Deeper Meanings Under an Accessible Surface: Ron Pretty Launches ‘Cleanskin Poems’ by Laureen Williams

Cleanskin Poems by Laureen Williams, Island Presws 2016, was launched by Ron Pretty on 27th February 2016 at the Friend in Hand Hotel.
laureenIf you look at the brief bio at the back of the book, you will see that Lauren Williams has had a wide range of occupations, some of which appear in these poems; you will also see that her career as a poet has been interrupted, at least partly, by ten years or so as a song writer. So it’s no surprise that we have had to wait fifteen years for these Cleanskin Poems to arrive.

And it’s great to see them. If ever there was an appropriate title for a book of poems, it is this one, and I congratulate Lauren on its choice. I have spent the last few weeks considering the term ‘Clean Skin’, its various meanings, connotations and applications, and the way the term resonates with the poems and two articles that make up this book.

There are at least four different ways you can look at the term ‘clean skin’, three of which relate directly to the poems and articles in Lauren’s book. The other one, I’ll dispose of straight away. Those of you who know me will realise that I am now indeed a clean skin. Not from choice, I can assure you, but unfortunately, radiation therapy doesn’t give you much choice. I don’t think I have been this smooth of cheek since I was about one. The rest of the face & scalp is a different story: blame that on liquid nitrogen – and, I should add, the dermatologist’s sharp knife.

That wasn’t the first meaning that leapt into my head of course. Cleanskin immediately suggests wine – to me anyway. Good wine in plain bottles at a reasonable price. As an analogy for Lauren’s poems, it’s quite revealing. Her preference has always been for clear, strong poems: good wine in plain bottles. She writes poems that open out to her audience whether on stage or on paper. The trick with such poems, of course, and a method she has perfected over the years, is to suggest deeper meanings under an accessible surface. This is wine that will improve with being cellared, as well as wine that’s good for drinking now.

A poem of hers that I often use in workshops is a poem from an earlier book, Invisible Tattoos, I think it was. The poem itself is called ‘Shallow’, an amusing and somewhat self-deprecating poem, but a wonderful last line that gives a totally different way of seeing the whole. If you can find it, have a look. But there are a number of examples of the same method in this book.

See ‘Dental Record’ for instance (I love that ‘I don’t smile, I barracuda for the camera’) or the self-deprecation in ‘Some Harmless’, not so much in his cutting last comment, but in her earlier decisions to go along for the ride; or ‘On Chemistry’, its wonderful last stanza:

There is no chaperone more fierce
than age. I listen chastely
to my body’s late verse,
the exquisite ache of it, sad
as if speaking for the last time
on these matters, like someone
talking over their shoulder as they
quit the room, leaving the door
slightly ………. ajar.

Going back to the title, the term also suggests honesty and innocence, a suggestion that the ‘clean skin’ has not been corrupted by the world around them, or not yet anyway. As you read these poems, you will be struck by their directness, their refusal to pretend the experience was anything other than what it was, whether they are talking about other people, other experiences, or of the poet herself. See examples such as ‘The Belt’ or ‘Repetition Injury’ or ‘What the Trees Stand For’.

Finally, the title suggests – to me at least – the related term ‘having skin in the game’; and Lauren certainly has skin in the game. You don’t need to read the two essays to see that, for the poems themselves make it clear. Read for example, her long poem called ‘Say That Again’. It’s hard to quote from that complex satiric poem, but this will give you something of its flavour:

Does It Matter What Town I’m In?

If no-one understands
The first line, the poem
Is working

I don’t care for maps.
Get lost.

and engines,
That’ll do it…

Or read ‘Shakespeare Was a Performance Poet’ or – in fact read any of the poems in the last section of the book.

Having said that, you should read those two essays at the end of the book: they state her position – her skin in the game – very clearly. Whether or not you agree with her position, you’ll find them both interesting and challenging. I should add that I find myself agreeing with most of what she says there. Fundamental to both essays – and indeed to many of the poems – is the need for Australian poets to build their readership/audience, not as gatekeepers protecting a particular approach, or who dismiss other poets by attaching a label to them, but by entertaining people, moving them, challenging them … and giving them something both comprehensible and worth reading or listening to. It’s hard to argue with that.

Returning to the poetry for a moment, part of the pleasure of the poems in the book are their wide range of interests. Poems of childhood, autobiographical poems (many of which reveal that self-deprecating quality I mentioned in relation to ‘Shallow’; there are poems dealing with sex (including that wonderfully humorous poem, ‘Why I like talking to mechanics’ – who but Lauren could make car parts sound so sexy?); there are also poems of travel and of politics, poems exploring aspects of the art and life of Howard Arkley and many poems dealing with poets and poetry – her skin in the game, as I have just said. As you’d expect, there are also many hard-hitting poems – ‘Paddock Moll’ or ‘So You Want Blood’ or ‘What Gets Lost’ and many others.

Like a good bottle of wine, there is much pleasure to be had from Lauren’s latest collection. There is a lot of humour in the book – see for example, her poem called ‘New York City T-shirts 2002’ – a sort of never-ending poem, or ‘Last Tango in Wagga’ or ‘Young Female Poet II’; but there are also many strong, hard-hitting poems, well worth lingering over with a glass of good red. Buy the book, enjoy the fruits of the harvest.
I’m looking forward to hearing Lauren read some of these poems. Congratulations, Lauren, I declare Clean Skin a great vintage hereby launched.

– Ron Pretty

————————————————————————————————

Ron Pretty has been publishing his poetry for 40 years. His eighth book of poetry, What the Afternoon Knows, was published in 2013. He has taught writing throughout Australia and in US, England and Austria. From 1983 to 1999 he was Head of Writing at the University of Wollongong. He was the director of Five Islands Press, for which he published 230 books by Australian poets in the 20 years 1987 – 2007. He taught creative writing at the University of Melbourne, 2004 – 2007. In 2012 the Australia Council for the Arts awarded him a residency in Rome.

Cleanskin Poemsis available from http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm or ytou can message Laureen on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/mslaurenlee

Decades of Percolation: Anna Couani Launches ‘Concrete Flamingos’ by Mark Roberts

Concrete Flamingos by Mark Roberts, Island Press 2016 was launched in Sydney by Anna Couani on 27th February 2016 at the Friend in Hand Hotel. Concrete Flamingos, along with the other four titles on Island Press’ 2016 list will be launched in Melbourne at the Dan O’Connell Hotel, Carlton, on 19th March – details  https://www.facebook.com/events/914712998643164/

concrete-flamingosThanks for coming today and thanks to Mark for asking me to launch his long-awaited and beautiful book, Concrete Flamingos.

Mark is probably best known to most of us as a can-do person, as an officer of the Poets Union in the 80’s, running a small magazine P76 and now The Rochford Street Review online review journal. He’s also had a full-on career in various jobs, has so many skills and raised a family with Linda Adair. He’s always been kind of busy.

Mark and I were Poets Union officers at the same time during the 80’s where we were addressing important political issues and issues about payment of writers, and sales and distribution. Island Press was in existence at that time, previously run by Philip Roberts, taken over for a short while by Ken Bolton and I and then passed on to Philip Hammial when Philip Roberts left the country. The small press scene was pretty lively and buzzing – we all knew each other, even the interstate people (this was before Facebook, before the internet), and it was the remnants of that scene that Mark first encountered as a young poet. It’s so gratifying that it was publications like the ones I was involved with that inspired Mark to write and to publish poetry.

When I first met Mark and worked with him in the Poets Union, there was no need to explain what we older people were trying to do in the small press scene, and what we were trying to do with organising public readings, pushing for better book distribution, promoting women writers, writers from diverse backgrounds and gay writers because he understood all that perfectly, was probably more ofay with those ideas than some of the older people he was influenced by. The things we’d been fighting for were a kind of given for Mark and the other younger poets like Adam Aitken, Dipti Saravanamutu and Kit Kelen. And also for people like Sarah St Vincent Welch, Moya Costello, Jane Skelton and Virginia Shepherd, to name a few.

It would be odd to speak about Mark and only mention his poetry because he has been a poet/producer/publisher, something like an artist run space in the visual art field. So a collection of Mark’s own work somehow has a special significance because it is positioned within a milieu that he has been rather instrumental in creating. He takes his place alongside lots of other practitioners who have participated actively in the literary world in ways that create infrastructure that benefits us all. I love the piece in the book that repeats the line you tell me I’m not a poet over and over again. Something writer/publishers often encounter from other writers.

This lovely book of poems is bedded in a sense of communalism. Mark’s authorial voice and perspective refer to this. The work has a self-consciousness, a knowledge of where we are and where we came from. It is obviously the precursor to the historical sequence he’s writing now, as in the poem crossing the mountains. It is a book of many disparate parts and that makes it interesting.

There are 4 concrete poems in the book, all called ‘Concrete Flamingo’. The first one consists of 8 columns of illegible text and this poem/image is then digitally transformed three times in the other 3 that are placed at intervals throughout the book. That’s one example of the humour that runs through the collection. In another poem, ‘Letter to Frank’, Mark (addressing Frank O’Hara I imagine) throws many odd referential bits together that are at the same time absurd and theoretically interesting. I’m quoting parts of it, it goes:

like you i want to be a construction worker/
poet

i have a copy of the planning regulations
which i am rewriting in the style of the new york
school

and finally,

& all the construction workers have gone home
maybe to write poems

Something like a good humoured Ken Bolton poem but one that also swipes at urban consolidation and the elitism of the literary world. There’s often a political dimension or reference in Mark’s work. Just creeps in somehow.

