Visions and Visitations: Melinda Smith launches ‘A Casual Penance’ by John Foulcher

John Foulcher’s latest collection, A Casual Penance, was launched by Melinda Smith at the Civic Digest Cafe, Civic Theatre Newcastle on 8 April as part of the Newcastle Writers Festival

John Foulcher and Melinda Smith at the launch of A Casual Penance . Photograph Pitt Street Poetry

Thank you all for coming. I’m very honoured to have been asked to launch John Foulcher’s A Casual Penance this evening.

This book probably marks the beginning of a new period in John’s creative production, being his first post-retirement release – although many of the poems were written while he was still working as a teacher. At any rate future Foulcher scholars may look back on it as something of a watershed.

The book is divided into three sections:

  • First, an astonishing sequence of poems on Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘Crachis’ (named for the spattering technique used by the painter to create mists of colour on his lithographs).
  • a central section containing a variety of lyrics, meditations, elegies, a love poem and a nightmare.
  • The final section, a sequence of prose poems ‘The Greater Silence’ , which could be characterised as a spiritual autobiography – a re-telling, a re-appraisal of some formative spiritual moments, from 1958 to the present day. Containing one of the most unsettling wardrobe malfunctions I’ve ever read in a poem.

The three sections are book-ended by two rhyming pieces: a sonnet and a quatrain.

I’ll just talk a little about a few of the book’s themes and read you some tasters.

The Crachis section is outwardly a condensed biography of the painter Toulouse-Lautrec combined with an ekphrastic engagement with many of his well-known lithographs and paintings. Every poem in the sequence is beautiful, with a consistent, spare, tender, tone. From their tight focus on the life and work of one man they open out kaleidoscopically to encompass themes of mortality, disability, art, shame, and love. Most of them are apostrophes, addressing the painter directly. To give you just a taste, here is a little of ‘Portrait of Lucy Jourdan, Aging Coquette, 1899’:

‘ …Her eyes are slits

of eyes, trickling with sight, as she watches
your face beyond the frame, as red as her lips,
your body a starved, knuckled thing. She leans

into the light that rears from below,
as if from a row of footlights. She asks no favours,
no accolades. She is like a curtain coming down.’

Moving on to look over the rest of A Casual Penance, we see John returning to some of his favourite themes:

  • the spiritual / the numinous
  • particularly in The Greater Silences, his relationship to organised religion, and eventually to the Anglican church (which at points in the poems becomes entwined with his relationship with his wife Jane, an Anglican priest )
  • mortality / impermanence.

As John himself has said, the poems written at this time of life can often spring from a look back, a desire to re-assess, to understand fully in retrospect. 20 20 hindsight… ‘a reckoning’ if you will.

At this age too, lots of the fixed lights start to wink out, as captured in ‘The Day David Bowie Died’ (I love the images of disintegration in the poem’s final lines)

and shards of his life were scattered across the screen,
as if there’d been an explosion. On our way to the station,
a busker with a guitar plucked away at China Girl,
caressing its lean melody, coaxing the notes
from the prison of strings. A note, then silence,
then another note, blown about in the blustering wind,
falling on the ground around us like flakes of the finest snow.

There is a distinctly elegiac tone to many of the poems and several are actually elegies. The most devastating of these is ‘Two Farewells for Cameron Allan.’ We also have, from ‘Her brother is dead’, set outside a rural church after a funeral: ‘ The cross should be sharpened, I thought, like a stake. It should go deep into the earth. How else, I thought, could it carry a man?’

There are visions and visitations too, as in ‘Before the Storm’ when the poet’s father, fifty years dead, comes to stand on the other side of the flyscreen door and say his name.

There are other delights in the book as well:

  • Wildlife in the landscape – stark, and brutal but beautiful too, as with the dead baby wombat in ‘a walk’:

……………….the dead baby
that crawled out from under its mother’s trunk,
its skin dark, and as hard as bone,
its mouth burred with flies.
We finish the walk, and don’t talk any more.

Also the magpies’ song, in ‘Magpies and Sleep’, how it

‘sway[s] like a rope dangling from a branch,
sweet and low, tangled in the bark and twigs
laid bare in the great burlesque of winter.
Perhaps one has woken and remembered
something that can’t wait until morning.
Perhaps it’s just a lover’s tiff, or the soft,
unguarded talk after sex. Perhaps
they’re summoning the sun, like shamans,
or making promises they can’t keep.’

  • John’s longtime fascination with light gets a look-in, as in ‘Domestic’, a small marvel of a thing.
  • Not surprisingly many of the poems take us to France where John spent time on an Australia Council residency – not just the Toulouse-Lautrec series but several poems in ‘The Greater Silence’ as well. I think my two absolute favourites among these are ‘City of Bone’ and ‘Snow Falling in Paris, 2011’. From the latter, we have this:

….The snow gnaws at your hand. In another world, it would turn you to ash, it
….would burn you to bone..The snow keeps falling and falling..We press our hands
….to the window, we see the world dimly. We have only the things we have done,
….those we have loved. We see the street lamps blooming

  • Several of the poems are set at Reidsdale, the site of a de-consecrated country church he and his wife Jane are restoring. The unforgettable bat guano poem (‘Clearing out the Bats’) is one of these as are ‘Church for Sale, Reidsdale’, ‘Swallow, Reidsdale’ and ‘Night, Reidsdale’. This is the church described as ‘a barn filled with night’.

I can’t finish up without mentioning that one of the many things that has made me an enduring fan of John’s work is his excellent ear for speech. He knows exactly how to deploy a little snatch of dialogue to perfectly focus the poem, or the line, and to delineate character and add drama with supreme economy. Like this little exchange from the prose poem ‘Mark, Pauline and Me, 1970’:

I slit open the great bag of silence, say There are more stars in the universe than the grains of sand. We are lying on the grass, we are a trinity, on the grass. We are lying under a dark, pointillist sky. Bullshit Mark says there’s no God. 

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the list poem ‘the greater silence’, in which John enumerates several of the rarer kinds of silence:

‘silence that tempts you with a handful of the future
silence that is covered with dirt and stone
silence that has been roped that is thrashing about
silence that is a kind of wind
silence that wakes when the streets die when the lights go out in our rooms
silence that sinks and keeps sinking
silence that dancers ignore’

There’s plenty more where that came from. Grab your copy today.
I am very pleased to be able to declare A Casual Penance officially launched.

 – Melinda Smith


Melinda Smith won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for her fourth book of poems, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (Pitt St Poetry, 2013). Her fifth, Goodbye, Cruel, is out now. She is based in the ACT and is currently poetry editor of The Canberra Times.

For information on how to purchase A Casual Penance contact Pitt Street Poetry at

If you are interested in reviewing A Casual Penance for Rochford Street Review please contact us at

Shining with Sensuality: Anna Kerdijk Nicholson launches ‘Painting Red Orchids’ by Eileen Chong

Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong’s was launched by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson at Gleebooks on 16 April 2016

Eileen ChongEileen Chong’s work—and this new collection, Painting Red Orchids—is lucid, refined and elegant.

