Fusion of the Personal and the Imagined: Robbie Coburn Reviews ‘Lilies and Stars’ by Rebecca Law

Lilies and Stars by Rebecca Law, Picaro Press 2013

Lilliey-coverIt seems rare in modern verse to see a poet approach language traditionally, or at least follow the university-taught guidelines of how to construct a poem; be that through a refusal to use capitalisation or experimentation with form, it seems now the traditionalist might be the one breaking the mould.

Filled with a deep sense of romanticism, desire and longing, Rebecca Law’s second collection of poems achieves this in its evocation of a charming series of landscapes where the correlation of the imagined and ‘real’ world runs through the lines.

Law seems to be following a tradition of romantic poets, using sometimes familiar imagery but with a unique and expressive originality.

Constructed musically and always bearing an assured, clear grace, it is as if Law has crafted a unique theology, drawing on her own beliefs as a practicing catholic, and there is a kind of sacred atmosphere one inhabits when reading Lilies and Stars.

The collection opens with the question ‘what can one make with a bucket?’ (“The Shivering Song”), proceeding to reveal a love poem filled with stunning imagery of water and a subtle exploration of connection.

A great sense of longing underpins the lines and human relationships are dealt with carefully, constantly using the land and the elements to frame them.
The shorter love poems within this collection are by far the most effecting and employ a level of honesty often rare in much modern work. “Form of” simply and effectively recounts a former love, expressing longing and an aching desire:

Last night
I wanted not to love you
your distance and silence:
then conversely
it was this howling
I wanted to love forever,

heaving my backbone
in my sleep.

Regardless of the content of the poem, the real strength of the work is its precise rhythm, like Yeats, where the personal and the natural exist as one and aren’t afraid to dream: ‘The world/is everything/within azure/reaching higher’ (“The Road”)

Although Law now resides in Sydney, these are poems that could be written about any environment and there is a timeless quality in the traditional approach of the verse. This lies in the fact that, although Australian, Law seems to write outside of any existing timeframe, combining the personal with an expert understanding of mythology. The presence of symbolists such as Baudelaire and Verlaine as influences contribute to what Law has described as an “[interest] in the surreal, the symbolic and the sublime as romantic concepts that displace and liberate the word from a human preoccupation with living and dying” (Overland, September 18 2012. ed. Peter Minter).

This careful use of imagery that comes as a result is both powerful and mesmerising. A beautiful example of is displayed in “Ocean, Sky & Wreath” in which the poet plays with images, creating an atmospheric music for the reader:

Where the whale sinks,
stars are a floor,
ceilings, cloud,
daylight an aura

Family is a constant source of light and dark shades and runs below the surface of much of the work, as the poet recalls people and times, asserting that ‘The flight away and back towards home [is] an exercise in learning grace’. 

“Infusions of Shoreline Fauna” is a moving tribute to the poet’s mother and one of the finest examples of what Law manages so well in her approach to her subjects:

This lowly tree reminds me of mother,
white pebbles and sprouting grass….

Mother you are always old
for your years, my own growth
distanced more and more
into adulthood

A highly confessional and moving piece, the careful use of spare verse to describe the personal entwine with natural imagery to create a beautiful balance and resonance. Again a haunting longing seeds the lines as ‘lavender bouquets outlast/hours of any starry night/for whomsoever mutters a wish.’

A startling marriage of the earth, the sky and the imagination, with this collection Law’s touch is gentle and affecting, consistently displaying a polished sense of line and metre.
With such assured lyricism, perhaps the ultimate triumph of the work is the blending of personal experience with fantastic imagery.
It is as if Law is attempting to recapture the romantic notion of poetry so many fall in love with, however unfashionable this kind of writing may appear beside other contemporary work.

With its mystical imagery and passionate lyricism, Lilies and Stars is extremely effective in achieving what it intends to.

-Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn was born in June 1994 in Melbourne and grew up in the rural district of Woodstock, Victoria. He has published a collection, Rain Season (Picaro Press, 2013), as well as several chapbooks and pamphlets – Before Bone and Viscera (2014) is available from Rochford Street Press – https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/07/18/ rochford-st-press-is-proud-to-announce-the-publication-of-before-bone-and-viscera-by-robbie-coburn/. His latest chapbook is Mad Songs (Blank Rune Press, 2015). A new collection of poetry The Other Flesh and a novel Conversation with Skin, are forthcoming. He currently resides in Melbourne and can be found at www.robbiecoburn.com.au

Lilies and Stars is available through Rebecca Law’s website http://rbcclaw.wix.com/rebecca-kylie-law