And Mark’s not scared to mention the domestic details that so many male poets shy away from. Like in shapes

my life
demands
a cluttered base
rooms scattered
with papers & books
baskets of washing spilling
onto the floor an ironing board
with a shirt half ironed & discarded
a stain demanding a soak & a rewash

Some of the poems have an intense local feel, that is visual and immediate, many emphasising colour and somehow full of affect. An obvious example is ‘The only marigold in Erskineville. It starts:

i walk through a black & white suburb thinking
of a poem i could write about how longing & desire
creep up on you like a shadow on a cloudy day.

it ends with:

i transfer your postcard
to my coat pocket & notice
again the explosion of the marigold
outside the church

The emotions draw attention to themselves through their erasure and are made poignant somehow through the use of colour and contrast.

The poem red uses the colour (red obviously) as a recurring motif that has not only a visual intensity but also symbolic meaning

red neon pulses like veins pumping blood.

it appropriates a few crime fiction narrative devices and somehow conflates the road death of a possum with a human murder, ending with:

whose face is this?
a memory?
i remember nothing
except blood.

There are two short sequences in the book. The first one, breaking – 1918, based on Virginia Woolf’s diary for 1918 Mark writes in the first person about the end of WWII. Interesting in that he adopts Woolf’s persona.

The other sequence is from the life of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, based on an 1889 biography of a German writer who died in 1781. In this sequence, Mark inserts quotes from Lessing’s plays. The poems ironically recreate the over-inflected language of the era.

This is so much more to talk about in the book, the chunks of prose, the night walks, the Sydney landscapes, the train poems – gives me ideas about how to occupy myself on public transport – also how to manage the writing of a poem a day for project 366 (http://project365plus.blogspot.com.au/)– think local, publish global. There’s a lot to read and enjoy in this book, decades of percolation and consideration have gone into it. So buy the book to support the writer and the publisher. If you haven’t already explored Mark’s world, check out The Rochford Street Review and Printed Shadows (https://printedshadows.wordpress.com/), both online publications. There’s a wealth of material there.

Congratulations to Mark on the publication and to Island Press for bringing it out.

 – Anna Couani

———————————————————————————————————-

Anna Couani is a Sydney writer and artist who taught Art and ESL most of her life. Her most recent book is a collection of poetry, Small Wonders, Flying Islands Books. Some of her previous work is available at http://seacruise.ath.cx/annacouani/.

Concrete Flamingos is available from  https://printedshadows.wordpress.com/2016/01/23/concrete-flamingos-poems-by-mark-roberts/

———————————————-

ISLAND PRESS 2016 LIST MELBOURNE LAUNCH
2PM 19th MARCH AT THE DAN O’CONNEL HOTEL
225 CANNING ST, CARLTON VIC

Island Press' 2016 Poets will be at the The Dan O Connel Hotel Melbourne at 2pm on 19th March 2016

Michele Seminara Engraft, David Gilbey, Pachinko Sunset, Lauren Williams Cleanskin Poems, Les Wicks, Getting By Not Fitting In, Mark Roberts, concrete flamingos

An Imaginative Renewal: Peter Kirkpatrick launches ‘Pachinko Sunset’ by David Gilbey

Pachinko Sunset by David Gilbey Island Press 2016 was launched in Sydney by Peter Kirkpatrick on 27th February 2016 at the Friend in Hand Hotel. Pachinko Sunset, along with the other titles on Island Press’ 2016 list will be launched in Melbourne at the Dan O’Connell Hotel, Carlton, on 19th March – details  https://www.facebook.com/events/914712998643164/

David Gilbey reading at the Sydney Launch of Pachinko Sunset. Photograph Tahira Husain

David Gilbey reading at the Sydney Launch of Pachinko Sunset. Photograph Tahira Husain

Sometimes I think there is a book of poems to be written in praise of ironing. Indeed, in many ways poetry resembles ironing – not least because most people say they don’t enjoy it. But what’s not to like about ironing? You take a wrinkled shirt or a pair of pants – in days gone by it might also have included bed linen, or even underwear – and restore it to its always intended, as it were ideal, Platonic form. If ironing is a perfectly mundane activity, its orderly rhythms can also become a form of meditation, whereby you enter that calm place in the mind inhabited by people who go fishing, or who enter holy orders – or who write poems. You take an ordinary, untidy object from the ordinary, untidy world and give it fresh shape and meaning, renewing its significance. I might go so far as to say that somebody ironing embodies a domestic version of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, making whole again, not the vast wreckage of time, but the rucks and rumples of the rinse cycle.

I’m pleased to learn that David Gilbey is a man who loves to iron. He even has a poem all about it in Pachinko Sunset, “Iron Men”:

An iron believes in order, pressing even rebellious seersucker into place.
pleats are a challenge: in Japan my daughter’s school tunic
was my Sunday night labour of love,
threading camels through a needle’s eye.

Not only is it nice to encounter a man who has been up close and personal with seersucker, I like the way that last line inverts the whole painstaking “order” semingly imposed by ironing. “Iron Men” also indicates that David is a frequent visitor to Japan. Three times, he tells us, he has been a Visiting Professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in the city of Sendai in northern Honshu. Speaking as somebody whose linguistic range beyond English and swearing extends only to some high school French, I can’t imagine what it’s like to work at such a level across such a very different language as Japanese. It’s significant, then, that several of David’s poems play on mistranslation, and the surprising misdirections of meaning that result. In fact, mistranslation as misdirection is a keynote of Pachinko Sunset. Perhaps a better word might be indirection: the diversion rather than the complete loss of meaning.

In a section from the long sequence “Haibun Hikes”, David asks his Sendai students to write about an imagined holiday to Australia, and then cobbles together a passage of his own, using their mistakes, for them to mark. He turns the result into a sonnet, what he calls “a ‘found’ poem [created] out of our mutual language-making”:

The hotel there was more beautiful than our imagination.
At lunch I eat crocodile and lasagne.
I go to sea and swim enough with a shoal of fishes.
We saw many famous animals: kangaroo, koara [sic],
And the shy duck-mouth otter.

Yes, the effect is predictably humorous. But when in this transcultural exchange a platypus becomes “the shy duck-mouth otter” things also become both strange and yet somehow right, an imaginative renewal.

I have compared poetry to ironing, and mentioned that David likes to iron: “I’m an ironing kind of guy”, he tells us. On his many travels I am sure that pleat marches with pleat, and that all his creases properly rhyme. But I have also seen David in a more expansive mood, in which a hidden penchant for extremely loud dinner jackets reveals itself, and these highly colourful items more closely resemble abstract expressionist paintings – or, in literary terms, projectivist compositions by field – rather than lyrical poems. So if there is a fascination with order in David’s work – is that why he is so attracted to Japan and to Japanese culture? – there is, running alongside it, a spirit of play and of wild extravagance. In this regard it’s worth nothing that, outside of references to Japanese poets such as Basho, the dominant literary allusions of Pachinko Sunset are to the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century: poets known for their fondness for unlikely and abstruse metaphors or “conceits”. Thus, in the first of a set of “Slam Scripts”, David manages – tongue firmly in cheek, I suspect – to invoke both Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” in support of his argument that the lyrics of Swedish pop singer Mans Zemerlöw’s winning entry in the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, a confection called “Heroes”, is genuine poetry. The melodious Zemerlöw

Wizards his words, magics his music
croons his metaphysical conceit:
“I make the worms turn into butterflies”

David calls this “Eurovision’s Metaphysical Embrace”. No doubt that last line is best embraced in Swedish.

David Gilbey with Pachinko Sunset. Photograph Lachlan Brown

David Gilbey with Pachinko Sunset. Photograph Lachlan Brown

I spoke before about Pachinko Sunset’s interest in mistranslation and mis/indirection, and it is evident that these are generators of poetry for David, as evidenced by “the shy duck-mouth otter” – or perhaps even “I make the worms turn into butterflies”. The American critic Harold Bloom famously believes that all allegedly strong poets “misread” their poetic forebears, and in that misreading remake the Western canon according to their own lights. Like a lot of literary theory, Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence can seem a form of Higher Bullshit (not least for its Freudianism), but there’s something to be said for the notion that a poet, and poetry itself, characteristically misses or misreads obvious or assumed meanings and takes our minds into other directions: the pathways of the duck-mouth otter. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”, wrote Emily Dickinson, “Success in Circuit lies”.

Two of the many outstanding poems in Pachinko Sunset dramatise happy experiences of misdirection; of eventually finding yourself in the right place in the very process of getting lost. In one of these, “Cancer Ward: Octet for Jim”, the poet initially goes to the wrong Japanese hospital to see a friend: “they treat Alzheimers, not cancer”. Waiting to be redirected, he watches elderly patients who are now genuinely lost, “tottering, frail, already other-worldly”, but is distracted by TV game shows “where, like life, two mixed teams/answer questions, give opinions, banter and flirt”. Happy redirection is what this sequence of poems is all about because – as we discover when David eventually finds the right hospital – cancer itself isn’t necessarily a one-way street, and Jim ultimately returns to the land of the living. But in the finale David is characteristically lost once again:

On the way back, you get Jim’s instructions wrong again,
are rescued by a cheerful, patient Japanese couple
who give you a lift, in the other direction,
to the station.

“Cancer Ward: Octet for Jim” is about being rescued by the surprising, unexpected directions that life can take, and the ways in which other people can lead us there.

In another of poem of misdirection, “Arashyama Nocturne”, David’s friend Keiji is taking him to what must be a quite special sushi restaurant, only the pair get so carried away talking about poetry that they board the wrong subway train. “Forgive me, I often make this mistake”, says Keiji. At the end of the poem, however, a different order is achieved “above a [humble] tourist centre” as the pair sit down to a meal which is laid out like a poem: “a stanza of delicacies”, as David calls it:

slices of sashimi haiku,
tanka with beans, potatoes, burdock root,
pickles, fresh water bream and, to my surprise,
a wild strawberry with black and white sesame tofu,
topped with a curlicue of sea urchin.