Circumstance has allowed me to get to know Eileen Chong as a person, as well as an author. The circumstance—which you will grow to understand as you read through the poems in this work—was a difficult one for her and through it, we have become friends. Some months ago, Eileen said to me gravely: ‘Anna, I really don’t know whether I am a poet.’ In my view, this is preposterous. But I owe it to her and the work to be grave too, and offer her — and you — my formal response.

Eileen Chong’s poetic work suddenly existed in Australian poetry in 2009. Her work was born, it seems, fully formed. As I’ve read through her two previous books again in the lead up to this launch — Burning Rice from 2012 and Peony from 2014, it struck me again that the form of her work was, right from the first, considered, measured and placed. It is a measure of her craft that in these few years, Eileen’s work has been recognised in prestigious poetry prizes and has been sought out and commissioned.

Eileen came upon poetry when studying as a post-graduate at Sydney University. She took a subsidiary course in poetry, run by Judith Beveridge, thinking it would give her respite from academic study. But it was this decision, this side-step, which brought Eileen to her art form; and to one of its great teachers. It was also a fortuitous meeting, as Judy was a well-matched teacher for Eileen: they have a similar sensibility and aesthetic; and Eileen’s poetry has only ever known high-level craft as a result of Judy’s technical tutelage.

I am going to read you the first section of a poem called ‘Magnolia’ as an example of this porcelain crafting.


I rise from my pallet: it is still dark
and the men are asleep, their naked chests
inflating and collapsing like a smith’s bellows.

The moon hangs beneath the clouds: soon
autumn will arrive, winds rippling the fields.
Back in my village, the farmers are preparing

for the harvest. I press together strips of linen,
line it with moss I’d picked from the base of trees.
It is my time, and my secret. Tomorrow we advance

towards the border. The war-carts are loaded,
the horses will be tethered to their burdens.
Here the quivers of arrows wait to be spent.

I carry a skin of water and squat in the grasses.
Now it is safe to loosen my robes. Carefully, I clean myself.
Even in the dark, my hands are sticky with blood.

It’s written in three line stanzas throughout, looks neat and planned on the page, but I find no contrivance when the form is imposed over what is being expressed. Instead, the hard work is being quietly done in the lineation and enjambment. Firstly, at the line endings there is that almost imperceptible pause as the eye passes from the end of the line to the beginning of the next, giving the mind time to catch the meanings in the denseness of the words and images. Little pauses, minute emphases. Then, at the line beginnings, the continuation of the flow or the commencement of the next thoughts being worked out. Traditional poetic imagery is used in the early part of the poem —of the dark, the persona awake as others sleep, the moon and the onset of autumn. The descriptiveness coaxes us into the mood of being quiet among sleeping warriors only to discover the great secret of this poem that this ‘I’, this persona, this person, this warrior and leader of men, is menstruating. A woman hidden beneath robes in a man’s world. Subtly done, un-emphatic, nothing is overstated or overblown.

If I gave you the opportunity to read my scrawly handwriting in my journals, you would find I have copied down many definitions of ‘lyric poetry’. It is as though I collect them. Each definition differs from the others, each is sophisticated and conceptual. I keep collecting them because none really satisfies me. Yet, as I have been reading Painting Red Orchids, I have grasped that I am staring at lyric poetry. I am holding it my hand. There is in all the poems life intensely experienced. The poetry records the world mediated through the senses and the sense of the ‘I’, the person at the core of the experience and the understanding revealed by it. Even, as in ‘Magnolia’, biography and the move to the understanding of life’s patterning, is strong. As a body of work, now across all the three books, there is an autobiographical thread. The personal poems can be read almost like an autobiographical fleuve (akin to a roman fleuve), you gain an understanding of the pattern of the poet’s life.

Xiao Long Bao (Little Dragon Dumplings)

Behind the glass, men and women dressed like surgeons
(masks across their faces, hair tucked under caps)
roll out pastry into circles on a floured bench-top.

Cool hands: they cup the skin of each dumpling
in one palm then spoon a perfectly shaped
dollop of spiced pork into the middle

then deftly, invisibly, stretch the pastry and pinch
the top shut in a series of fan-folds. Sixteen creases
form the crest of each dumpling; eight dumplings

to a bamboo steamer lined with a cabbage leaf.
Circular trays stacked nine tall, straddling a wok
of boiling water, steamed for exactly eleven minutes.

Finely shredded young ginger topped
with black rice vinegar and a dash of soy
form the dipping sauce. I teach you

how to lift each dumpling carefully with chopsticks
into your Chinese spoon, to dress each morsel
with stained ginger, to bite through its skin with the tips

of your front teeth and suck out the hot soup
from the dumpling before placing it into your mouth.
I still remember the look on your face when you ate
your first little dragon dumpling. Sudden understanding.

The exactness of the method of making the dumplings is a nice metaphor for the making of the poem. Again the favoured 3 line stanzas but ending here with the weightier 4 line stanza. That single extra line permits time for the appreciation of the effect of the initiation on ‘the other’ in the poem and for the resonance of the poem to evolve from the lyric personal to the sharing of culture. That resonance is the ‘ah ha’ moment which we hear from an audience at the end of a good poem.

Life being lived so close to the senses, there is occasionally in the poems the awareness of violence. Somehow, the poetic beauty in the work is heightened by gritty, ugly reality: the death of a beloved cat, stones cutting unwary feet, a mother’s endless grief over a miscarriage, the pain of being unable to bear children. In ‘Spirit’, we enter into the family’s home in Singapore —


We are far away in a country
with no name. Footprints

in flour appear out of thin air,
pointed in one direction, come

to partake of the offerings
at the altar. It is said that cats

can see spirits as solid
as living men. In a dream I saw

my grandfather unable to enter
our home, mirror above the door

deflecting his immateriality.
Moths landing on walls

were left alone lest they were
manifestations of his soul.

The canal behind the apartment
carried along all manner of things.

Once I saw a dog fallen
down the steep concrete sides –

dead before or drowned after
I do not know. Bent neck. Broken back.

The narrator of the film Amadeus, the court composer Antonio Salieri, is asked to comment on a work a youthful Mozart has just played to their patron. Salieri’s critique is that the piece has ‘too many notes’. To paraphrase Mozart’s retort in the film, these poems have neither too many words, nor too few. They are composed and shining with sensuality and a latent eroticism.


“White dew covers the front courtyard
and dark descends silently over the chrysanthemums”.
 ………………………………………….– ‘New Moon’, Du Fu
Tonight, a sickle hangs in the sky.
The garden across the street is empty.
No lovers stand under the trees.

