Harry Ricketts, Reihana Robinson, Bronwyn Rodden, Mark Roberts, Gig Ryan, Tracy Ryan, Philip Salom, Andrew Sant, Jaya Savige, Michael Sharkey, Thomas Shapcott, Laura, Jan Shore, Alex Skovron, Peter Skrzynecki, Vivian Smith, Beth Spencer, Nicolette Stasko, Amanda Stewart, Billy Marshall Stoneking, James Stuart,Patricia Sykes, Niobe Syme Maria Takolander, Andrew Taylor, Sandra Thibodeaux, Richard Tipping, Barbara Temperton, Mark Tredinnick, Carolyn Van Langenberg, Corey Wakeling, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, John Watson, Alan Wearne, Mags Webster, Cecilia White,Les Wicks, Irene Wilkie, Niel Wright.


For inquiries about this anthology contact or

Life lived outside the enclosure: Virginia Shepherd reviews ‘Small Wonders’ by Anna Couani

Small Wonders by Anna Couani 2011, Flying Islands Books, ASM Books & Cerebus Press.

small wonders101Some time ago I was staring through a microscope at a sample of seawater from the Great Barrier Reef. Affixed to the slide, long thin active strands of streaming protoplasm explored this barren and flattened landscape, groping for detritus, microscopic signposts. This new landscape is foreign, less than a millimeter deep and blasted from beneath by a white light as hot as a drowned sun. Tracking the strands, I found their origin, an individual amoeba reaching out from inside an elaborately sculpted shell, hundreds of body-lengths away from the tips of these exploratory strands, called poetically pseudopodia or ‘false feet’. The maligned outsider scientist Sheldrake argues that ‘the sense of being stared at’ is real, and the extended mind behaves like pseudopodia. Not only does light enter our eyes or other senses, but the mind reaches out through them, touching that which is distant, drawing together those objects, people, landscapes, even memories it has explored, generating a vast synthesis, a view of the world that centers on a unique space-time address and connects web-like to all it has touched.

The poems in this book are like that. From the centre of a web of extended mind the poems reach out, like protoplasmic strands, across time and space, touching simultaneously the near and the far, Kochi in India, the arms stretched towards Turkey, between lovers-to-be who stare out at the same eye level from different Sydney buildings, protoplasmic strands delicately touching the past, the personal, familial, political, macroscopic or microscopic, probing the relationship between surfaces, the interior, the exterior, the individual and the collective, between whole cities and the minutia of urban landscapes, extending between cultures, lovers, philosophies, art movements.

…she runs through the suburb
in her mind
scanning over the hills
like on Google maps, satellite view

lived there, lived there, lived there
each address like a portal
opening onto those memories
grouped like episodes
the flat with a studio
the flat with dark blue walls
where she taught herself all those
art techniques
way back
the feminist house
women with shaved heads in the big backyard…

– ‘small wonders’

Anna Couani writes like no-one else. The poems together form a micro-novel in a pocket format, an organismic structure that can be understood at the level of an individual poem, yet at another level achieves its own coherence, as an organism contains its cells, tissues and organs, and is more than the sum of those parts, themselves wholes. Understood, as our memories constantly reform the networks, the non-linear narratives of our lives. Anna Couani’s intensely observational writing, her microscope or telescope eye, gives us the perspective of life as it is lived daily outside the enclosure, outside that morass of mass culture and homogenised values, beyond the gated elites of white-anglo Australiana and gendered clubism. When the future seeks to know what it was like to be outside the mainstream, an artist, writer, teacher, feminist, left wing, or perhaps unclassifiable, what were the details of daily life, upon what did the inner eye reflect through the seventies and into the present, Anna Couani’s writing will take us there. As academic Anne Brewster wrote; “Her experimental fiction, I argue, in its efforts to defamiliarise reading conventions, articulates a crisis of belonging. In its radical poetics of the gendered everyday it seeks to locate the body in the alternative communities which characterise minority constituencies” (Anne Brewster. ‘The radical poetics of the gendered urban quotidian: reading Anna Couani’s literary experimentalism of the 1970s and 1980s’. In: Mycak, Sonia, and Amit Sarwal, eds. Australian Made: A Multicultural Reader. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2010. p46).