Horrors & Hay: Les Wicks reviews ‘Rain Season’ by Robbie Coburn

Rain Season by Robbie Coburn, Picaro, 2013. Reviewed by Les Wicks.

robbieAs a general rule I only write positive reviews of Australian poetry. Sure, the argument exists that this presents to the revered reader a one-dimensional aspect of this oh so wise critic’s poetic worldview. There are certainly alternative approaches out there, I note particularly a few who wrap up superficially cogent demolition jobs around malicious misreadings of a handful of pieces within a book to generate a few titters amongst their readership. I suspect there is a childhood history of torturing kittens. But what is the point? There are already more than enough reasons not to buy Australian poetry floating about. Sure, there are any number of books that I won’t review because I can’t be enthusiastic about them. I’d rather tell you about the ones that have enriched, surprised or challenged me.

I’m inclined to be generous when I open the covers of a first book. But all predispositions were unnecessary as I immersed myself in Robbie Coburn’s Rain Season. By any measure, this is an accomplished collection by a writer clearly confident in the voice of his work.

Coburn lives in Woodstock, semi-rural Victoria. The landscape lends itself to his sparse, sometimes ruthless lyric style through much of the book:

home suspended on brass hinges,
I ignore all motion. alive.
my hands have disappeared in front of me –

there is beauty in that.

– “There Are No Strangers”


it was weeks before Dad returned home from hospital
and even then he suffered death a second time
spluttering beneath his gutted body, his chest’s bloody centre
sewn shut.

– “The Heart Resetting”

To my mind he’s the best portraitist of Australian rural life since Brendan Ryan. This is no shallow pastoral – fire, death, abuse and depression roam alongside a rich connection to the landscape, evolution of an adult life, relationships et cetera. Throughout there is an endearing, sometimes heartbreaking, autobiographical journey…

I open the vein, twice
the deeply pressed blade embedded
in flesh like an extension of my limb

– “Poem”

Section II is the title poem of the book and examines the 2009 bushfire that burnt through his region. The challenges of drafting a consistently engaging long poem alongside the imperative to detail factual material has shipwrecked many practitioners. This poem, for me, is perhaps the weakest part of the book but there aren’t many who could do it better.

“Sophie” is a delightfully clean and simple love poem. Throughout, there are some great lines like daylight bends like a flame (“Chemical Winter”) and death was fashionable when we were kids (“Follow”).

I’ve often said it’s kinda hard to shake the foundations with yet another poem about middle-class greybeards sitting around drinking good coffee and whingeing about their backs. The newly examined has a great capacity to draw the reader in, to fix them in the poetic experience. A number of pieces in this book are centred around greyhound breeding/racing, an area of human activity completely alien to me and no doubt most readers. These poems manage to range across both empathy and detachment, a pre-requisite perhaps for those involved in working with animals.

There is much in this book that is confronting, but I laughed out loud when I read Coburn’s hilarious discussion around the point at which the poet settles on his sexuality – “Three Lessons Remembered” – there’s a punchline I’m not going to spoil by repeating, a great image.

This is an enriching read.

– Les Wicks


Les Wicks has seen publication across 18 countries in 10 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013). This year he will performing in LA – Beyond Baroque, Austin International poetry Festival & RhiZomic.. He can be found at http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Rain Season is available from Picaro. www.picaropress.com/

Searching for the Past: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘On the Circumvesuviana’ by Lucy Dougan

On the Circumvesuviana by Lucy Dougan, Picaro Press, 2012

On the circumvesuviana136


Lucy Dougan’s collection On the Circumvesuviana is very much a journey.
Although not quite narrative poetry due to the disjointed fragments of story between poems, Dougan creates an intelligent blend of confessional and indirect verse to tell her story from her perspective as a “love child” tracing her origins back to her homeland of Naples.

Many of the poems are narrated from a Neapolitan perspective as the poet recounts her native history, but still uphold a contemporary Australian viewpoint, creating an eclectic, fresh and distinctive voice. This presents a strikingly original standpoint to the reader, in which Dougan is both personally involved in the pieces while still remaining consistent in her introverted observations as a bystander. An example of this is an early poem in the collection “Beneath Us”:

The Lost ones
in deep watery chambers
tread a wheel
of encrusted walls
holding signs
like those left
waiting at airports.

The more direct focus on family and placement makes for some of the strongest poems in the collection, such as “I Went…(That Words Can’t), in which Dougan confronts and interrogates various members of her family in an attempt to put the pieces of her story into a cohesive sequence:

I went to my mother at the Trade Winds Cafe
and she said this is my story, not yours.
There and then the winds turned South.