Last week, I watched a window
that framed a kitchen. Two young men
were vigorously making pasta: kneading,

rolling, cutting. A girl in a thin dress
ribboned their efforts on a stick.
Just out of sight, steam billowed

from a half-lidded pot. Two buildings away,
a man was removing the top from a woman.
Behind them, a room lit only by the flicker

of a television screen. Her breasts were small,
her stomach soft. He bent her over, slowly,
and buried his face in her sumptuous, pink skirt.

The metal rail is cold under my forearms.
I have finished my cigarette. Across
the street: only shadows and fallen blooms.

There is a telling little epigraph, in Eileen’s poem ‘Seven in the Bamboo’, from Raquel Ormella: ‘I worried I’m not political enough’. I have thought about Eileen choosing this ostensibly self-disparaging quote. In the poem, she traces the kind of day she might have, waking and putting on her clothes and walking to the water’s edge, sitting and facing the water and thinking and watching the clouds and the trees. She says of herself: ‘I don’t think about refugees or dead babies or chemical warfare or Iraq or Israel’. But then she offers these stanzas to conclude the poem —

I worry I live under a rock
even as my mind winds up the wooded paths and streams

of third-century China. I imagine I am packing a frame-
and-cloth bag full of books and two changes of clothes

for a long journey into the mountains. Seven of us meet
in a bamboo grove. Two of us make love in the moonlight

after we are all drunk from pots of rice wine. Someone watches
us, but we don’t care. We forget about society, about politics,

about government. We sow, we grow, we reap. We dream, we read,
we write, we paint. The notes of the zither shiver in the night air.
 ……………………………………..– From ‘Seven in the Bamboo’

I think this conclusion stands in defence of the lyric as she writes it and as a defence of her poetry as a whole. She writes poems which are artefacts. I hope, like the 300 year old bonsai pine she refers to in the poem Orchidaceae Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’, they will survive and live on and she will craft more in the decades to come.

I invite you to take home with you a copy of Painting Red Orchids. I would like you to read the poems in it and determine for yourselves whether Eileen Chong is indeed, really, a poet. I think you know my opinion but I’m sure she would like to hear from others, so write to her and tell her what you think. In my view, this book is another of Eileen’s exquisite pieces of art.

 – Anna Kerdijk Nicholson


Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s book, Possession (5 Islands Press 2010) , won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry and the Wesley Michel Wright Prize and was shortlisted for the NSW and ACT Premier’s Prizes for Poetry. Her latest collection, Everyday Epic, was published by Puncher and Wattmann and was launched by Judith Beveridge

Painting Red Orchids is available from

Making Connections: Mark Roberts Launches ‘Headwaters’ by Anthony Lawrence at the Newcastle Writers Festival

Headwaters by Anthony Lawrence, Pitt Street Poetry 2016, was launched by Mark Roberts at The Press Book House, Hunter Street Newcastle on 2 April as part of the 2016 Newcastle Writers Festival.

lawrence Newcastle

Anthony Lawrence at the launch of Headwaters at the Newcastle Writers Festival. Photograph Julie Manning

It is a great privilege to be here this afternoon to launch Headwaters, Anthony’s 15th (I think) book of poetry, at the 2016 Newcastle Writers Festival. Anthony is one of those poets whose work I have known and respected for decades and whose work has been a great influence on my own work.  His first book, Dreaming in Stone, was published in 1989 and, like an alluvial river flood, each of those previous books has added another layer of richness to Australian poetry and to Australian culture.

Headwaters is no exception – it is a particularly rich and complex layer that is washing over us today. It is, afterall, a book that could  probably launch itself. When I first picked it up it fell open at a poem called ‘The Deep’ which begins:

Crossing the bar from river to open ocean
had become a metaphor we’d devised
for separation, for moving on
so we learned to navigate by intuition
finding ourselves together and alone
beyond sight of land, where distance
and direction are defined by closure…

What need is there of an introduction after lines like these? A simple, beautiful image, the metaphor announced from within the poem easing us into the complexity to come. This is a poem of extremes – The opening image of the bar separating the river from ocean is at the end of the river which has its source in the “headwaters” of the book’s title.  The river and ocean, the land and water and most importantly, light and dark. Here Anthony references the photic and abyssal layers of the oceans – photic where light can penetrate and abyssal where the ocean is so deep no light can reach and which is in perpetual darkness.

Once again what powerful imagery we have here – a free diving couple entering the “fatal levels”. Of course there are many depths to this poem, it is wonderfully descriptive, but we are also told, in the second line, to read it as a metaphor – so we have “signal stations of remorse” and marker bouys “tethered loosely on a line”. To find out just how deep this poem goes you will have to buy the book but, rest assured, you will not be disappointed.

For the past few months I have become fascinated with a word – not a unique experience for a poet I guess, but the word has stuck with me and provided me with a tool to explore some of my favourite poets and poems – that word is ‘lacuna’ and, according to the Oxford Dictionary it means:

“An unfilled space; a gap” or “A missing portion in a book or manuscript” and finally in anatomy “a cavity or depression, especially in bone”

headwatersWhat a wonderful word and what poetic meanings.  This notion of a gap or an unfilled space is an important one for an artist, a gap suggests possibilities, untold stories, connections to be made, a space for the imagination. A good poet can find these gaps and spaces, recognise them when even when they hard to find or even seemingly non existent, but they have to also be able to make the connections and fill those spaces with poetry that makes us stop and wonder at what has been discovered. Fortunately for us Anthony brings this skill to Headwaters and we have the pleasure of watching the gaps and spaces open up and of seeing them filled with poetry.

‘Murmuration’ is one such poem. I read the title and loved the word without really understanding what it meant. I thought of the soft murmur of voices, of a conversation that you can just hear but can’t make out the words, that rises and falls in tones and which you think you may almost understand from the pattern of sounds rather than the hearing of words. But within a few lines I knew I was mostly mistaken:

The first two syllables of the word
that defines the way starlings take a spiral apart
only to fly it back together
………… also the sound of rain
………………………..falling over the Pantheon
or through miles of telegraph poles
on the Monaro Plain

“Murmuration” then is the pattern starlings make as they fly in large groups when they move almost as one. Not for the first time I am driven to research, Anthony has discovered this gap, this space I did not know of until I started reading this poem and now the opening lines have me diving into Current Biology Vol 22 Issue No 4 (and here I quote):

Collections of animals have been given some of the most fanciful, and sometimes unusual, nouns. ……. Tuneful finches are known as a charm, whilst corvids do less well: collections of crows and ravens are known as a murder or an unkindness, respectively. One of the most stunning examples of collective behaviour is the spectacular display of European starlings, the noun for which is a murmuration

By the way I can thoroughly recommend Andrew J. King and David J.Sumpter’s article on Murmuration if you want to really get into Anthony’s poem.

The poem has this mass movement, an aerial ballet if you like, seemingly choreographed yet spontaneous. At the same time, it celebrates the sound of the word that describes this movement, the gentle sound like rain falling over the Pantheon or through wires strung across the  Monaro Plains. So there was some intuitive logic and even meaning to my initial thoughts on the meaning of Murmuration.