Anna Couani’s early and later collections attract critical respect, growing still more interesting and relevant, aging well, provoking reflection on what changes, and what stays the same, partly because the writing is in a sense more real than conventional realism purports to be. Academics such as Anne Brewster posit that through ignoring conventional methods of realist poetry or fiction, speaking as an emissary from the outside, Anna Couani’s writing exposes the heap of artifice, the underlying unreality of realist conventions, and the means by which this ‘realism’ can serve as propaganda. This is why, according to Anne Brewster, Anna Couani’s early work Italy and The Train’ initially attracted mainly negative (even outraged) reviews, and why these later gave way to more appreciative evaluations. As Anne Brewster comments, “Writing which interrupts the conventions of realist prose fiction exposes how the truth effects of this fiction work” (p49). It is also more real. In The Harbour Breathes, 24 years ago, Anna Couani wrote

“…This is the tail-end of the previous dissident movement, using its power to suppress the current dissension, while the forces on the Right are massing, more powerful now than in feudal times and much more adaptable. And what are we going to do about it. How can we see our way clear through this pea-soup kind of thinking. And what is this pap they call excellence. We don’t have to buy it…”

– (from ‘The Pillar of Rooms’, in ‘The Harbour Breathes’, 1989)

– and now, in small wonders,

…beetling along the highway
rewriting history
it’s business as usual
multiculturalism, vanished
there’s a new order
but it’s not what they think
not like The New World Order
new people are out there
driving hard
people with something to say …

– from ‘driving’

Small wonders is the sixth of Anna Couani’s experimental prose and poetry works. She is well known as a writer who is not a member of literary clubs, eschewing conventional forms and the self-congratulatory camaraderie of insiders. Neurobiologist V. S Ramachandran commented in his recent book The Tell-Tale Brain “Homogeneity breeds weakness: theoretical blind spots, stale paradigms, an echo-chamber mentality, and cults of personality (p.xix)”. It is against such homogeneity, monocultural, gendered, and conformist, that Anna Couani’s writing is an effective antidote. If by kitsch we mean the enforced conformity of a homogenised establishment, the sentimental celebration of its icons, rituals, conventions, the denial and active cover-up of its negative and depressing realities, then Anna Couani’s writing is anti-kitsch.

The percipient observer here does not lay claim to unreal kitsch outsider-heroism but wakes at 4 am

…a huge dark space
breathing with ideas…

– from ‘awake’

mulling over work, can’t sleep, ends up marking student work

…Dear Diary
This home does not belong to me…

– from ‘awake’

cycles on the way to work past the new development

…what do you think about the new development?
seems okay, really, I quite like it.
it’s going to mean a lot of noise and chaos
whilst it’s being built. yeah.
bad for the people who have to move out.

– from ‘bicycle’

and did her grandmother have a lover, how did she negotiate it if women weren’t allowed out- the revision of this herstory,

…this is the animated closure
like in the titles of documentaries
where they show giant wheels
representing history
that rolls over the top of us
like a roller-coaster
inside out…

– from ‘walking alone’

From Kochi, the roughness of the roads shows up the silkiness of our roads, our lives, and yes, things do change:

lots of culture talks
things are so different now
talking about culture and indigeneity
kids with separated parents
that’s familiar
along the M5…

– from ‘driving’

Anna Couani has been exploring concepts of the sublime, not so much the idea of beauty in nature as it is sought by tourists, where the sun breaks through clouds over a mountain in an intimation of the divine, but those moments of incomprehension or shock that jolt, disturb or discombobulate us, when something darker emerges, something we might call the negative sublime.

“…..the sublime thing
I could have gone that way
with feminist representations
some did
that’s where I was wanting to go
drawing female figures falling into chasms
so much like classic Romantic images
it was men who dissuaded me……”

– from ‘sky’

Yet the poems do precisely this, in their disavowal of kitsch concepts of beauty, the sublime splits apart to reveal its innards. In the poem ‘translation’, dedicated to Sou Vai Keng, light and dark juxtaposed produce a chiaroscuro of childhood images, freedom and safety versus the nightmare. The schoolgirl, in navy blue and white dress, with straw hat, ‘independent and brave’, walks over the black and white tiles, through ‘pre-casino Macau’, traversing a beautiful cityscape, but then a dark tail arises to slash in the night, demonic and impersonal, a grinning visage, fiasco without humour, planting its hooks. Colour, art, is the only escape.