Her mother’s statement perfectly highlights the place of the individual within both a family and a personal history, the piece becoming darker and more confronting as it progresses:

I went to the ashes of my
father that I call father
and my mother’s lover
and asked them if they thought
we could all rub along together.

The poem then draws to an unexpected and extremely evocative conclusion, a fine example of Dougan’s skill at poetic narration:

Finally, nobody said anything
and I was happy with that.

Dougan’s willingness to openly confront her position in her family as an illegitimate child is constantly combated by an introverted voice, leaving the reader to decide which parts of the story fit where, creating somewhat of an interpretive, non-linear verse novel.
She refers to both her biological father and mother’s husband as “my father that I call my father”, the latter stating ‘‘don’t make me get that DNA test” as a result of their meeting, the poet’s suffering evident as the journey progresses.

These interactions are just a select example of the many Dougan describes throughout the collection in her search for answers, another being with her ”uncle in the Mountains” who reaffirms her status as a “lovechild”, referring to her coming to be as:

a fairytale,
a chance meeting on a bus without suspension,
a cabin full of roses.

In comparison to this, Dougan is accepted and adored by her ”sisters and brother in San Giorgio” who say:

we have no word for half,
your face belongs here.

Dougan also explores this relationship with her half-siblings in Naples in other poems like the excellent “Thickly Then”, but often simultaneously alludes to an isolated childhood coupled with an internalized segregation from those around her:

I learned to love loneliness
and hugged my singularity close,
the last child – big gaps.

Although this initially reads as an exploration of sorrow, Dougan shows a subtle resistance against the forces of her anguish and an admirable willingness to confront both her personal past and that of her family in order to lay it to rest and move on. Her resilience is demonstrated in the poem “Wayside”:

My body wants
the dark of a city
when paths were lit
by shrines, by love,
their frail flames
petals no-one owns.

The overall standout component of this book is the unflinching honestly and intelligence Dougan upholds when recounting distressing elements of her life and journey, a factor that makes for some truly powerful poetry.

The final stanza of the title poem that concludes the book brings her search for answers in recounting her past in Naples to an end, while also acknowledging her inability to control where she comes from and the need to appreciate both the good and bad aspects of her heritage:

this damned theatricality
of selves- this constant circus
of being wedded
to a place, a story
as worn out and
full of grace as this.

This poem and the collection as a whole will leave few readers unmoved.
Despite being only a slim volume, On the Circumvesuviana is a compelling and unrushed book of poems that effectively explores the confusing and inevitable rift between the eyes of the past and the present within both families and cultures.

– Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn is a poet and writer from country Victoria.
His first chapbook of poems Human Batteries was published by Picaro Press in 2012.
His website can be found at: http://www.robbiecoburn.com/

On the Circumvesuviana is available from http://www.picaropress.com/page1/page1.html

A Determination to Endure: Julia Wakefield reviews The Butcher’s Window by Carmel Williams

The Butcher’s Window by Carmel Williams. Picaro Press 2012

Like Peter Bishop, I was first attracted to the poetry of Carmel Williams when I heard her reading ‘The Lemon Tree’. It is one of her strongest poems, and it opens this collection, encapsulating the theme that underlies Williams’ work: a determination to endure and thrive, no matter what life throws at us. The lemon tree dies, but its one green fruit survives even incineration.

The father described in the poem is also a recurring subject in this book: a tough Aussie bloke, who has no time for poetry and delicate plants (If it’s tough enough it’ll live!). Destructive male figures are in fact the main subject of the first section, either in the form of remote, frightening father figures, as in ‘Dying by Degrees’, or as priestly fathers of a suffocating, hypocritical faith, as in ‘Choirboy’ or ‘In the Name of the Father’, or they appear as strutting dominant males, as in ‘Assuming the Position’:

Small dick, big fear, mummy complex turned macho
Sometimes you see him – puppy dog eyes in the mirror
You want to cut it out of your face
Like your women compliant, visible only in the dark
Poetry about women – all sex and satire
You hump ‘em or hate ‘em…

All these men are the products of an oppressive, misogynistic interpretation of Christianity that has been nurtured in a tough, isolated and male-dominated society. Williams knows these men well. She must have grown up surrounded by them.

But there are dreams of better men in the ensuing section, ‘Second Womb’. The subject of the poem ‘Mr Zimmerman, is her “psychedelic troubadour”, a symbol of hope for a better society. ‘The Butcher of Lobeye’ is another of her strongest poems. It is a slow-paced portrait of a lover whose hands “know what it is to be male”, for whom “one perfect pink cut /brings tears to his eyes”. He is a man who”wears love like a satin harness” and

who can be convinced
that some things
are best
eaten raw.