Sometimes the wrong subway is the right subway.

Pachinko Sunset is not only about Japan. There are poems about David’s hometown of Wagga, and others that range more widely over his life and times. Even so, it’s fair to say that the transcultural connection with Sendai is the book’s dominant motif. This is in line with a growing, indeed inevitable trend in Australian poetry towards closer engagement with Asia. In this connection I note in passing that in August 1899 a Sydney poet, Robert Crawford, published an English haiku in the Bulletin, home of “The Man from Snowy River”:

Flannel-flowers dancing
To the Dawn on the hill-tops…
The Vision of Spring!

This appeared a decade before Ezra Pound and the Imagists expressed interest in Asian poetics. The Far East is in fact our Deep North, and Pachinko Sunset offers a number of broad and narrow roads into it. In that sense, it makes a welcome contribution to Australia’s re-Orientation.

That Japan is by now a familiar exotic for Australian readers is perhaps implied by David’s title. Pachinko – a popular Japanese arcade game played by dropping steel balls into a kind of vertical maze – is at once commonplace (pachinko gambling parlours are everywhere in Japan) and, to Western eyes, exotic. For me, Pachinko Sunset also carries echoes of the kind of mass-produced Sampans in the Sunset paintings that hung in long-ago dentists’ surgeries. Whatever the case, the essence of the game of pachinko is misdirection. Steel balls tumble through pins and traps which produce unexpected trajectories. The point is not that the balls ultimately descend through the machine, it’s the circuitous routes they take to get there: that’s where fun and profit reside. “Success in Circuit lies”.

Buy Pachinko Sunset, follow its poetic misdirections, get lost in it, and re-Orient yourself. And may all your worms turn into butterflies.

 – Peter Kirkpatrick

—————————————————————————————————————–

Peter Kirkpatrick teaches Australian Literature in the Department of English at Sydney University. His research interests include poetry and popular culture, Australian modernism, and the literature of Sydney. His publications include The Sea Coast of Bohemia: Literary Life in Sydney’s Roaring Twenties (2nd ed. 2007); Serious Frolic: Essays on Australian Humour, with Fran de Groen (2009); and Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia, with Robert Dixon (2012).

Pachinko Sunset will be launched in Melbourne, along with the other 2016 Island Press titles  at the The Dan O Connel Hotel on 19 March at 2PM  https://www.facebook.com/events/914712998643164/

Pachinko Sunset is available from http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm or you can order by PayPal or Credit Card from https://rochfordstreetreview.com/about-rochford-street-review/island-press-book-launch/

Island Press' 2016 Poets will be at the The Dan O Connel Hotel Melbourne at 2pm on 19th March 2016

Island Press’ 2016 Poets will be at the
The Dan O Connel Hotel
Melbourne at 2pm on 19th March 2016

A Common Engagement with Understanding: Martin Langford Launches ‘Engraft’ by Michele Seminara

Keep Rochford Street Review alive in 2016. Donate or subscribe today

.
Martin Langford launched Michele Seminara’s first collection of poetry, Engraft (Island Press 2016), at the Friend in Hand Hotel, Glebe NSW, on Saturday 6th February 2016.

Michele Seminara signing copies of Engraft at the launch. Photograph Naida Entwistle.

Michele Seminara signing copies of Engraft at the launch. Photograph Naida Entwistle.

.
Writing has a complex relationship with Buddhism. It is so weighted with the dirt and doubt and slew of ordinary living that it can never hope to walk in that territory where one is free of such encumbrances – the territory, that is, that Buddhism aims for. For this reason, some schools of Buddhism dismiss the arts altogether. What the two do share, however, is a common engagement with understandings. They may come at them from slightly different routes, and neither of them may quite have understanding as their ultimate aim – there is a point in Buddhism where one hopes to move beyond one’s understandings, whereas in literature, the aim is usually to take those understandings and work them into some sort of overall aesthetic experience – but both revolve, in important though different ways, around that fragile, verbal confrontation.

I was thinking of these similarities and differences reading Michele Seminara’s new book, Engraft. Many of the poems are attempts to shape the forces at play in experience in a credible and accurate way: in short, to understand them. ‘Contagion’ (p.27) tracks the way an argument plays out in the dynamic of a family. ‘Bleak Love’ (p.24) charts the defensive but self-defeating measures people can take when they are hurt. ‘Lotus’ (p. 35) considers the unsought and unanticipated effects a parent can have on children:

Tying your nooses around your necks each morning
strangling yourselves a little more each day:
obediently becoming (for me)
what I never wanted
you to be.

And then there are poems which try to understand the effects that time and loss have on our lives:

Everything’s

so full of lasts,
quivering, on the brink.
Time thrusts forward.
The body vehicle will not cease
decaying, children growing
ever distant, their cords
unravelling to unbearable lengths
as we circumvent this world –

Surely there must be a limit?
(There is not.)

Death, inbuilt in those I’ve born
is yet half grown in me;
close to flowering powerfully out
of my grandmother’s powdery furrows.

Routine lends the illusion of solace:
tranquillised to truth we sleep
fitfully, swaddled against horror.

 

1Engraft_Cropped_Cover_02.12.15 (2) (1)There is considerable overlap with Buddhist perspectives here: the long views, the sense of change without limit. Some of the language is Buddhist: “The body vehicle will not cease/decaying”. But there is nothing here of Buddhist equanimity. These “lasts” are overwhelming. The distances between us become “unbearable”. The sense of flux is the same, whether one looks at it through Buddhist perspectives, or in terms of the hard-won understandings of the poem. But the effect on the reader is one of weight: of the grief of these losses; of the pain they cause. At this point, perhaps, I ought to declare myself and say that I trust this about art – and I trust it in these poems. I appreciate the impulse of the Buddhist to move beyond this, and I can believe that people find ways of being able to do so. But perhaps because it is the world that I share too; because I – like others here – will have experienced such things, this is a world I can enter as one I belong to, one in which I don’t have to keep asking myself whether I am worthy to be travelling in such territory.

And so the reader can enter poems of frustration about the constriction of daily
tasks, such as “Dog” (p.6) where the “World jerks my neck, master to/ slave, and drags me/ from world’s wonderment”. There are difficult, personal poems from Michele’s past, such as “Epistle To My Paedophile”. There are poems of love, and love’s arguments. One section, “Mother”, is given over to pieces governed or prompted by the author’s habitation of that role. (Such poems participate in one of the most important recent additions to the list of things we can write about. It is still astonishing to think that, for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, all the drama and dailiness of motherhood had somehow been invisible to the imagination, as if there was nothing worth saying about it.) There are plenty of poems which play with language too, where the focus may not be on the weight of experience, but where the play of words is saturated in it anyhow: found poems and erasure poems and remixes.

I don’t want to suggest that Michele is content with these things. Like everyone else, she wishes to gesture beyond it. “I crave some beauty to buoy me”, she says, in “Zhang Zhou Dreams in Pink” (p. 37). That is the poet speaking. But before that, in the same poem, the Buddhist in her had written:

I suck the pink flowers off the tree
into the negative space of my heart:
they spear towards me –
reverse Buddha blossoms –
transformed by mind’s Maras into weapons.

There is a tension here, between the Buddhist perspectives, and the saturation in the life of the self that underpins most western literary habits, and it is a productive tension. There is a case for saying that what writers really write about are the things they can’t resolve: there is no point in dwelling on what has been sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. It underpins the whole book, the way Michele not only has such good instincts for the weight of ordinary things, but the fact that she seeks to think beyond them as well: that she honours both elements of a tension that is so difficult to resolve.

Long may she continue the difficult juggling act between owning her experiences, and mistrusting them, between being at home in the life of the self, and staring right  through it.

 – Martin Langford

——————————————————————————————————

Martin Langford’s most recent collection, Ground, is avialble from Puncher and Wattmann https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/ground

Engraft can be ordered from the Island Press website  http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm or you can get Paypal and Direct Debit details by emailing Michele at micheleseminara@hotmail.com.com

Please contact us if you are interested in reviewing Engraft  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/about-rochford-street-review/contact-rochford-street-review/

Island Press: the Story Continues

island logo

After we republished Phil Robert’s memoir of the origins of Island Press (https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/10/01/ten-year-on-an-island-by-philip-roberts-the-beginnings-of-island-press/), in conjunction with the celebration of Island’s 45th Birthday Party, we received a number of inquiries from readers wanting to know the history of the press post Phil Roberts. The following is a brief note on the story since then: 

Martin Langford, Les Wicks and Phil Hammial with MC xxxx at the microphone during Island Press' 45 birthday celebrations.Picture ....

Martin Langford, Les Wicks and Phil Hammial with MC Roberta Lowing at the microphone during Island Press’ 45 birthday celebrations. Photograph by Michele Seminara.

Fortunately, the actual physical production of the book has become a lot easier since the first days. The problems around poetry receiving an audience remotely commensurate with the skill and vision that go into it, however, remain as intractable as ever.

After Phil Roberts returned to Canada, leaving his work as a lecturer at Sydney University to freelance, as poet, and writer about poetry, in Nova Scotiaproducing many more poetry collections, and achieving renown as the author of How Poetry Works (Penguin, 1986) – Phil Hammial continued the work of the press, overseeing the publication of titles such as John Tranter’s Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979) and J.S. Harry’s A Dandelion for Van Gogh (1985). Hammial consolidated the press’s original policy of being prepared to take risks with younger poets, publishing titles such as Adam Aitken’s Letter to Marco Polo (1985), and, if anything, increased the extent to which it was prepared to publish work which would not be acceptable to mainstream presses. Examples of the latter include Anthony Mannix’s Erotomania (1984), and Hammial’s own Vehicles (1985).

Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, John Tranter 1979

Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, John Tranter 1979

Running a press by oneself is a big responsibility, and there was a hiatus in Island activities between 1985 and 1992; when Hammial decided to get things moving again by inviting a small group of fellow poets Jutta Sieverding, Les Wicks and Martin Langford to join him in turning Island into a co-operative. In this, Island was fortunate to have access to the skills of Phil’s partner, Anne, whose expertise in the newly-legislated format was ideal for the press. Anne has been an essential element in the success of Island: each year she has reviewed the accounts and prepared the annual returns. Having someone who has been willing to offer us her knowledge about co-operative accounting pro bono has been a huge asset, and the press is extremely grateful to her for her generosity. Island’s aim had always been to provide an outlet for new poetry, to make a contribution to the artistic world first and foremost. So the new structure, which minimised business and governance costs, and which allowed it to get on with the job of providing an outlet for its poets with as little distraction as possible, was just what was needed.

Blonde and French by Ken Bolton was published by P. Hammial & P. Roberts in 1978 before Phil Roberts left Australia

Blonde and French by Ken Bolton was published by P. Hammial & P. Roberts in 1978 before Phil Roberts left Australia

The period since Island was incorporated as a co-operative has turned out be its most productive time – 37 books in 22 years: a little less than two a year (readers interested in the complete list should consult the Island website). It hasn’t published every year: it has not always been possible to obtain funding, and sometimes the directors have been caught up in other activities.

The nineties were to prove a busy little period, with publications from Lizz Murphy (Pearls and Bullets), Marcel Freiman (Monkey’s Wedding), Jutta Seiverding (Uneasy Weather) and Leith Morton (The Flower Ornament), amongst others. And then, as has sometimes happened, there was a break for a couple of years, while the press struggled to obtain funding.
.

The 21st Century

Island poet Carolyn Gerrish reading at the 45th Birthday/Book launch celebrations. Photograph Michele Seminara

Island poet Carolyn Gerrish reading at the 45th Birthday/Book launch celebrations. Photograph Michele Seminara

Be Straight with Me from Langford saw the millennium in; this was a departure from our normal audience and focus as it sought to address and speak to the often neglected teenage male. Lizz Murphy, Leith Morton and Carolyn Gerrish rejoined the Island tribe with dynamic new titles and Philip Hammial’s exploration of the more lawless boundaries of language continued with several titles including In the Year of Our Lord Slaughter’s Children and Voodoo Realities.

Australian poetry occupies a tiny niche market. The secret to longevity in the editors’ minds was to retain a tight focus, to keep our output manageable. Australia Council support was fundamental to our decision each year to commit to the next one. The process of obtaining that support was never simple and had some substantial on-costs related to our corporate structure etc. But support did come most years and it was frankly this input that was the deciding factor in the press’ ability to continue.

Adam Aitken’s first collection, Letter to Marco Polo, was published by Island Press in 1985.

Adam Aitken’s first collection, Letter to Marco Polo, was published by Island Press in 1985.

The editors have had the honour of performing in countries where our artform is somewhere near the core of those nation’s culture, even self-identity. Poetry in Australia is not a “popular” public entertainment; it needs support. One supposes one can make the choice that we will be a society without poetry and withdraw that infrastructure. But this will have long-term implications on what we are as a people. In New South Wales there will be billions spent in the years ahead on stadium upgrades. Poetry asks for just a trickle of tightly focused help.

With small presses, every corner that can be cut is cut. Working collaboratively with the chosen poets each year we reduce the burden at “head office”. Copies of the books are kept with the individual poets thereby circumventing the need for warehousing. We work closely with printers to obtain not just the best quality product but also a reasonably priced one. Often, book design is done in-house.

Uneasy Weather by Jutta Sieverding. Island Press 1993

Uneasy Weather by Jutta Sieverding. Island Press 1993. Her final book, A Dangerous Place, was published by Island in 2005.

In 2005, we were proud to publish the final book from Jutta Sieverding, one of the original four in our incorporated entity stage. The loss of her editorial and production expertise was felt deeply both by her fellow Island editors and the literary community generally. Her A Dangerous Place was a moving reflection on life lived and losing. A pinnacle of the first years of the 21st century was the publication of David Brooks’ Urban Elegies. David went on to provide strategic assistance for a number of years. There was somewhat of a history of Island publishing revered poets coming back to their practice after a hiatus, we jumped at the chance to put out Rae Desmond Jones’ Blow Out. David Musgrave, after spending so much effort publishing others, was a welcome addition to the Island stable with Concrete Tuesday. Roberta Lowing’s The Searchers is an important step in her development as a poet as well as a real contribution to the community generally.

ticket to ride

Ticket to Ride by Philip Hammial. Island Press 2015

Whilst tending to have Sydney focus for purely practical reasons of organisation, we felt it was important to have a regional or non-capital city component in our lists. Barbara Petrie, John Watson, Barbara de Franceschi and Rob Reil were invaluable additions to our catalogue from that grouping.

Publishing someone’s first book of poetry is a unique honour. Some of those we published in the 70s and 80s have gone on to be major figures in the canon. More recently, we were proud to be midwives to some fine titles in this category – Barbara de Franceschi’s Strands was a superb book. Christine Townend’s Walking with Elephants has had critical acclaim in the months since its launch and Susan Adams’ Beside Rivers was commended in the Anne Elder prize. We plan to continue with this as part of our selection criteria.

The Future?

Walking with Elephants by Christine Townend was launched at Island's 45th Birthday party

Walking with Elephants by Christine Townend was launched at Island’s 45th Birthday party

More recently, we have sought to include books from interstate poets both to better reflect the community’s output as a whole and to expand the Island Press footprint. Jeltje Fanoy’s Princes by Night is a glorious postcolonial exploration.

All three of the current editors “get around a lot” and are always on the lookout for potential additions to our list. Invitations are extended on the basis of obvious literary strength, a diversity of voice, mix of regional/capital city, gender balance, at least one first book and a proven track record of professional activism in the art form (i.e. giving something back). Our tentative 2016 program reflects this. Michele Seminara is a relative newcomer to poetry but already has an impressive following due to her energetic work within the community. Mark Roberts has been an engine for the dissemination of poetry for decades and is long overdue a book of his own. David Gilbey is of incalculable benefit to literature, particularly in regional Australia. Lauren Williams continues to be a loved voice over four decades and she also comes from regional Victoria. Les Wicks makes up the fifth title.

The Searchers by Roberta Lowing was also launched at Island's 45th birthday celebrations

The Searchers by Roberta Lowing was also launched at Island’s 45th birthday celebrations

We cannot say with certainty whether any or all of these titles will emerge. Like so much of the literature community, cuts to government funding have made the future profoundly uncertain. At a time in this press’ life when we would ordinarily be discussing expansion and bringing in younger blood to the editorial process we can’t with any certainty plan towards our 50th year of operation. As the oldest still functioning poetry press in Australia this is not an enviable position. After all these decades of Quixotic optimism, strategic promotion, pennypinching, thankless pursuit of funding et cetera will Island be nearing its end?

 – Martin Langford & Les Wicks

.

.

———————————————————————————————————

Martin Langford’s recent publications are The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (P&W, 2009) and Ground (P&W, 2015). He is the editor of Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1788-2008 (ed., P&W 2009). He is the poetry reviewer at Meanjin.

Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication across 23 countries in 11 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013), his 12th (a Spanish selection) El Asombrado (Rochford Street Press, 2015). http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

For the full list of books from Island and to order titles see  http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

subscriber01

Ten Years on an Island by Philip Roberts – The Beginnings of Island Press

Island Press was founded by by Canadian poet, musician and (then) Sydney University lecturer Philip Roberts in 1970. In 1979 Roberts returned to Canada and gave Island Press to Philip Hammial who ran it by himself until  1993 when it was transferred into a Co-operative. This year the Press celebrates 45 years as an active poetry publisher – probably making it the longest running poetry press in Australia. It is celebrating its birthday on Saturday 3rd October at 3.30pm at the Harold Park Hotel in Sydney with with readings from Island Press poets, & the launch of the latest poetry books from Philip Hammial, Christine Townend and Roberta Lowing.

The following account of Island Press’ first ten years was written by Philip Roberts after he left Australia and was originally published in Poetry Australia Issue 74-75, 1980. Rochord Street Review thanks Philip Roberts for permission to republish this article

The Island Press Co-operative website can be found at  http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

**…..**…..**

island logoI started Island Press in 1970. It was an act of defiance, in a way. I had been ordered back to bed for a month after a relapse of suspected incipient multiple sclerosis, but instead set out from the neurologist’s rooms to Dolphin and Hannan on the outskirts of Parramatta and bought a Jewel treadle platen press and six fonts of Garamong type. During that month, not only did symptoms of my supposed ailment disappear, never to return, but I became a printer, a traveller of the Gutenberg galaxy, with all its miraculous reality.

I had always been fascinated by print and printing. When I was two I picked up an “error” of spelling in my own name (on the label of a bottle of Phillip’s Milk of Magnesia). Not many years later I was “printing” books on an ancient typewriter, and “binding” them on my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine. (This is not good for the needle, I was later informed.) I recall that the magic of the transformation from flat sheet to openable book was my principle source of pleasure. At high school I was editor of the annual Retropect’s first printed (as opposed to mimeographed) edition, and went on to become the editor of two undergraduate student publications (one, The Acadia Athenaeum in Nova Scotia in 1959, and the other the Jesus College, Oxford, Dragon a few years later). I became a professional, so to speak, during a couple of frustrating, and, ultimately, dull, years as a sub-editor in the chaos of Reuter’s Central Desk in Fleet Street. I also sub-edited and ghosted on the side. Correcting printer’s proofs was a common task for me.