The subtle poem ‘sky’ is complex with musical shifts between poetic reflection and prose and it should be read aloud. The water-washed beginning appears to make overtures to Romantic art

…How we loved Caspar David Friedrich in the early 70s! Before we were ravaged by Conceptual Art that is…

and sets up the mood and expectation of the sublime:

…Sublime, the depth
of the harbour
a mirror of the mountains
valleys that continue
but now, into murky depths…

but then the façade is peeled back like an adhesive plaster.

……Is childhood magical? What is the temperature of the sublime?..

And there is little Heidi, from the 19th century novel, with her gingham swag holding the soft bread rolls, “Heidi, so lucky to be an orphan”. As in the poem ‘translation’, this eruption of the negative sublime

…brings up
my own past
sometime freedom and safety
but then this thing
……………with a black tail
……………suddenly swings around

hovers over the baby’s cot
soothing with silky words
then turns into something else…

– from ‘translation

As for art, and the art world bureaucrats,

that was the problem
between them and us

I met people who understood why you’d want to rail against the parochialism of your peers.

Australian art
it’s a joke
and in Australian minds
its all happening elsewhere
distance creates the sublime…

– from ‘sky’

This and other poems have the effect of water-colours, word-paintings with colour as a synaesthesia, a code for emotion, memory and connection. So many aquatic images, so many shades of blue, the local swimming pool which is Mediterranean blue, even though it’s caused by chlorine, the pale blue of the sky over the Blue Mountains, creating distance, sadness, the blue of that other harbour outpouring from the past, and then the effect of black calligraphy or lines drawn over the wash when the prose parts hook into you. Take this as an example of a word-painting (as the grandmother on the Greek island may have crept out by night, to meet a lover)

…the sunset from the hill
a really
……………..burning to purple
……………..the silent orb
the glistening
the emerald darkness
of the pine trees
chalky dusty limestone
smooth worn stones
silent in soft shoes…

– from ‘walking alone’

As an object the book has a great feel. Pocket-sized, its waxy cover photograph by Anna Couani is itself a poem that echoes the atmosphere of the poems within. The exterior of the writer’s home is part of the streetwise streetscape of Hilik Mirankar’s Queen St Gallery (Glebe). As with most houses in the street, the iron spines of the fence enclose a sculpture by Hilik Mirankar, this one of a figure with overarching raised arms, bursting Magritte-like through a door. The negative space of the figure forms a shadow, an apparition through which we glimpse a wall of Sydney sandstone, whilst in the foreground a shirt impaled on a fence is a remnant of Hilik Mirankar’s streetscape exhibition, where many such fluttering disembodied shirts hung from the iron spines that fence in terrace houses.

Within, the text is echoed by Debbie Sou Vai Keng’s evocative ink drawings, where trees like knives impale the clouds, a string of birds rise like sparks from some dark pool, reeds slash the face of the sun. Small wonders indeed. Sou Vai Keng is also the translator, into Chinese characters, of the poetry. Interesting visual structures emerge sculpturally from the complex ancient and newer logographs, and sometimes Greek, English, or computer-speak words leap out, as when the words Skype, Couani, Κουανης, and Skype again spring forward from the translation of ‘skype window’, creating meta-meaning that is both visual and poetic. Anna Couani met Sou Vai Keng when the latter translated some of her poetry for the anthology ‘Wombats of Bundanon’, produced by ASM Books. At Bundanon, the two discovered certain resonances between their lives as writers, artists and teachers, meeting again in Hong Kong and Macau. The poem ‘translation’ was written for Sou Vai Keng, as Anna Couani says, “…using her life partly and enmeshing it in my past as well. So the book is the result of a kind of dialogue between her and me, as well as connecting with Hilik Mirankar and his work in the street”. Small wonders is a fractal compression of connections.