The poet with a “taste for viscera/a passion for sharp objects” is captivated by this lover, who became her husband for 21 years. But the romance immediately turns sour in the ensuing poem: ‘on Remembrance Day’

The treason of an embrace
repels him, he wants to be alone
lay a wreath
for a soldier he once knew

‘Six more Sleeps’ evokes the desperate, lonely monotony of shared custody, the sudden absence of children, when the house resists her heavy step, and she

Says a prayer for the dark comfort of day’s end
a frantic job, a soft bed
and the courage to wake up, do it all again

The second half of the collection moves away from the essentially autobiographical and plays more with abstract concepts, but there are also some powerful poems that reflect the years Williams spent in Alice Springs, such as ‘Anzac Hill at Night’, where

……town lights dance
like a poor God’s constellation

‘The Therapeutic Mantle’ experiments with a sequence of poems, exploring psychoanalysis and the phenomenon of transference. But it is also another episode in the theme of survival and redemption: Williams come to her analyst looking for diagnosis, perhaps for absolution, but realises that his gift

….is to paraphrase beautifully
like an echo in the dark
Mine is to listen like a bat

Her real redemption comes in the beautiful poem ‘The Transfiguration’. As with ‘In the Name of the Father’ it alludes to the language of the Bible, but this time instead of placing the poem next to the words of the absolution ‘formula’, Williams replaces the formula with her own hymn to the material body:

I resurrect this body and ascend it to heaven
It is God walking

She reclaims the innocence that precedes the Fall:

I claim the right to lay naked as a child
bright, clean, completely present.

After this comes ‘The Mulberry Tree’, another hymn this time to childhood and the affirming tree of life, as opposed to the damning tree of knowledge. The poem starts with the bare tree, “pruned to a carcass”, but as winter passes, the tree performs a miracle, with the help of the redemptive rain:

Rain teased out
the first
awkward shoots
dotting the boughs
with hope

Even in ‘the oven of Alice’ this new growth can occur, and as the tree expands so do the lines of the poem:

I watched from my house, red turning to scarlet
in the oven of Alice and the turn
of the tides of life. The spill of royal carpet, red beaks of birds
busy ants, pink fingered children picked, climbed and bloomed with red
Boughs in the tender arch of fullness, spelled out harvest. Limp leaves like new
mothers took their rest in the sweet crimson air

This is a vision of Paradise in the back yard of an outback town, so different from the bleak view through the window in ‘Six more Sleeps’:

…the absence of trees
patchy couch grass, yesterday’s leaves

The last section, ‘Surrender’, contains lighter, less personal poems such as ‘A Moral Disposition’ and the gloriously sensuous ‘Wanted Ad’, but ‘Quickening’ is another poem about Alice that echoes ‘the Mulberry Tree’, capturing this time the innocent delight a child feels at the redemptive touch of rain after a long drought:

skin courts a shiver of mingled senses
pounding of icy drops
Chin upturned eyes closed
the perfect prayer, hair tossed on the wind
then like a lit fuse, she runs
laughter percolating
spinning like a skater, whipped as the grass….
….She has heaven on her tongue
time between her teeth

Two poems, ‘Red Car’ and ‘Son of Alice’, remind us of the bleaker tales of the earlier poems. But they are more objective, about people the poet has glimpsed, not met. However, the stories are part of the fabric of life in Alice and elsewhere, and ‘Red Car’ brings back echoes of the past:

Every body that cradles a womb
down Bradshaw Drive, heard that scream
It was a little death, a rough shove into the special groove
into which you were born

The brave new world that tries to turn its back on Alice’s violent side is simply an unthinking facade:

It won’t make the papers….
Zero tolerance is saved for petty crime
The streets are swept clean every week
The coffee is good
And the view is unbelievable

‘Son of Alice’ elaborates on this theme, with the view of ‘the bastard son of Alice’ as seen by the flatlands of Gillen, a half despairing indigenous, half aspiring white man, trying to sell his ‘white-walled house’, desperate to leave the emptiness of a failed marriage and the lack of identity bestowed by his birthplace.