Moreover, I had friends with an active interest in printing. An undergraduate friend at Oxford, David Bridges, had a small Adana Press, on which he planned to print (but only got as far as proof stage) my renderings of four Anglo-Saxon poems (these ultimately appeared in Crux, my third book). Also at Oxford I met Robert Graves, then Professor of Poetry. Early in our Friendship he presented me with three books he had printed with Laura Riding at their Seizin Press. The first, the smallest, was An Acquaintance with Descriptions by Gertrude Stein. They had printed this in Hammersmith, and Gertrude had had to sign bits of numbered paper in Paris and then post it back to Hammersmith to be stuck into the books. The second and third had been printed in Deya, Mallorca, where Robert still lives. They were To Whom Else by Robert himslef (he was very apologetic about the quality of the poetry in this) and Laura and Francesca by Laura herself.

ADVERTISEMENT

island 45

Finally, in 1969 my first book of poems, Just Passing Through, had been handset and printed by a young couple of poets in Canada, Sean Haldane and Marnie Pomeroy. Their Ladysmith Press was on their farm in Ladysmith, Quebec, near Ottawa. Their interest in printing was entirely coinci dental, but it was a boost to my own—redoubled when I discovered in later correspondence from Canada that both Sean and Marnie had known Robert well. This led to a lively exchange of correspondence between Ladysmith, Sydney, and Deya, the main topic of which was printing.

Having edged the new Jewel into our laundry up by the road at 9 Bayview Street, Lavender Bay, in Sydney (an act for which I was later—over a year later—to be evicted), I now had no clear idea of how to proceed. I had a few books, including a rat-gnawed Victorian manual given to me by Mr Edwards of Edwards & Shaw, Sydney, publishers of many fine collections of Australian poetry, and was able to distribute my founts into their respective cases, but I still was unable to print even a single line. One day, a stranger, a bass guitarist on his way to a session in a neighbouring flat, stuck his head into the laundry where I was wallowing in despair. It turned out that he was also an apprentice in printing at Sydney Tech. In an hour and a half he had taught me virtually everything I have ever needed to know about basic printing (I have to assume that I am still ignorant of many of the finer points), enough to think of doing a small book of poetry. I never thought of printing anything other than poetry.

I already knew a few Sydney poets and one or two others in the other cities of Australia, and the idea came to me of doing a small booklet, with one poem from each poet, the copies to be sold or else given away, and the proceeds to be equally split between us. One of these poets was David Malouf, a colleague at Sydney University, where I taught. He suggested a few more names. Eventually I ended up with 22.(These were Robert Adamson, David Campbell, J. M. Couper, Bruce Dawe, Robert D. FitzGerald, Rodney Hall, J. S. Harry, Gwen Harwood, Martin Johnston, Geoffrey Lehmann, David Malouf, James McAuley, Roger McDonald, Les A. Murray, Geoff Page, Philip Roberts, Thomas W. Shapcott, Vivian Smith, Andrew Taylor, John E. Tranter, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and Judith Wright, for the record). The guiding principle was that each poet had to choose his or her best poem written during the previous year. Hence the significance of the position of the apostrophe in the title chosen for the anthology: Poet’s Choice — many choices, perhaps, but each of them singular.

This new enterprise needed a name, especially if we (by now I had taken up referring to Island Press and myself together as “we” rather grandly) were planning to sell books and open a bank account. I had a block of land on Scotland Island, and had been planning to build and move over there in a year or two: “Island Press” seemed the right name. The fact that I ended up instead in Bundeena, in the Royal National Park south of Sydney, did not seem significant enough to cause me to change the name later, especially as it so well fitted my personal picture of myself as isolationist. I even drew a printer’s device, waves surrounding a book: the book as island.

So I set out, armed with my new name and a sheaf of contributors’ mss., with a pile of brown-paper parcels of newly cut paper from B. J. Ball, each sheet the size of a two-page spread of the finished book. Then the fun began. I cannot possibly go into the minute and painstaking attention to detail that printing demands. One thing, however, the bass guitarist had told me, and the most important: be ready to resort to anything to achieve the best. Arm yourself with talcum powder, chewing gum, hairpins and rubber cement. Even the newest and most sophisticated Japanese offset press won’t give perfect results without a lot of prior fiddling-around and even witchery-pokery. The tao of printing is attained during the make-ready stage if it is to be attained at all.

The cover of Crux by Philip Roberts. Island Press 1973

The cover of Crux by Philip Roberts. Island Press 1973

The business of typesetting is printing’s most time-consuming aspect. You stand there, hour upon hour, holding a metal composing-stick in your left hand, your right fingers fumbling endlessly among the 89 compartments of the case, picking up the desired piece of type, turning the character end around to face you, and then checking the face itself to make sure it’s the right way up, three operations to be repeated for each letter. It is gratifying to discover your fingers becoming quite used to this new routine, to the point where you no longer have to consciously consider the whereabouts of any particular piece of type. Next, each line of set type must be adjusted for spacing (happily, this is not a major problem in poetry, where the right print margin is seldom justified, or lined up evenly), then a one-point lead is dropped in and a new line begun. After five or six lines are set (this could take up to 15 or 20 minutes) the whole load is manoeuvred gingerly out of the stick and onto the “stone” (a sheet of thick glass, in my case) to sit level until the whole two-page spread is complete and in place, surrounded by other pieces of metal and wood (“furniture”) and locked up tightly with two expanding clamps (“quoins”). (By now I also had a whole new vocabulary to play with.) After the whole thing is clamped into the press, with all errors of typography and spacing now in the past, the process begins. A spin of the flywheel, a stomp on the treadle, and away she goes, with stops only to replenish ink or paper. Each sheet is placed on the platen by the right hand, and removed after printing by the left hand as the right is on its way over with a new sheet. You have to keep your eyes open to make sure none of the type is clogged, or that the rollers don’t need more ink.

For me, the printing was the most enjoyable and relaxing part of the process. Friends used to call and marvel at my furious energy as I treadled away, clang-clang went the ratchet escapement of the circular ink plate, kerthwoosh went the two ink-sticky rollers across the plate then down over the type itself and back, just instants before the mighty jaws of the platen and bed crunched shut on the paper. One summer afternoon I cracked the knuckle of my right middle finger while diving for a piece of paper that had slipped down while the press was closing. I should have known better. I came to later with a lump on my head (the cement floor of the laundry) and a finger that has never been quite the same.

It used to amuse me, at these times, that so many of my university and other literary acquaintances, who prided themselves on their knowledge of books and even gave WEA courses on communication, had never thought about the final part of the printing process—the distribution, or putting-away, of the type afterwards. They often appeared amazed, watching me at work, to see that once you take a piece of type out of its compartment and use it, you must clean it and put it back before you can take it out and use it again. But in fact, this was the easiest, and fastest, part of the process: with a copy of the newly-printed sheet before you, you don’t actually have to look at the type at all while you distribute.

I have no idea how long Poet’s Choice 1970 took me—many weeks longer than I had first imagined, I’m sure. I used to spend all my free hours at the press, on the weekends, in the evenings, and whenever else I could find time. What makes Phil print? people were wondering. The flexibility of my time table at the university was a great advantage, though I did encounter some negative reaction over this from my immediate superior, and in general felt rather unsupported by the upper levels of the English Department, whose fodder is, after all, books, and particularly books of poetry. In 1976, when I gave up handsetting, I offered my press and type to the English Department but was told they had no interest in acquiring a press. Presumably they feel that students interested in bibliography should travel to Oxford to study letterpress printing, as generations have already done.

A detail from Crux by Philip Roberts, drawings by Margo Lewers. Island Press 1973

A detail from Crux by Philip Roberts, drawings by Margo Lewers. Island Press 1973

From this beginning the Press just grew. Poet’s Choice 1970 was the first and only book from the Jewel press under my operations: I sold it to Michael Dransfield the following year (1971), and replaced it with a somewhat more sophisticated machine, an Arab treadle with adjustable platen. (The Jewel’s adjustments were made by adding or subtracting single sheets of the news paper I used for platen packing.) Michael got some Times Roman type (I think because it was more workable than my own Garamond, where founts are pretty limited), and printed a small book of poems for his father. I never saw the book, but I have a commemorative sheet we printed the afternoon we moved it over to his place in Paddington and got it working.

From then until the end of my hand-setting days I produced nine further books, a total of 10 in all. Aside from the annual Poet’s Choice, which went on selling well each year, chiefly by mail order, I did four individual collections: End of Dreamtime by Kevin Gilbert in 1971; Ithaka by Martin Johnston and Crux by myself in 1973; and Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson in 1974.

The use of artwork introduced a theme that became common to many of the Island Press collections. Martin Johnston’s perceptive translations from modern Greek poetry, Ithaka, included drawings by himself and Nevill Drury, now a high prophet of extrasensory phenomena and sci-fi. My book, Crux, had drawings by the late Sydney artist Margo Lewers, a good friend from my first days in Australia; she also designed the cover. And Robert Adamson’s Swamp Riddles, which I would now submit as my best piece of printing, had a cover by Robert Finlayson. This cover was a real headache—Adamson had asked for Efanta cover board for the paperback covers. I had never printed on paper with this finish, and, much to my consternation, discovered that my usual black ink (regular jobbing variety) refused to sink into the paper or to dry. We even baked some of the sheets all night in the kitchen oven, to no avail. I finally had to buy a whole new order of cover stock and have a professional printer do the job. So my best book is not wholly mine, at that.