It is true,

…new people are out there
driving hard
people with something to say
sculpture appeared in the street
slowing down drivers
speaking is occurring
people can speak
can’t actually be
it’s all digital
gone viral”

– from ‘driving’

and, in the end,

…maybe constraints help us to map the unknown…

–  from ‘sky’

– Virginia Shepherd

Some of Couani's earlier books: Were all women sex-mad, Rigmarole Books 1982, Italy & The Train Rigmarole Books 1985, The Harbour Breathes Masterthise/Sea Cruise Books 1989

Some of Couani’s earlier books: Were all women sex-mad, Rigmarole Books 1982, Italy & The Train Rigmarole Books 1985, The Harbour Breathes Masterthise/Sea Cruise Books 1989


For information on the availability of small wonders contact ASM at

A review by Mary Hawkins of  The Train (Sea Cruise Books)  1983 can be found in the first issue of P76 Magazine

The miniature level of perception: Jal Nicholl reviews Anyworld by Pam Brown

Anyworld by Pam Brown: ASM/Flying Island Books, 2011

Anyworld is a pocket collection of 10 previously published poems in an attractive format, the cover adorned by Jon Cattapan, the artist whose Giacommetian perspectives mesh so appositely with the poems inside. This little book gives a good taste of what Brown’s been up to over the past 10 or so years.

These poems are set between the poles of extreme mundanity:


‘early drizzle’
a forecast we’ve rarely heard before
replaces ‘a shower or two’
one we’ve heard a lot

and urbane intellectualism:

 S. asks
…………..‘how was your “holiday”
(not very Barthesian of her is it?)

But how to sum up her aesthetic, i.e., the principle according to which images and phrases are combined to make up a poem?

crazy paving
opus incertum

An odd kind of jigsaw-puzzle, made up as it goes along, instead of being cut from a whole image. The principle of combination is often intriguing: where do such open-ended poems begin and end? Why does Ming Blue, the poem whose opening couplet is quoted above, end like this?

Edwardian? Me?
not a trace

at a pinch

The poem has been moving sideways, crab-fashion, from one rock of fact to the next, resisting progression as well as the unity that might have been opted for in place of such “drifting topoi”.

A fog   this morning
drops over Camperdown
like a sedative.
at work   the office walls
are being painted blue

We frequently witness this kind of “panning in” as at the start of a film; but here the film never begins, or is already underway past the point where we could competently recover the plot.

Contingency vs. necessity. If, as Poe said, “the highest order of the imaginative intellect is always mathematical”, Brown will not come off too favourably. (Poe, however, following the preceding generation of “skull drinking romantics” (“Augury”), doubtless thought imagination and fancy were two different things.) In Brown’s

……………..(writing a poem)

It is as though the principle of combination, of organisation, is ultimately beyond the control or direction of the speaker; and indeed, we do find several references to work (as in, selling one’s time for money) in this volume. The poem quoted above (“The ing thing”) continues:

for me, a sanctuary
…………from building sites
from something else
from evil duco-scratching
if-not-already, soon-to-be
…………from its realm –

So work is a place, not an activity, and what one accomplishes there, if anything, a matter of “shambling contingency”. Of course it is also a sanctuary from “something else” (and it is here that necessity comes in); in other words, a negation of an alternative possibility that work itself makes unthinkable—an insight which puts me in mind of another librarian-poet contemplating a similar alternative:

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines—
They seem to like it.

For something sufficiently toadlike squats here as well:

I should celebrate
this unemployed-at-last thing
don’t know how to

“Why waste words?” Brown’s poems (literally) ask (“Drifting Topoi”). But then, where does history come in? For classical thought, it didn’t exist; Hegel and his followers, on the other hand, couldn’t wait for it to be over so they could measure its trajectory. Brown asks:

who can accept
………..a given world ,
who can
……… in it ?

elsewhere acknowledging,

(the will
cannot will

This sense of temporality without narrative is distinctive also of Beckett, who perhaps more than anyone else invented it as a way of “going on”. Brown resembles Beckett, also, in her treatment of the theme of physical debility:

then, possibly,
a pain in the spine
throbbing in the head
unpredictable blood
from the womb

the pesky irruptions
……of time

Meanwhile the “external” world hurries on with its masturbatory simulacrum of

‘growth! growth! growth!’