Gold card in his back pocket
must have worn a hole
clean through to his skin

The last but one poem, ‘Starry Starry Night’, seems to begin bleakly:

On the first night
of losing everything

But this time the view from the window, the stars above Diggers Hill, becomes Vincent Van Gogh’s canvas, a perception of intense beauty that in the end overcomes despair.

drawing for his brother
consumed, for this moment
only by the grace of the stars
urgent in a scratch to ink
his meticulous surrender

The final poem, ‘Surrender’, brings us back to the beginning, and reaffirms the surrender to Nature of ‘Starry Starry Night’. The father who planted the lemon tree is reconciled with his rebellious daughter. When he appears to her as a young man full of apologies,

I had only love, extravagant, pulsing
stripped of any argument
utterly without pain

Father and daughter are united as they were long ago, lying beneath the stars:

His hand so warm around mine
His baritone syllables sounding the names
of constellations
Nothing between us but the sound of crickets
and the earth breathing
When all is said and done
there is nothing so precious
as surrender

Although this is not a verse novel, there is a storyline that encourages the reader to read the poems in sequence. The dark images of the first part of the book are later largely replaced by messages of hope. The poems may not be in chronological order, but they give the impression of an evolution, perhaps more of content than of style. Williams wrenches at the viscera in the early poems, but the affirming, inspiring imagery of the later poems creates a more satisfying and lasting effect on the senses. This is an impressive first collection, and promises even greater achievements to come.

– Julia Wakefield


Julia Wakefield is a reviewer and broadcaster for Radio Adelaide 101.5FM. She has published one small poetry book, A Disastrous Honeymoon, an Epic Poem for Short Attention Spans published by Littlefox Press, 2009. She has had other poems published in Page Seventeen and several Friendly Street anthologies. She is also a member of the Bindii Japanese Poetry Genre group http://haiku-bindii.blogspot.com/

For details on how to obtain The Butcher’s Window visit http://www.picaropress.com/page1/page1.html

Torn papyrus and weathered stone: Mark Roberts reviews ‘N thing is Set in St ne’ by Cecilia White

N THING IS SET IN ST NE by Cecilia White Picaro Press 2012.

The title of this chapbook suggests a weathered stone tablet, or perhaps a headstone. The permanence of the words chiselled into the hard stone having slowly been dissolved away by rain and wind and moss so that now only fragments of the original message can be read. For now the original meaning can still be pieced together, but soon the action of time, on both the stone and the meaning of the carved words, will make understanding the ever more fragmented text more and more problematic. Thus the saying that ‘nothing is set in stone’ is an attack on permanency, similar to Marx’s statement “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”. Even the permanence of words carved into stone can be fleeting.

Reading the first poem in Cecila White’s N thing is Set in St ne, ‘Flight out of Egypt’, I was reminded of Henry James’ famous ‘House of Fiction’ quote in his Preface to The Portrait of a Lady:

The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million

But while James’ house has a million windows, White’s poetry monument is a house built “from the outside”. We have the image of the pyramids, windowless and with secret chambers full of stale air. So rather than the windows of fictions we have the introspection of the poem, internalising:

her tongues convene in dust
splitting air in the pyramids
of your lungs.
and pursue your self
down chambers of dislocation.

Cornered in these chambers we have memory that “cuts like glass” (broken windows?), “a swoon of nightvowels” and  the

grinding desert between lunar apostrophe
and reverie’s question mark.”

Until, at the end of the poem there is the escape, the ‘flight’:

as you swallow light
and tear like papyrus

The ‘darkness’ that opens the poem and the dust and stale air that lingers in the chambers disappear in these last lines. Nothing is set in stone, the papyrus is torn, words are lost – or left behind.

This archaeology continues through the 16 pages and 19 or so poems in the collection. But White’s archaeology is a complex one, embracing the historical, the poetical as well as the personal. In ‘ex libris’, for example, we read of the “archaeology of knowledge” and confront a swirling catalogue. In the end, however, “it is all interpretation theory”.

Or in a seemingly simple poem like “reflection is a studio”  we find image piled on image, so a simple reflection in a mirror becomes a complex portrait. The notion of breath on the mirror, obscuring the image, the “small fogs of vowels”, recalls references in other poems of breathing, the stale interior air of the pyramids in ‘Flight out of Egypt’ or:

                         ….the drawing
Of breath, erasure of exclamation

There is much to enjoy in this richly complex little collection. The individual poems can be demanding but reward a careful reading (& rereading). But the real success of  N thing is Set in St ne is the strength of the collection as a whole. It is a many layered collection, fluid with images which flow both within and between poems and meanings which appear then fade into something else. It is an archaeology where new discoveries are constantly being made and old discoveries are being redefined. Torn papyrus and weathered stone.

– Mark Roberts


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

N thing is Set in St ne  is available directly from Picaro Press. http://www.picaropress.com/

Donate Ad2