– A Starling Murmuration

Anthony has now, however, sent me off in search of Murmurations and I discovered pages and pages of YouTube videos of flocks of starlings forming the most amazing patterns, moving backwards and forwards across the sky. You see he has opened up a space, a gap that I didn’t even know existed and he has filled it with wonderful imagery.

Often the imagery and strength of Anthony’s poems can hide the beauty of the poem’s structure, but it is worth paying some  attention to how the poems in this volume are crafted. Anthony has chosen the structure of individual poems carefully and it is clear, when we look at the poems on the page, that much thought has gone into the way they sit on the page, on the line indents, the white space around the poems and the actual stanza and line breaks. He seems particular fond of tercets, the three line stanzas serve him well both in shorter and longer poems, and there are variations on this structure, with three line indents replacing stanza breaks in poems such as ‘Lies’ and a slightly different structure in ‘Expectation’. There is a another variation in the longer poem ‘Taxonomy’ with every third line broken by a middle justified line, a structure that supports a quite amazing poem very well.

And of course I can’t end without acknowledging the physical beauty of  book as artifact – from its beautiful front cover featuring a stunning wood cut by Julie Manning, to the design and production of the book – the look and feel of the book if you like. We must congratulate the publishers, Pitt Street Poetry, of course,  for bringing together such a fine production. To be a poetry publisher in Australia is a commitment of love, perhaps the 21st century version of Dransfield’s “Ultimate Committment” . It is a love of poetry and a commitment that art, and in particular poetry, has to be an important part of our lives, both individually and as a society. Pitt Street Poetry, and all other publishers that make that commitment, deserve to be supported – without them it would be much, much harder to find work like the extraordinary poems we are launching today.

This is a book that you will want to carry around with you for days. Read it through once and then return to it again and again. The poems will open up, you will find spaces that you didn’t even know existed filled with wonderful imagery and layered meanings – a tonic for this ‘always on’, instant gratification culture which surrounds us today.
So congratulations Anthony and Pitt Street Poetry and I am very happy to declare headwaters launched at the Newcastle Writers Festival on the banks of the Hunter

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his own work has ben published in numerous journals both in Australia and overseas. His latest collection, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February.

Headwaters is availabe from

Headwaters will be launched in Sydney on Saturday 16th April at 3.30 at Gleebooks by David Malouf as part of a double launch with Anna Kerdjik Nicholson launching Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong




A Portrait of the Artist as Place: Joe Dolce Reviews ‘Bluewren Cantos’ by Mark Tredinnick

Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick. Pitt Street Poetry 2013.

Both of our mouths
Can fit upon this flute I carry.

-Hafiz, ‘I Saw Two Birds’

blue wren cantosIn the notes, to Mark Tredinnick’s Bluewren Cantos, he remarks, ‘I’ve rarely written a poem into which a bird did not want to fly and there are equally few into which those dear to me did not want to wander.’

Birds fly into forty-five of the sixty-two poems in this collection of verse and there are twenty-nine personal dedications.

Reading Bluewren Cantos is a most rewarding challenge. Love, sexuality, spirituality and bucolic meditation twist a lovely braid. To seriously open this book is to take a hike in poetic Country with an enthusiastic and observant guide. Unexpectedly, Leonard Cohen, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, JS Bach and Seamus Heaney trek along beside you. The result is a good and colourful picnic, in true Hafiz style.

In one of the shorter poems, dedicated to his daughter, ‘Lucy and the Maple Leaf’, we get a glimpse of the creative bond and love of words between father and child:

…………………………………….It is late
Autumn, a Saturday, and the maple by the house

Has begun to drop its fiery leaves like hints (hot
Tips) at winter’s feet. She holds one out for me: a paw
Print in a child’s hand, a slightly death that stole a small girl’s heart.

Make it a poem, she says. But I take the leaf and draw instead
A shape for memory to fill, some lines for love to learn…

The music in the above poem is reminiscent of the sensibility in Elizabeth’s Bishop’s, ‘Sestina’. There is a lot of music in Bluewren Cantos. After all, birds have been known to sing. (I think they were the first.)

The term canto itself, while a measure of division in a long poem, can also refer to the highest part in choral music, the canto firmo, the melody line forming the basic of polyphonic music.

A quiet flutter of Emily Dickinson also floats through Tredinnick’s forest of a book. From her opening introductory epigraph: ‘I am…small like the Wren’, the tone of mindfulness is set for the journey. But the Emily that inspires these poems is much different that the one that Billy Collins poetically undresses in his poem, ‘Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes’:

The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Mr. Collins clearly has some untoward zoological intentions for our little wren. But in Bluewren Cantos, she alights on a different branch:

…that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself –

also whispering, into ‘The Thing With Feathers’, Hope:

…so that I mighty sit here in a frayed linen shirt and weathered
Jeans a foot above the tide and wonder how I’m meant to live…

In the massive 297 lines, and 18 sections of ‘The Wombat Vedas’, which won the Newcastle Poetry Prize, in 2011, a simple key to unlocking the poem lay in these brief confessional lines:

We fought, you and I, when I left. And I drove down here as if all the way back
Into some old autistic childhood. But now, my bags unpacked,
…………………………the fire burning, and a three-quarter moon
Edging out of the dark hills behind, loneliness grows slender and stretches out beside me,
……………..and the night is a sackful of stars.

His bags are unpacked, his loneliness has grown slender and for the next few hours we stretch out beside Tredinnick as he surrenders to the common praeternatural available to us all.

Many of the longer poems, in Bluewren Cantos, are pastoral mediations. They flow together like parts of one infinite extended work in which verses could well be interchangeable.

George Seferis once wrote about the poetry of CP Cavafy:

“…the work of Cavafy should be read and judged not as a series of separate poems, but as one and the same poem…. and we shall understand him more easily if we read him with the feeling of the continuous presence of his work as a whole.” (On the Greek Style)

One emerges from a sustained reading of Tredinnick’s Cantos with this continuous presence of his work as a whole.

In the epigraph to the Bluewren Cantos title poem, he quotes Jack Gilbert’s ‘Trying to Write Poetry’:

There is a wren sitting in the branches
Of my spirit, and it chooses not to sing.
It is listening to learn its song.

Has Emily’s little bird also flown into Gilbert’s tree? Tredinnick says later:

I learn slowly, but the birds teach me distance and delight,
The knack of being here and elsewhere at once. The more I dwell, the less I know for sure;
I live in a state of habitual confusion, like Berger, a man who’s lived in love
A long time now. In art, as in love and weather, one’s mind is (in) one’s body again.
One is, for a time, a place. Painted by bluewrens.

One is, for a time, a place. This line, for me, is the heart of Bluewren Cantos. And Tredinnick’s unique poetic vision.

JS Bach, my favorite composer, fugues along in the background in four poems, ‘Wombat Vedas’, ‘A Day at the Desk’, ‘Thing With Feathers’ – and in ‘Partita’:

…………………….Bach, you say, turned music
………………….into speech. He taught heaven how to walk, the gods
How to talk, on earth.