Poet’s Choice 1975 was my last hand-set effort. By now the press itself had become physical drudgery. I hate to think of how many hours during those six years I spent balancing on my left foot while my right treadled up and down, four times for each impression, multiplied by 25, 30, or even 50 for each two-page spread in the book, multiplied (again) by 250, 500, or even 1000 for each copy of the final run. I was developing curvature of the spine and varicose veins in the left leg. It was getting to be a drag. I grumbled and threatened to chuck it all in, but in the end continued to allow myself to be persuaded (by other poets, mainly) to continue publishing even if I gave up printing the books myself. The deciding factor was the IBM typesetter, a kind of glorified “golfball” typewriter which produces pages of print ready, via photographic plates, for an offset press. So I could continue to do the typesetting, at vastly increased speed and comfort, while a commercial printer did the less exciting work of mass production. I soon hit upon Southwood Press in Marrickville, Sydney, a small, sympathetic, and generally competent printer and binder, and found that life as a publisher could be bearable.

The first of the IBM jobs was Poet’s Choice 1976 (its cover is disingenuously a crude facsimile of the old Poet’s Choice cover, done just before I dismantled the press forever, and looking more rustic than anything I had ever printed myself). The move into mechanisation which this represented was a big step. It meant losing a number of bibliophiles and rare-book collectors as standing-order customers. On the other hand, I was now able to print, in a relatively short time, a range and diversity of poetry which I could never have managed in the old handset days—books by Philip Hammial (since July 1979, with his wife Karen,, joint owner of Island Press), Ken Bolton (a past editor), Andrew Taylor, Michael Witts, Keith Shadwick, Andrew Huntley, Denis Gallagher, Kris Hemensley, and Jan Harry.

Cover of Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974

Cover of Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974

Running a Press this way means you can decide on a book and have it out in as little as six weeks—impossible for a large publisher. Moreover, you can give your poets and artists encouragement to plan all aspects of the book themselves—cover design, page layout, page area, illustrations, decorative typefaces, and so forth. I feel that Island Press poets have been, on the whole, happy with their books (though one of Brandon Cavalier’s memorable ink drawings for Michael Witts’s Sirens got printed upside down, a fact not too many readers seemed to pick up).

Most of my other energies in running Island Press (aside from the continual chores of correspondence, order-filling, and account-keeping) have been devoted to running negotiations with two agencies: the Book Bounty Section of the Business and Consumer Affairs Department, which, up to the end of this year (1979), refunded one-third of the actual cost of production of any book in Australia, provided it fell within certain guidelines of length, print run, etc. Unfortunately, this bounty is now being phased out, and small presses will now find it harder and harder to survive. The other was the Literature Board of the Australia Council, formerly the Commonwealth (of Australia, that is) Literary Fund.

The Literature Board scarcely needs introduction here. Its function is to apportion allocated funds from federal revenue to poets and other writers so they can continue their labours without starving (even though, as has been known since Larkin, “no one actually starves”), and to publishers so they can continue the otherwise financially unrewarding job of publishing the above-mentioned Australian poets and writers. In the C.L.F. days, the tricky bit was getting onto the official list of approved publishers. Usually this meant showing proof that you were capable of producing books which would elicit some (preferably favourable) critical attention. In spite of a great deal of reluctance on the part of the C.L.F. to consider an Island Press application seriously, I got nowhere in four years. I had a strong ally in this struggle in Alec Hope, and I remain grateful to him for his support, which culminated in our recognition just prior to the death of the C.L.F. and the rise of the newly-created Literature Board (Australia Council).

Although my relations with the Board have at times been less than cordial, I nevertheless look upon its participation in Australian writing and publishing as a good thing. All correspondence with the Literature Board, along with all other Island Press letters, mss., printers’ proofs, and other papers, is now housed in the archives of the National Library of Australia.

So far I have written as though I had been mainly alone in my labours. This is not true. From the earliest I had the strong support of a number of friends, of whom the chief of these, may her name live forever, was Norma Crinion of Sydney. Norma, long a behind-the-scenes worker in Sydney’s “alternative” publishing scene, had secretarial and accounting experience, and was so enthusiastic over the inception of Island Press that she volunteered to become its full-time secretary, accountant, and public relations manager. Unpaid for any of this, she continued her work for five years, on two different periods handling all the business affairs of the Press for many months while I was overseas. I occasionally later used to come upon a carbon copy of some letter she had written to an enquiring customer or to one of our contributors. They are invariably full of warmth and wit, and often elicited paragraphs of appreciation from her correspondents in return. I can never thank her enough for her help and support during the early years.

Other friends aided during certain periods of the Press’s history. My old friend Robert Brakspear, colleagues Stephen Knight and Don Anderson, Ken Bolton and Anna Couani (who edited the Gallagher and the Hemensley books respectively) gave freely of their time and energies. Poet John Millett, a trained lawyer and accountant, was always available for legal and financial advice when it was needed. Encouragement has come from every quarter, including from my dog Jason, who was just a pup on the day I first printed, is still with me now, a printer’s devil of ten years’ standing.

I can hardly conclude this reminiscence without mentioning that band upon whose very existence Island Press has -depended for its survival—the poets, contributors of poems and of whole collections. In general, I think I have been lucky in hitting it off rather well with most poets in Australia, usually being an observer rather than a participant in the frequent feuds and other hostilities that characterise the scene, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. (The Canadian poet Margaret Atwood was told it was just a way Australian writers had of enjoying themselves.) That old war-dog, Roland Robinson, had bad feelings towards me, so I had been told for years by other poets who knew him. One day, at a function organised by Walter Stone in the city, I met Roland face to face for the first time and told him my name. He stared at me in amazement for about five seconds, then said in tones of deepest sincerity: “What a difference it makes to meet a person!” Other poets have shown bad feelings at not being “invited” to contribute to Poet’s Choice, even though the “invitation only” rule was dropped after 1975 when I stopped hand-setting. (In 1976 and 1977 I advertised nationally for poems, on the understanding that I would make the final choice of the “best” poems submitted. Since then, poems have reached me chiefly through word of mouth, or through the efforts of previous contributors.) Moreover, and this must always be the fate of any editor, I am continually being taken to task for my final selection for Poet’s Choice—one poet likes only poem A and rejects the rest of the book, another likes only poem B, and so forth. It seems pointless to suggest (particularly to another poet) that one is after something representative, some thing catholic even, as far as possible, something for everyone—and that any one reader will probably not warm to more than a few of the total chosen. Of all the poems in the ten editions of Poet’s Choice which have appeared since 1970, I have been entranced by only five or six at the most (Purely as a matter of record I could name David Campbell’s “Hotel Marine” (the complete version, which only we printed), Robert Adamson’s “Action would kill it/ A Gamble”, Roger McDonald’s “Incident in Transylvania”, Michael Dransfield’s “Saying Grace”, J. S. Harry’s “what if the big blue day”, and Judith Rodriguez’s “Eskimo Occasion”).The other poems were chosen for other readers, and just as no single one of them has been universally praised, so no single one of them, as far as I know, has been universally deprecated. Perhaps what has surprised critics most is the large proportion of “unknowns” being published for the first time, particularly in 1977 and after.

A detail from Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974.

A detail from Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974.

The poetry scene during the past 10 years in Australia has been particularly lively and exciting. The period of the birth and development of Island Press has paralleled such notable events as the launching of UQP’s Paper back Poets series, the opting-out of establishment publishers Angus & Robertson and others from all but the “safest” poets, the burgeoning of a plethora of small magazines and presses, and even the founding of a Poets’ Union. I also recall with pleasure such events as the annual Balmain Reading (a whole chapter could be written on this movable feast, first held in 1967 and going on to the early 70s) and innumerable other poetry readings —in the city, in the country, everywhere.

It occurs to me at times that the poet is undoubtedly reading the particular poem aloud for the first time ever, that the actual sound of the poem comes as a surprise, even to the poet. There is a widespread ignorance of the fact that the primary appeal of poetry is its sound. Poets growing up under the Olsen-Creeley-Duncan aegis of Australian verse in the mid-70s often tended to overlook this.

This might also seem an opportune time to unload a few remarks on the general divisiveness of poets. As an immigrant, a creature of another (and I think gentler) culture, I was spared much of this misplaced energy. At times, keeping track of the feuding and fighting, who was in and who was out, the Melbourne-Sydney axis, the various personal animosities (sometimes resulting in physical violence) called for more time and attention than I was able to give, particularly with my foot on the treadle and my hand in a type case. Consequently, while I was often the last to find out about such things, I was also pretty safe from direct attack. At one stage I remember gazing at some passing clouds (we were meeting on a lawn) and praying to be delivered from the poets of Australia. I pictured myself lying in a small boat five miles offshore. Who anywhere else but here could have the slightest interest in these people and their problems?

In the second half of the 70s we have witnessed an ever-increasing willingness, on the part of Australian poets, to ape all that is supposedly trendy and fashionable overseas. More and more, “overseas” comes to mean the United States, and, even then, only selected pockets of that vast and polyglot population. The rise to importance, in the Australian poetic consciousness, of any particular American poet will almost certainly be the result of a British publisher’s decision to distribute this American poet in the UK and the old Commonwealth (including Australia). In this way, Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan came to light here only after London publishers had already “pipped” them. The recent rise of the late Frank O’Hara and the New York/ Bolinas school of the 50s and 60s as a supposedly viable inspiration for the 70s in Australia (the time lag is expectable) may be attributed to the same process. I complained to Phil Hammial (by birth an American) about this recent trend. “Did you ever look at Francis Webb?” he asked. “Pure Hart Crane.”

My interest as a publisher has always been in the poem, not the poet, in the continual search for that so-rare piece of work that makes you see the world, or a part of it, in a radically new way. Without the actual, tangible success, the birth of some real poem, the words “poetry” and “poet” are like clapperless bells. The publisher’s staying power is directly proportional to his optimism and faith that new work of power and originality will con tinue to be written. His object is to bring that work to its readers as efficiently and effectively as possible. A perfect poem with no readers, like Waller’s rose, is of small worth. Bestowing the regularity of print upon it, like putting a frame around a painting, shows that it is at least to be taken seriously.