It sounds philistine to characterise anyone’s oeuvre as “depressing”—but in Brown’s case this could mean something specific and interesting (not that her poems are Compressed: they are long; even when short (take “Zottegem”: “although short, a saga”). Depression, deflation, minimisation as a trope:

(quote Walt Whitman
………….I Sing the Body Electric’   here)

This is modernist collage carried out on the miniature level of a “note to self” written on a post-it—embedded in an opus incertum. Those of us who write, of necessity, while more painful things demand our attention, will appreciate the subtext of such a passage. It is not hard to contrast most poets with Whitman, but this really is the opposite of his technique of enumeration. There is also an intimation that the speaker has forgotten her Whitman (then forgotten, again, to look it up).

Just as they tend to be geographically situated to only a fragile extent, scattered with allusions to back-and-forth travel, in these poems a similar aporia covers anything to do with time. Figures from history appear haphazardly:

I don’t know
who Prince Alfred was.
Albert was the consort.
“What’s a consort?”

While the sense of personal time is similarly hazy:

Forgot the whole dang

To sum up, with Baudrillard: “Retrospection is dependent on a prospection which enables us to refer to something as past and gone, and this as having really taken place”[1].

And it does seem to me that Brown’s sensibility has something in common with that of the theorist of hyperreality—though with the interesting difference that mass-media events, along with scientific and technological imagery, hardly figure in her work. What Brown is concerned with are effects on the most transient and miniature level of perception, and the way these accumulate over quotidian time. In this or Anyworld.

[1] Baudrillard, Jean: The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner. Polity Press: Cambridge, 1994, p.20.

– Jal Nicholl


Jal Nicholl’s poetry and reviews have appeared in many venues online and in print. He lives in a house by a park near a creek with a culvert under the railway line, with his wife and their dog.

For information on the availability of a Anyworld contact ASM or Kit Kelen at

Playful and Pensive Poems: Andrew Burke Reviews ‘a pocket Kit’ by Christopher Kelen and ‘Seem’ by Alan Jefferies

a pocket Kit – Christopher Kelen (Flying Island Books, 2011) & Seem – Alan Jefferies (Flying Island Books, 2011) with Chinese translations by Iris Fan.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

‘This poetry is a graph of a mind moving …’ Philip Whalen.  He was a great US poet with a vibrant living interest in the East, so vibrant in fact that he became a Zen monk, albeit in San Francisco. Who cares where when the spirit is involved? Christopher ‘Kit’ Kelen and Alan Jefferies have had their spirits revitalised by living and working many years in Asia – Hong Kong and Macau specifically. I also have lived in Asia, China specifically, but I had the shutters up and didn’t benefit from the ancient culture and contemporary wisdom which surrounded me. They have had a more positive experience. I see it in their writings, two gentle men with lyrical minds and wise tongues.

I will look at Kelen’s a pocket kit first:

this world a poem

ink never set

and as we know it

already spoken

breeze makes its mantra

sea is forever at words with itself

we hermits are many/but mountains are slow’ (Kit Kelen)

With this philosophy, it is no wonder Kit Kelen has published more than twenty poetry collections. The content is never a problem; the communication of it comes smoothly and lyrically from his mind and body.

He has sharpened his pencil over the years, and sharpened his perception with a lifestyle finely attuned to the world around him.

the old Tibetan man washing his new corn

from the revered tap

tourists washing hands over his corn

the girl with a camera who catches it all

monk unconcerned brushing by

the foreign devil with the pen

who gets it down

mind before that


all second guessing

perpetual motion

‘which thou least holy?’ (Kit Kelen)

The FOG Index would mark him low (the index estimates the years of formal education needed to understand the text on a first reading), but the Parnassus gods would value this highly. Why the disparity? Kit Kelen holds two doctorates, he is a professor at the University of Macau, he is – in a nutshell – highly educated and smart. Yet he writes in the simplest of English, in everyday diction with a thoughtful cadence. Occasionally the syntax is quirky and spun at just that little angle to give the thought portrayed energy, but it is never so quirky as to be murky.