I’ve always viewed Bach as the fifth New Testament prophet – only arriving a millennium later. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – and Johann Sebastian. Not simply Christian, but a mystic of the highest order. How else to understand a devout Lutheran who also created a choral masterpiece for the Catholic Church (the B-Minor Mass) that was so flawed in liturgical structure (but O so magnificent in Spirit) that it was utter heresy for any Roman Catholic clergy to even consider presenting it in its time. Hence why it was never heard until one hundred years after Bach’s death.

Mark Tredinnick

Mark Tredinnick

Bach lifted the Word to a place beyond Words. Even beyond Prayer. Christian scripture might arguably one day become as much top-shelf myth as befell the fate of the Greek and Roman gospels but the musical Testament of JS Bach will continue to remain vital and alive for as long as human birds sing.

And Bach, as mystic, is completely comfortable in Tredinnick’s country beside his other mystical poet Friend, Rumi.

So why did Mark Tredinnick title this particular collection of poetry Bluewren Cantos? As he says, ‘You don’t find the birds, they find you.’

Let’s step into the Grand Aviary of Poetry for a brief moment.

The Bird has replaced The Rose, star of ye olde Romantic times, as the most accessible metaphor in modern poetry. Charles Bukowski had a sensitive ‘Bluebird’ that he kept hidden away during the day. The bird wanted to get out but Charlie poured whisky on its head and blew cigarette smoke into its beak. He only opened the cage door when people were asleep because, as he admonished it, ‘You want to screw up the works? You want to blow my book sales in Europe?’

The bluebirds in Bluewren Cantos don’t drink or blow smoke rings and they don’t shuffle on perches. If they can be said to be metaphors, they are free-range metaphors. They soar, swoop and hunt – and sometimes simply sit still and ignore image-hungry poets until the poets tire and go home.

Fowl have been flying in poetry for a very long time. In classic Chinese, you find: Screech owls moan in the yellowing Mulberry trees, and A single wild goose climbs into the void, in the work of Tu Fu. A crowing cock wakes me like a blow, in Lu Yu, and the oriole is not to blame for the broken dream of a Bygone Spring, in Chu Shu Chen.

Wallace Stevens wrote about the (lucky) thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. And the blinding dazzle of his gold-feathered bird, singing in the palm at the end of the mind whose …fire-fangled feathers dangle down, seems a natural soulmate for Tredinnick’s lightning-strike kingfisher:

‘Catching Fire; or, The Art of Sitting’

……………………..for Judith Beveridge

………………………….As kingfishers catch fire,
…………………………  .dragonflies draw flame.
……………………………………….– Gerard Manley Hopkins


Mid-afternoon, I look up from my desk to see
A kingfisher alight in the water poplar.

For ten blue minutes she sits wrapped in
Her sacerdotal self, murder on her mind,

And I watch her steal her own silent show, doing
Nothing, immaculately, among the silver leaves.

Until, as if my eyes had pinned her, the instant
They drop, she flies: the stillest bird

In Christendom reaches escape velocity faster
Than I can find a pen. And I’d like to learn

To sit so still and to disappear so well, my body
Become a famished thought, my mind become a world.

I think Tredinnick’s understanding of stillness, and its relationship to action, is the focused and coiled spring of a Shaolin White Crane master.

WB Yeats imagined not a natural bird, but one of ‘hammered gold and gold enameling… to sing to the lords and ladies of Byzantium’. I wonder if Yeats’ wind-up bird also was intended sing for the poor and disenfranchised, who probably weren’t allowed anywhere near Byzantium? (Except, that is, via the back street dens of Coleridge’s laudanum-laced pleasure domes.)

Robert Adamson, the most bird-watching poet in Australia, in his book, The Golden Bird, clearly nods his beak to Yeats’ but pessimistically, in the way he writes about the poet in the title poem:

……………When his heart
stopped, did he believe
it would transcend him:
gold-foil wings hovering
over the void…

Now as far as I can figure, Yeats’ budgie was fashioned of ‘hammered gold and gold enameling’, not ‘gold-foil wings’. More significantly, it certainly did transcend him, or else we wouldn’t be talking about it now.

Will Adamson’s own metaphoric fowls follow Icarus’s fate down or continue to enchant in two hundred years? (i.e. if a mechanical bird perches in a tree and there is no one there to wind it, does it still sing?)

Photograph - Southerly 23/8/2013.  Speaking of love - Blog post by  Mark Tredinnick  (

Photograph – Southerly 23/8/2013. Speaking of love – Blog post by Mark Tredinnick (

Xenophanes originated the word anthropomorphism to describe the perception of a divine being in human form. Anthropomorphism is present in all religious teaching and mythology.

But one of the inherent dangers of over-projecting human characteristics or psychological states into birds and other animals – known as abstract anthropomorphism – is its reverse state – dehumanization – the tendency in times of extreme crisis or desperation to view humans as nonhuman objects or animals. What that renowned ornithologist, Jung, might have called the Shadow-wren.

I remember once pulling a cuddly doe-eyed possum by its tail from the eave of a bush house and watch it transform from a cute Disney child’s toy into the Bride of Chucky in five seconds, whipping around and carving four long gashes in my forearm. And it pissed on me as well. I think the same possum must have visited Tredinnick, in ‘Tough Love: a Deconstructed Sonnet’:

It’s so much easier to show kindness, I find, to a possum
Around lunchtime the next day. . .
It’s so much easier then than it was at three am when the possum pulled,
For the fourteenth time – like a lover exchanged and all the locks changed –
At the wire you’d nailed over the only way into the home it had mistaken,

These past five months, for its own: your ceiling.

Deities can also be persistent territorial predators, and even Muses get horny and peckish.

‘Rainforest Bird; or, on Looking Over Someone’s Shoulder at the Photograph of a Hindu Carving in an Inflight Magazine’

Love is an abject goddess.
……………………..She’s a sculpture of beatific hunger,
All one’s wanting petrified, quickened by chisel, and left out to think about it
In the rain. Love is a wretched beauty, and her round breasts trine
……………………..her second mouth, and moss grows
Between her fingers. Her demeanour is serene, but soon
Her proverbial arms are all over you,
………………and her green tongue flashes
Like a rainforest bird across your breast, again and again and again.

Surfacing in some of Mark Tredinnick’s work is a tendency toward what a close friend of mine, an English teacher from McGill University, once admonished me for doing myself – always looking for an Absolute. A definitive experience from which one might, finally, be able to say: That’s it. Full stop.

Harvesting absolutes is a signature of the endearment of Tredinnick’s style but also tends to be somewhat predictable at times.

In the brilliant and well-deserved Montreal International Poetry Prize 2011 winning poem, ‘Walking Underwater’, he writes:

…moss deckles the edges of the oaks and firs,
Which hold out stoically inside the sweetest excuse for day-
Light I’ve ever seen.