– Philip Roberts 1979

————————————————————————————————-

Canadian Philip Roberts studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, taught English in Spain and worked for two years as a sub-editor for Reuters. He moved to Australia in 1967, taught English at the University of Sydney between 1967 and 1979, when he returned to Canada. Roberts was poetry editor for the Sydney Morning Herald from 1970 to 1974. Roberts founded Island Press in 1970.

Reviews of Island Press books on Rochford Street Review:

The Island Press Co-operative website can be found at  http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

Donate Ad2

A Sparkling Constellation of Poems: John Jenkins launches ‘Princes by Night’ by Jeltje Fanoy

Princes by night by Jeltje Fanoy, Island Press Cooperative 2015, was launched by John Jenkins at Collected Works Bookshop, Melbourne on March 27, 2015

princess by nightJeltje Fanoy briefly described her new book, Princes by night, in these terms: “And now, finally, and years later, this collection of poems based on my family’s experience in the former Dutch Indies.”

Jeltje’s family migrated to Australia in 1963, first settling in Melbourne, then the North Sydney suburb of Lindfield.

Princes by night is clearly autobiographical, but not narrowly so. In one of its many dimensions, it is as much about the process of remembering, as it is about specific memories.

More than this, it insists upon always engaging with a much larger reality than the purely personal. The entire energy of the book flows outward, a widening connection with key places; and with people too, all sympathetically grounded in their own personal reality, their unique life context, and historical moment.

Princes by night contains 40 poems, and their average length is about a page and a half. The poems are all related, and inter-related. Collectively, they tell a story, indeed many stories.

To start with, the book’s cover shows an old-fashioned telephone, dangling invitingly from the clouds. (Incidentally, good-hearted humour is another thread which unites this book.) This image refers to the very first poem, titled ‘Hey father…!’ in which the poet is woken from sleep by her Dad, as he joyfully telephones her: from the hereafter.

In a way, that is what a vivid memory can feel like. Like a re-union across space and time. The book itself is a sort of family re-union, with, the living and the dead all brought back together, and meeting here, in its welcoming pages.

An early poem seems foundational, setting the stage for subsequent poems. In ‘The unnamed relatives’, Jeltje and her father discuss family photos, some set in the Dutch West Indies, where generations of the family, including cousins, aunts, grandparents, servants and cooks, were all part of a former colonial military and administrative world.

The title, Princes by night, refers to Jeltje’s cousin Jaap and his brothers, who would escape from their authoritarian father, and by night:

…cross over to the batik-patterned universe,
…to the Indonesian kampong
at the back of the house, across
the vast expanse of cultivated lawn,
bare-footed, and in their pyjamas,
to where the servants lived.

On the other side of this precise cultural and class divide, far from “…the cool Assistant Regents’ House”, and its “…towering mosquito-netted opulence”, a servant named Zain impressed the boys with his skills in oratory, while Zain’s wife served them fiery, spicy and delicious local fare.

This was a revelation for the young escapees, who would then be entertained with funny stories, and listen spellbound to tales from the Kumbang Hitam, tales accompanied on the genggong (or Balinese-style jaw harp).

Now, Kumbang Hitam means ‘black beetle’, a large earth-burrowing insect, spectacularly obsidian-carapaced, associated with mysticism and sorcery, and regarded in the mythology of many peoples as an intermediary between sky and earth, between reality and dreams.

Appropriately here, the mysterious black beetle is an intermediary between cultures, which can seem reciprocally dream-like, one to the other.

The poem goes on to say, how the boys started roaming into this parallel cultural world, avoiding church and study:

Feeling like exiles
during the day,
and princes, in stealth,
at night, the brothers
led a double life…”

Unfortunately, Jaap’s father (Jeltje’s uncle) got wind of things and cracked down heavily on the little princes by night, confining them to a special military-style, training school, and so their reign as part-time, nocturnal royalty came to an abrupt end. Thereafter, we are told, there was

…never again,
any opportunity, for Jaap,
to speak, unobserved,
to any Indonesian servant”.

In other poems, too, some of the half-suppressed or surrounding ethos of colonial violence can well up, as if volcanically, into otherwise serene domestic family relationships.

Jeltje Fanoy reading

Jeltje Fanoy reading at the launchj of Princes by night

We know terrible atrocities were committed by early Dutch planters and plunderers, particularly in Aceh, but this fact is certainly not dodged. Indeed, an ancestral Fanoy wrote an authoritative expose, a plea for humane policy.

Memories remain mixed in Princes by night. Many have a positive, even joyous, up-close immediacy; and then, and even perhaps in the very next line, subside almost back into silence, as part of a far-away almost never-was past. The rhythmic occurrence of both these registrations of memory is subject matter of some highly reflective and effective poems, such as ‘Far away (talking) Blues’.

In ‘Eating katjang story’ (‘katjang’ is Indonesian for peanuts) we are told how Jeltje’s grandfather made a crystal set radio, and: “…it would take ages to tune in / to far-away, strange-sounding signals…” Such an apt trope, I think, for Jeltje’s own accurate re-tuning-in to an obscure and exotic corner of the now, seemingly long-ago-faded Dutch empire! But, as she affirms, history is ever with us.

In another poem we also learn how Jeltje’s grandfather, after his much-loved wife died, then locked himself in his study, drinking beer and playing the same song on a wind-up gramophone, over and over again, for almost a year: Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’, sung by Josephine Baker.

At one point in the book, Jeltje’s father says he might know more Indonesian history than that of Europe. He would also recite: “…Indonesian myths / and legends to the household staff.” (‘Stories about food’.)

That Jeltje’s ancestors were cross-cultural inhabitants of diverse and disparate worlds is affirmed everywhere. In some ways, they appear forbears of a cross-cultural modernity, one – optimistically – now a celebrated norm.

The poem ‘Lampu dingding story’ mentions a kerosene lamp, with mounted mirror behind it, hanging in a children’s bedroom at night. (The mirrored light, the light of historical time, reflected hauntingly here; while the real lamp is so well-described, it leaps concretely back into being, across years of lost time.)

By this lantern light, the children’s Baboe (or Babu, Indonesian for child-minding servant, or Nanny) tells Indonesian tales, and makes ghostly faces, by pulling at her eyelids. But, as she tells the children, to break a ghost’s spell, they only need to shut their own eyes. Then, Baboe: “… slept on a mat in front of their beds // so they had nothing to fear.”

There are some touching portraits of these various Baboes. In one poem, a Dutch journalist who telephones Jeltje’s mother, confesses somewhat dramatically that her Baboe was the only person she ever loved.

Eventually, we learn how Jeltje’s father left Indonesia during the war years, to fight with the Resistance against the Nazi occupation of Holland. After many close escapes, he joined the exiled Dutch Navy. But his ship was hit by a Japanese torpedo, and later repaired at Cockatoo Island, on Sydney’s Parramatta River.

At the end of fighting in Europe, Jeltje’s father then returned to Indonesia. Around 1947, however, he began to suffer terrifying hallucinations, including night terrors of giant rats. The poem ‘What if (1947)’ confirms how he was under enormous pressure:

…still duty bound,
facing a vicious
colonial war
directly
after
the horrors of WW2…

Peace he fervently longed for proved elusive. And we are told, in ‘Stories about food’, how he had to carry

…his own father,
now skin over bone,
on his back, after WW2,
out of the gates of the
Japanese Internment Camp…

After all these ordeals, Jeltje’s father was administered electric shock treatments (E.C.T.) by the Dutch Navy, and granted an Honourable Discharge.

He returned again to Holland (Jeltje herself was born in Amsterdam) before the family moved to Australia. His earlier stay in Sydney, apparently, had left lasting memories, and Jeltje’s father now believed – with an almost celebratory optimism – in making a peaceful life afresh. Unfortunately, he then suffered increasingly from amnesia, probably due to the E.C.T.

Princes by night can be seen as a labour of love, with Jeltje attempting to restore, though its historically-re-echoing pages, the memory of her amnesiac father, to reinstate a lost subjectivity. Certainly her father’s portrait emerges as central to this book, amidst many significant portraits.

The Princes by night narrative is often pleasantly rambling and ragged, just like life itself; just as lived moments mostly are, in the course of their unfolding: life, onward-flowing, with closure and resolution only its retrospective glance backwards, and always open-ended as to further curtailment, further possibility…

This sparkling constellation of poems – each short and sweet, and seemingly simple on the surface – cuts deeply into memory and history: and very succinctly, employing that unique poetic dimension, of resonance. There is therefore – and necessarily so – much left unsaid, implied, partly sketched; all generously prompting one’s own research, and inviting completion of the historical jig-saw.

Finally, some poems pose puzzles and questions, while others leave clues and cues, thus suggesting ways for things to be resolved, as in classical story telling. But I won’t offer a spoiler, by explaining or revealing too much. Simply buy and read the book, and enjoy its fascinating journey.

– John Jenkins

———————————————————————————————————–

John Jenkins writes poetry, and on music, travel and the arts. He authored, co-written or edited twenty-four books. In a previous lifetime he was a journalist and part-time academic. John is currently working on a book of short stories, and a non-fiction book on his favourite film directors.

Princes by night is available from http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

 

Donate Ad2

A Direct Invocation of Supernature : John Hawke launches ‘Ticket to Ride’ by Philip Hammial

John Hawke launched Ticket to Ride by Philip Hammial, Island Press 2015, at Collected Works Bookstore on Friday 27 March 2015.

Philip Hammial 2

Philip Hammial reading at the launch of Ticket to Ride.