pack-up but where you come from’s

……………as gone as what was here

so we among all animals are party to the bush


take down each sky

…………..make out in ribs


a cross hangs bright above

This is a short verse from a meditative poem in ten short sections about the bush and titled as such.  This poem was placed second in the Gwen Harwood Prize for 1999 and is, undoubtedly, about the Aussie bush – but filtered through an Eastern-influenced sensibility.  Kelen now lives in Macau and a small town in New South Wales – the best of both worlds, perhaps.

I own a number of Kelen’s collections, going back to his first The Naming of the Harbour and the Trees, published in 1992. This little pocketful of poems presents 39 ‘essential poetical works’ (as the book says) from his voluminous output. How he chose them only Kit knows, but I miss a couple of my favourites, and I have found some gems I hadn’t read before, so this collection has certainly focussed my interest again on Kit Kelen’s work. And that’s precisely what it is for, in marketing terms.

Among the poems are some lively monochromatic sketches done in Kelen’s inimitable free-line style. His style always reminds of Paul Klee’s ‘taking the line for a walk’. One of Klee’s other statements is true of Kelen’s poetry, too:  Making a drawing is first about communicating with yourself. But, hell, with that as a thesis, I could go on for pages!

One last point: there is a ‘fortieth poem’ in this book – it is the collection itself. A poet’s work isn’t finished when the ink dries on the pages. Structuring a collection is a creative act in itself. Here Kelen’s experience in publishing and editing other collections – academic, thematic, geographical or personal – and often bilingual – comes to the fore and he presents a collection readers can read with pleasure from front to back and enjoy a cohesive bonus subtext.

Here is Kelen’s Last word – last poem in a pocket kit, page 102:

as the sun

claws its way up

hoping for one more horizon

so I too

call it a day

These two titles are truly pocket size books. I won’t get out the measuring tape, but take it from me I have carried each in the pocket of my jeans as I have caught the train or gone shopping. Compact they are, as small as pocket size notebooks. Alan Jefferies’s Seem packs 47 poems into 147 pages in two languages.

These two poets have much in common – many years living in Hong and Machau, a predilection for Eastern literature, lifestyles and ethos influenced by their multi-cultural experiences and much ado about language. When you live where your language is the second tongue, a mirror is held up to your expression. Think Lacan: your tongue being individualised from the Mother; your tongue being brought home to you, often syllable by syllable.

I have been slow to write this because I foolishly had both poets cast in the same mould. For all their similarities they are poetically markedly different. Where Kit Kelen invites you in and takes you with him, Alan Jefferies is more objective in expression, more consciously artful in his presentation of the quotidian:

for one day the truth will come out

and it will be frightening

Here, in the last lines of the book, the fear is private and prophecy is public. The subjective / objective stance varies and remains volatile through narratives, quirky wordplay and astounding images. In theory terms, the subject is de-centred. From the poem ‘Today’:

to remove the giant hands

from the clockface over Central Railway

to take it

like an eyelash

from the eye of the sleeping populace.

Jefferies’ diction is easy, colloquial – but then I didn’t translate it into Chinese as Iris Fan did. No doubt our two worlds collide in lines like these in ‘The Middle Man’:

standing like sheep in the midday sun

waiting for the medium-paced bowler

to turn and begin his long run.

Or here where the reverse is true – the ‘ordinary’ noticed as ‘out of the ordinary’ and, therefore, worth comment.

I invite you to enjoythese pocket packets of playful and pensive poems, one a selected poems, the other a bilingual collection, both by flying island books (Macau) in conjunction with Cerberus Press (Australia).

– Andrew Burke


Andrew Burke is a leading Australian poet.His two latest nooks are Undercover of Lightness: New & Selected Poems (Walleah Press, Hobart) and Shikibu Shuffle in collaboration with Phil Hall,(above/ground press, Ontario). He blogs at hi spirits.

For information on the availability of a pocket Kit and Seem contact ASM or Kit Kelen at