In the Bluewren Cantos, he kingfishes the Absolute in ‘A Day At Your Desk All Along the Shoalhaven’:

…And you knew you’d never spend
A better day alive again on Earth.

‘Sulphur-crested Sonnet’:

The white bird high in the crown of the elm is a better idea
Than any you’ve had all day…

and ‘Half Moon in Late September’:

…there’s a half moon like half
An answer, as much of the truth as anyone can hope to catch.

I am reminded of the adage: do not question too much the Meaning of life; but Live one’s life so that it has meaning.

Thankfully, these poems do both. They are continually asking: what am I here for? But in the asking, they answer the question: the creating of the beautiful verse that is the core part of the kind of Living that gives his life meaning. Bluewren Cantos is a sparkling journal of ecdysis for Tredinnick – and anyone else who wants it.

It is possible to imagine
Love that ends as beautifully as it began.

– Mark Tredinnick, ‘It is Possible to Imagine.’

Tredinnick often summons the Beloved – an intoxicating image I first discovered in the poems of St John of the Cross:

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved.

Christ was the Beloved of St John’s poems, the true source of his Bride’s longing.

Martin Luther King Jr spoke of peace on earth as ‘the Beloved Community’.

Rumi said:

The real Beloved is your Beginning and your End.
When you find that One,
you’ll no longer expect anything else.

Early Persians believed that poetry was a subtler vehicle than prose for approaching the ineffable mystery that was beyond words. The Orientalist scholar, Dr. W.M. Thackston, noted that Sufi poet, Hafiz, ‘sang a rare blend of human and mystic love so balanced that it was impossible to separate one from the other.’ (Hafiz also, unfortunately, in contemporary usage, means ‘memoriser’ – someone who knows the Koran by heart – something he was apparently able to do.)

There was another practical purpose in the Middle Ages for veiling God with the cloth of Beloved, Lover or Friend. It made it difficult to censor poetry for unusual mystical ideas that often fell outside of the traditional constricts of Islamic Canon.

In ‘Hell and Back (Again)’, Tredinnick introduces another brief confessional key to unlock the invigoration in ordinary miracles:

After a weekend low, under which I wandered, hardly able
To decide where, I made a poem, as if it were a decision
That made me.
……..And now, of course, the weather has turned
Out for the best, and love is a garden in the city, fashioning
Flowers out of light.
……..I am the fish in the Beloved’s stream again.

Returning to the mundane, however, can often take its toll. In ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, while lost in the contemplation of the flight of one flock, he almost annihilates another:

………………………………..They pray
By spreading their wings and falling into
Their lives. Each flight a book of common

Prayer. And at dusk I got another chance
To try my hand at grace. Driving, it must be said,
A little too fast, thinking a little too hard,

I almost took out a family of ducks, crossing
The road from the suburbs to the swamp,
One parent ahead and one parent after,

Six little ones strung in dactyls between. And
Even song would not have saved them, had my foot
Not pedalled then such a sudden and purposive prayer.

Insightful, very funny – and a memorable parable.

In his notes at the end of the Bluewren Cantos, he offers the complete lovely Emily Dickinson quote, a fragment of which first opened the book:

Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote to Emily Dickinson in 1892 asking for a picture. She replied, ‘ Could you believe me without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves. Would this do just as well?’

If we were to ask for a portrait of Mark Tredinnick from Bluewren Cantos, one that we too could believe, perhaps we could say ‘vast like the Beloved, with eyes, like moonlight left on the water, after a low flight, singing up poetic Country.’

Would this do just as well?

-Joe Dolce


Joe Dolce was born in Painesville, Ohio, USA in 1947 and moved to Australia, 1979. His poetry has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2014, was shortlisted for both the Newcastle Poetry Prize 2014 and the Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize 2014 and he won the 25th Launceston Poetry Cup. He has poetry, essays, song-lyrics and photographs have been published in Monthly, Southerly, Canberra Times, PEN MELBOURNE, Quadrant, Australian Love Poems, Meanjin, Etchings, Overland, Cordite, Little Raven, Contrappasso, Voltage (US), Not Shut Up (UK), Tupelo Quarterly (US) and Antipodes (US).

Flowing Lines and Hypnotic Melodies: Jean Kent launches Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick at the Newcastle Writers Fesrtival 2014

Bluewren Cantos is available from


The Art of Regional Living: Christopher Pollnitz launches ‘The Hour of Silvered Mullet’ by Jean Kent

The Hour of Silvered Mullet by Jean Kent, Pitt Street Poetry, 2015, was launched by Christopher Pollnitz at at Cardiff Library on 11 April 2015.

Kent silverJean and I go back some way, to when the Newcastle Poetry Prize was the Mattara Poetry Prize, and I was coordinating it for the first time. Over the decades we’ve never had a cross word, though on her part there have been kind, perceptive, discriminating words.  They’ve been the words of a friend and a very fine poet, whose latest collection of poems—the seventh, counting selections—it’s my pleasure to launch today.  Once I might have plumed myself with having ‘discovered’ Jean, but it’s not true.  I can claim to having been the first to publish the poems of the South Australian poet novelist, Peter Goldsworthy, but I wasn’t the first to publish one of Jean’s.  And there is a larger truth to tell.  Editors and reviewers don’t ‘discover’ poets.  Good poets discover themselves.  Good poets who have long, productive careers—poets like Jean—go on discovering new and larger selves from the multitude of their influences and experiences and memories, and from the stories they hear of others.

I could list you Jean’s awards and prizes and residencies to prove how many editors and judges share my high estimate of her work.  But what’s come to me reading The Hour of Silvered Mullet is that Jean’s reputation is now being established on how she puts together, not just shyly brilliant poems or poem sequences, but whole volumes.  In The Hour any one poem is played off against others in the collection, and each section of the book is in dialogue with the other sections.  I should like to discuss how her new volume, which puts together poems written over twenty years, returns to the themes of childhood and rural Queensland announced in Verandahs (1990), but makes these themes new; to discuss how The Hour doesn’t deal so much in the international perspectives of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks (2013), but still builds on them; and to discuss how The Hour is taking up and moving forward from both these volumes.  I should like to point out what gifts The Hour, and Jean and Kit Kelen’s regional anthology A Slow Combusting Hymn (2014), are to primary and secondary teachers in the Hunter Valley, who can now show local student readers and writers, look, this is how you write about the places that you know.  I should like to discuss The Hour as a book about education in the formal and informal sense—the “university of life” an earlier generation graduated from—about how fashions in and attitudes to education can change without damaging students forever, but how they can damage and inhibit too, and finally how some unlucky children are so abused and damaged as to be beyond education.  (For me ‘Chook-shed Child’ is the most powerful poem in the book.)  But instead I’ll do as I’ve been asked.  I’ll focus on how Jean has constructed this collection of twenty years, this book of The Hour that we’re launching this afternoon.