Ticket to Ride is the latest in a remarkable series of volumes Philip Hammial has published over the past fifteen years or so, which have been building in energy and intensity. This week I’ve been working with classes on stylistic elements in the poetry of Rimbaud, and a student pointed out that the most important technical feature of Rimbaud’s work was the complexity of his syntax – the very loose addition of accreting clauses that allows him to add image to image in a kind of perpetual accumulating slide-show, so that the poem becomes a densely-packed auto-generating machine that creates its own second nature: a kind of supernature, in fact, which is the pure product of his ‘alchemy of the word’. I’ll come back to that term ‘supernature’ in a minute. But this led me to reach into my bag and read them the following sentence from Philip Hammial, which is in fact the second sentence in the book:

.

As in (therein) their
not inconsiderable swoons they seem to take &,
occasionally, give delight, by which I mean (& mean
I must) a cautionary cradling for these fornicators who,
unchecked, would intimidate with rocking annoyance
their otherwise unwilling partners in, if not a serious crime,
a trundling misdemeanour, so that, now, by this (& that)
I’m inclined to say, & kindly so, as gall upon a manner
fixed is mixed and matched as only matter can, an
expression of felicity not
to be fobbed off, no, nor held up
as some so positioned darling pretending ignorance of
a fact basic to yours truly – that aversion
in my hospice although (& nonetheless) if that
is possible (& probably isn’t) I must insist
on something that I’ve somehow, in
the unravelling of this sentence, forgotten.

-‘A Bed’

That sentence, which runs over sixteen lines, is framed by two shorter sentences, and if you want to contextualise it you’ll have to buy the book and read it for yourself. This extraordinary circumambulatory syntax, with its short clauses linked by informal connections, resistant to any symmetry or Ciceronian ideal of ‘clarity’, is the form of ‘loose’ style that you find in Baroque prose writers – in English, in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, or in Sir Thomas Browne. In the twentieth century, the deliberate obscurities of High Modernism have sometimes been viewed as a return to the Baroque: Joyce can virtuosically replicate this style in the Library chapter of Ulysses, for example; and Proust’s style, with his time-travelling sentences which start here and end somewhere over there, until the reader is lost in a juxtaposition of temporalities and geographies that reveal the present moment from all of the perspectives of consciousness, presents an object lesson in Bergsonism in itself. Philip’s syntax does a similar thing: it allows him to explore a temporal moment, or a slice of reality, from every possible angle of experience; and, as in Rimbaud, this process is simultaneously subjective and objective – ‘I becomes another’, the speaker of the poems becomes a ‘fabulous opera’. This multiplicity of perspective of course applies just as weirdly to individual words as well, as they are providentially marred and improved by puns and slippages: ‘A hearing force’, ‘What’s the hush?’

ADVERTISEMENT

Donate Ad2

This cubistic approach results in a kind of fractured Alice in Wonderland effect of interlocking planes, and the speaker of these poems, like Alice, is constantly posing inscrutable questions of ontology: ‘Get real! Get real? That time I crossed a hare with Dale Evans, a fox with Roy Rogers, was that real?’ The key thing about Philip’s poetry, I now understand, is that however bizarre or deliberately obscured the events described in his work might seem, everything he’s writing about is perfectly real: there’s none of the decapitated mysticism of Surrealism in his work, and his juxtapositions aren’t randomly generated by automatist procedures. The techniques he’s employing are actually a form of spatializing realism, creating a geography of the moment flattened within the complex of a sentence. I’ve been partially led to that realisation after reading Philip’s extraordinary unpublished autobiography, a tale as baroque and fantastic as anything in his work, and the lineaments of that story are evident throughout his poems. They’re contained within a kind of Immortal Story – if you remember the Orson Welles film – of a sailor’s journey to knowledge, as a kind of pure desiring machine for the accumulation of affects; these experiences are then documented, reassembled, and alchemised within the machine of the poem. Philip’s favourite author, the Cuban neo-Baroque poet and novelist José Lezama Lima, has a wonderful term which he takes from Vico: ‘the impossible credible’. That’s the version of super-reality that I find expressed in Philip’s work, and I’d like to pay tribute by reading a paragraph from Lezama Lima that defines this precisely: he writes, ‘In the mastabas of ancient Egypt, a door was always left open to receive the magnetic winds of the desert. Great winds that the dead continue to receive. The penetration of the pyramids northward in the parched lands caused the queen’s chamber to be constructed with the most favourable orientation possible for receiving the magnetic winds of the genesial desert. Hence my belief that the construction of the pyramids was meant to create not only a lasting space for the dead but also a genesial chamber for the kings to procreate with the concurrence of the magnetic winds of the desert…For the Egyptians, the only talking animal was the cat, who could speak the word ‘like’ that could join together the two magnetic ends of its whiskers. These two magnetic points, infinitely relatable to one another, lie at the basis of all metaphoric analogies. It is a genesial, copulative relatedness. Join together the magnetic points of a hedgehog with those of a shepherd’s pouch, an example we are fond of, and a chestnut is engendered. The magnetic ‘like’ also awakens new species and the realm of supernature.’ (José Lezama Lima, “Confluences (1968)”, Selections ed. Ernesto Livon-Grosman (Berkeley: University of California Press 2005) pp.105-106.) Philip Hammial’s Ticket to Ride, along with the stream of exceptionally creative volumes that precede it, is a direct invocation of precisely that supernature which Lezama Lima describes.

– John Hawke

—————————————————————————————————

John Hawke is a Senior Lecturer in literary studies at Monash University, and recently coedited (with Ann Vickery) the anthology of critical essays, Poetry and the Trace. A selection of his poetry will appear with Cordite Press in 2015  http://corditebooks.org.au/collections/frontpage/products/aurelia.

Ticket to Ride is available from http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

Pushing Boundaries. Mark Roberts Reviews ‘Beside Rivers’ by Susan Adams

 Beside Rivers by Susan Adams. Island Press 2013.

Beside Rivers
The opening poem of Susan Adams’ first collection, Besides Rivers, playful announces a poet not afraid to push boundaries or to squeeze into spaces that others have ignored.

Square cubes in a sphere.
Our shoulders don’t fit under this sky

‘a-Maze’

We immediately feel that here is a poet who sees things differently, and is prepared to state so upfront:

Our world was never round.
There are corners at every question mark
with angles to turn on our trespass forward.

This opening poem introduces both the collection and the first section ‘Awash’. On one level the poem ‘a-Maze’ is a curious one to open a collection. The title sends us off in a number of directions – amazement, the confusion of the maze and the alliteration with two of the section names (Awash, A Wonder), but as we progress into the collection the swirling nature of this opening begins to make much more sense.

As the title and the section headings suggest, water plays a central role in this collection. In fact one could say that a river runs through this collection, from a flooding river in India to a peaceful and meditative Hawkesbury. The four Indian poems at the front of the collection leave a powerful impression, indeed I was surprised that there were only four of them so strong is their impact on the collection. The first Indian poem, ‘La Femme, Raphael, home for the destitute & dying, India’ creates a context for the other poems:,

Its not the dust, heat, rains
the pall of flies and open drains
all-day power cuts, cold bucket showers
but the deaths of starving children,
mothers and babes from anaemia.
The lethargy of lepers.

The poet here is an outsider, a “square cube in a sphere”. She has volunteered but the reality of her surroundings follow her every move:

A heavy step to the river for crossing,
an hour ago a 7 month baby died from pneumonia.
I roll up my clothes, stumble the long water
you greet my muddied wet.

The final incongruity of inhaling the perfume which has arrived as a gift is not over emphasised but sits within the context of the other Indian poems. The poet is an an outsider

……….we are both cast
to the separation of ordinary.

‘Entire of Himself’

While the patients of the Raphael Home for the Destitute and Dying are outcasts because of their birth cast, or their disease, the poet is herself doubly outcast, she is from another culture and her time volunteering is limited. She has a way out.

The strongest of the Indian poems, ‘The River Becomes’ places the imagery of the river firmly at the centre of the collection. This is a violent river, awaking from a trickle to become a roar:

It happened like they said.
I was lying on my cot half naked
water coddled the hollow in my chest, hot.
It was raining in the Himalayas.

The sound distant. A roar travelling.
God’s negatives on the hurl.
We race to the dried rock bank
nothing on the other side
but noise is riding on the echoes in our ears.

then as the water comes:

frothered hissing on hot rocks slow motion fast.
The push behind has power, retched boulders hurtle past

The language here is as powerful as the water that hurls rocks down a dry riverbed and it shatters the sense of lethargy which hangs hot and heavy over the opening stanzas of the poem.

In contrast the river in a ‘Newtown Dawn, Hawkesbury Dusk’ becomes as refugee from the clamour and noise of the inner city. Here the river is a suggestion, something to look forward to as the poet wakes up to the noise and chaos of the inner city:

Rubbish collection is an eructation
of clang and battle breaking up sleep.
We wake annoyed and curt,

and

Short circuits of ourselves
we live between shifts of scream and steel,

The river here holds the promise of an almost spiritual completeness

I need to return to the river
where skin will return to bone.

The idea of the meditative river drives a number of other poems centred around the Hawkesbury. The difference between waking up in the inner city and next to the river, for example, is emphasised by the opening of ‘River Mould’

We start our dawn in grey
and wear it like a
……………………..blindfold

Throughout this collection Adams is very much a poet of the ‘I’, the ‘We’ and the ‘Us’. Even in the most meditative poem the poet’s relationship with those around her is critical. The imagery of the river is shared, pain and suffering spreads out to us through the poem and in many poems the intimacy of personal relationships is central.

Above all  this is a collection which continually surprises us with its choice of subject, its use of language and the unashamed lyricism which underpin the best poems. Beside Rivers is an impressive first collection which suggests that Adams will be a poet to watch over the coming years.

– Mark Roberts

—————————————————————————————————-

Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is currently undertaking Post Graduate studies at the University of Sydney and currently edits Rochford Street Review and P76 Magazine (http://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/p76-literary-magazine/).

Besides Rivers is available from http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm
.
.

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