The volume’s first poem, ‘The Scent of Native Frangipani’, is a characteristic Jean Kent poem.  It’s about a living thing, a rain-forest tree or garden tree that happens to evoke a significant memory.  As the speaker walks through her garden, at evening after a day’s writing, a flower scent leads her in memory down the path of her mother’s garden, past her breathless father, to ‘a place where she [the mother] promised we’d be / “nearer God’s heart / than anywhere else on earth”’.  The place from the past might be Toowoomba or a smaller town further inland in Queensland.  The call of currawongs—in the last poem in the book that call is given words, ‘Come home now! Come home now!’—summons Venus or the Evening Star into the sky.  With the star comes the sense of a ‘shy . . . blessing’ that the scent and the memory have brought home.  And to me the pretty flowers of native frangipani seem to glow with new light.  The poem is one in which Jean is working out of her epiphanic method, using something familiar, common-or-garden, to fuel a trip into deeps of memory and feeling.

Jean’s epiphanic poems are too shy to trumpet what their matter is; but their matter is life and death, not just hints and intimations.  In a companion poem, ‘Under the Native Frangipani’, we learn that what has left the father breathless isn’t an allergic reaction to native frangipani; on the contrary, the tree was his favourite ‘bivouac’ in the Queensland garden, even when the bees whirred through it ‘like warplanes’.  What robbed the father of his athletic youth was war service in New Guinea, and the tuberculosis that came after it.  The father’s story is one his daughter has had to learn through old family letters.  The father’s stoicism wouldn’t allow him to speak of his suffering in life, but being nearer ‘God’s heart’ and being posted further from hospitals hasn’t necessarily been a blessing to him.  The second-last poem in the volume, ‘Native Jasmine for Jennifer’, is an elegy for a friend, but the title looks back to ‘The Scent of Native Frangipani’.  The Jenni whose elegy this is had a sassy taste for the fashions of the day, the 70s, and for whatever seemed chic, English or European then—Mary Quant, black mascara and pearl-pink nails to dip into the gold Benson & Hedges packet.  Sniffing native jasmine Jenni would always want to smell the exotic – lily of the valley.  It was Jenni’s wreaths of cigarette smoke rather than her penchant for oh-so-French lily of the valley that turned native jasmine, that ‘tough native creeper’, into Jenni’s ‘lilies of the valé’.  Jean’s epiphanies don’t cast haloes over everybody or over everything; but they show us possibilities of finding home where we actually live, and die, as against where we fancy living.  Jean’s home, Lake Macquarie, is her muse for much of The Hour of Silvered Mullet.

Lake Macquarie is not simply there as a setting in Jean’s poetry; the Lake figures for how it matters to those who live around it, for how fully they respond to and re-imagine it.  My favourite poem in the book is an all-but-dream monologue in the voice of a Lake-dweller, a teenager who identifies with my favourite bird.  ‘Morag and the Tawny Frogmouths’ would be a poem to take into a creative writing class, be it a primary, secondary or university class.  Morag, ‘Before she goes to sleep at night . . . likes to fly’; perhaps she does some flying as she goes to sleep.  Whichever, her flight is a frogmouth-eyed night reconnaissance of the Lake Macquarie region, from Wollombi to the Swansea Channel:

A full moon is rising, yellow as a frogmouth’s eye,
over Swansea Channel.  In the widening sky
Morag is wisped by memory vapours—
an Airbus to Europe, the whine and shatter of a Hawk jet
from Williamtown, the big-bellied grumble of a Catalina,

taking off from Rathmines.  The lake laps,
smooth as oil over its past, and all those morse-code flashes
turn into the hurricane lamps of campers,
down at the point at Wangi Wangi,
place of many owls . . .

Morag’s parents honeymooned here, eons ago.
And her grandparents are still just an owl-swoop
over the gold-shingled water tonight.  (22-3)

Much more than a cartographic survey, or a reference to Les Murray’s ‘The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song-Cycle’, is going on here.  Morag’s night flight is a self-delighting discovery of herself in the local and family history of the Lake region.  As she flies, she gathers into herself knowledge of her place, its people’s livelihoods and aims, their dreams and fears.  If Morag’s people do not speak to her in their dreams, still the model being adapted is Dylan Thomas’s great radio play, Under Milk Wood (1954).  In Jean’s poem there is no Welsh eccentric like Mr. Waldo, the barber and herbalist who can cure everything on two legs or on four in Llareggub; instead, there are two Vietnamese dentists, living on one of the Lake’s bays in a flimsy weatherboard that doubles as their surgery.  When their drills start up, the walls of the surgery quake, much as the cabin of the refugee boat did when they were fleeing Vietnam.  Jean’s rendering Thomas’s play into Australian circumstances, Australian social history and Australian vernacular completely transforms it.

Jean Kent

Jean Kent

In Thomas’s classic poems, like ‘Fern Hill’, everything from the farm of childhood is enhaloed in epiphanic light; in Under Milk Wood everybody from the seaport of Llareggub is soused with maritime bawdy and slap-happy domestic farce.  By contrast, in a Jean Kent poem, even when it aspires to a revelation of ordinary grace—‘Smudged Grace’ as Jean calls it in one of her defining poems—the focus of the poem doesn’t release us from ‘the nightmare of history’.  Jean’s epiphanies are more grounded than Dylan Thomas’s.  Morag, as she comes in for landing, hears ‘the tangled ghost whispers of Lithuanian and Polish / floating up from the abandoned migrant camp— / from a garage near the aluminium smelter—her friends / trying to be the next “silverchair”’ (25).  There’s no disputing the Baltic and Slavic states’ contribution to the nightmare of history during and after World War II.  Migrants couldn’t shake the nightmare off, a psychological bruise that runs deep in many families.  If it sounds snobby or precious of me to list Silverchair among these very real nightmares, let me declare with regional pride: my daughters played in the same band as Silverchair, that’s to say The Junction Public School band.  To my way of thinking, even a cover or copycat band, striking out along the same line to find their own sound, is a marker worth including in a poem that maps regional values and nuances.

Jean’s poems about life in small towns or satellite regions mostly look to the positives or compensations of such a life-choice, but she doesn’t underestimate the disadvantage of living outside a state capital.  She makes a telling aphorism, in “Old Haunts,” out of the economic risk of life on the provincial margins:

All the little towns of childhood are off the highway now.
Like pockets we have turned out of ourselves
they lie, forgotten . . .  (18)

In the narrative sequence ‘A Broken Engagement’ she makes satire of the oppressive small-mindedness that can smother young hope in a small Hunter Valley town, ‘wombat town’ Gayleen calls it.  When Gavin and Gayleen call their engagement off—at age 22 Gayleen is left on the shelf in Wombat Town—the gossip is so often aired it’s stale in a day: ‘it sounded like just another title / at Video Ezy; just another lost statistic at Centrelink’ (42).  Out of her hairdresser’s apprenticeship now, Gayleen is looking for talismans on which she can hang an identity, touchstones which will assure her she has an inner life.  But none of it surfaced during her week with Gavin in Surfers, and in Wombat Town inner life is not required: so ‘I go to the Travel Bureau in my lunch breaks / I collect London, Paris, America, Antarctica . . .’  There is something loveable about Gayleen’s self-deprecating image of herself at the close of the sequence—the ‘one wombat [in town] with wings’.  We wish her well in her escape; but Gayleen has, we fear, collected too few positives, too many negatives and no epiphanies from her small town.  She might be just as disillusioned by the world’s great metropolises.

The last poem in the volume is the title poem, ‘The Hour of Silvered Mullet’.  It offers a conspectus of a Lake town that is neither too rosy nor too starkly satirical.  Will the boy on the clacking skateboard, hurtling down the bitumen towards the evening-silvered Lake, grow into a Volvo driver defined by what he can accumulate in his garage, ‘car, mower, chain saw . . . raft of tools’ and the ‘skeletally wonderful / unfinished yacht’?  Or will the Lake catch him with its ‘light-hook flashing’ waters?  Along a quieter evening path there is another child, a visionary child, ‘rocking in the aqua boats of her mother’s shoes’.  Her dinghy-like gait promises a different passage through time, one that will strike balances with rocking lake-water.  A malign figure cruises these streets, a real estate agent for whom all values are property values and a catch is a good rental purchase: will he be the Fisher King to rule over the Lake town’s desolate future?  Perhaps not.  The narrator of this little film of Lake life prefers to point her photo-sensitive camera at the girls coming out of the local hall where they’ve been dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  It hasn’t been a formal ballet lesson but a Free Expression dance lesson—hmm—but the girls have enjoyed it so much their joy seems to communicate itself to the corellas and the angophoras rising above them.

As a concluding poem ‘The Hour of Silvered Mullet’ draws together many of the threads of the volume.  The balancing act Jean manages so well that she makes it seem easy is admitting, yes, on the one hand there are dead ends which many of us have driven into, and continue to live in, in our suburbs and satellite towns; but yes, on the other hand there is grace abounding or grace enough, and beauty too, if you know how to sniff it out, how to listen and look.  Jean’s ear and eye and her work are free of what I’ll call the Leo Schofield syndrome, the demand that others—the young in particular—have to appreciate what I appreciate because I am the arbiter of high-brow taste and artistic values—and if you dare to disagree, you are a mediocrity and a Bogan.  I commend The Hour of Silvered Mullet to you, not only because I’ve learnt a lot from it, but because there’s a lot of tolerant fun in its dance of ideas and images, sounds and scents.

– Christopher Pollnitz


Christopher Pollnitz is a conjoint lecturer at the University of Newcastle who has edited D. H. Lawrence’s Poems for the Cambridge University Press series of Lawrence’s Works, and is currently working on Volume III of the Poems, Lawrence’s early versions and uncollected poems. He has written articles and reviews of Australian poets including Les Murray and Peter Porter, John Scott, John Tranter and Alan Wearne; Hunter Valley poets he has written on include Norman Talbot, Kim Cheng Boey, Judy Johnson and Jean Kent.

The Hour of Silvered Mullet is available from


Flowing Lines and Hypnotic Melodies: Jean Kent launches ‘Bluewren Cantos’ by Mark Tredinnick

Jean Kent launched Mark Tredinnick’s Bluewren Cantos at the Newcastle Writers Festival on April 6th, 2014

blue wren cantosWhen Mark asked me to launch this new book, Bluewren Cantos, I took a very deep breath before I said ‘yes’. I had already been reading the book, so I knew it was an exceptional collection of poetry. I believe it is a book that will be written about with great excitement by critics and readers for a very long time, so whatever I say today to launch it will be just a brief wren-like twittering, compared with the chorus of praise with which it will undoubtedly be received as it goes out into the world.

Bluewren Cantos is not just ‘a book of poetry’ – although it is a very beautiful book, not only because of its contents, but also because it has been so elegantly produced by Pitt Street Poetry, with John and Linsay’s trademark care and thoughtfulness – no, what’s struck me again and again as I’ve been reading is that this is a ‘life of poetry’.

The stuff of poetry – words, visions, phrases, observations that stick in the mind or startle other thoughts, memories, associations, quotes from other poets … all these small starters for poems are what every living moment here feels suffused with.

In ‘The Wombat Vedas’, Mark writes

…………………………………….…….These lines are the roads I take into the world –
out and back into the Self – a shuffle
………………..performed with a pencil and a voice and their truth is how
They go, not where they start.

In fact, there is a feeling for me that the lines could start anywhere – in any moment, with any chance observation – so that longing and love, and meditations on the endless riffs on these within a multi-layered life, must lead, inevitably, to poetry.

Like the singing of birds, it all feels artlessly beautiful, but only because of the exceptional art, which keeps the music of what’s being said mesmerizing. Behind the flowing lines and hypnotic melodies, there is as much control of the rhythm and counterpoint and harmony as there is in any of the compositions by Bach or Mozart or Debussy, composers who compete with all the real birds in Mark’s Wingecarribie landscape.

Even before he began publishing poetry, Mark was renowned as a nature writer. His sensitivity to place and his ability to celebrate the Australian landscape are special joys in all his poems. The places are often so wonderfully recognizable – the Sculpture Garden at the NGA in Canberra, Margaret River in WA, the Southern Highlands: I know these places, and I love the way they lift off the pages of Mark’s book in as if they deserve to be treasured

There is also a deep spiritual possibility in this, as the poem ‘On Hammock Hill’ shows:

This is my devotion, then, to walk sometimes
…………………….with the dog through the schlerophyll

Cathedral of morning.

Often, Mark’s poems begin with nature – but invariably the solitary presence of the poet reaches out to another person – often a loved person – or, in an intimate connection, to the reader.

This is poetry like tightrope walking – a nonchalant, though thoughtful, ambling out into the world, which almost leads us into a transcendental state – only to be caught in a web of emotion and thought and connections to the daily reality of living.

I think this is beautifully illustrated by ‘Fight or Flight’, a poem about a butterfly flying into a spider’s web.

….Webs like soft targets stretch across
Every flight path and passage – traps
….So exquisitely laid you almost wish
You were small enough to spring them,
….For the terminal pleasure of being

So elegantly caught.

This could just as easily be a description of reading a Mark Tredinnick poem. So many ‘exquisitely laid’ webs, so much pleasure in being ‘elegantly caught’.

If all this sounds very serious, it is. But Mark’s poems are also full of contrarily playful paradoxes and wry humour. His tone may be debonair, well-dressed and conscious of manners and historical allegiances, but for all the hypnotic oratory, his voice is both questing and self-deprecating, and the earth he walks over is emphatically today’s.

This is a world of therapy and co-dependency and anxieties about what is happening to our planet – just to mention a very few current or topical concerns.

It is also a world of travel and work – and very notably and memorably – of family, of parents (as remembered from childhood, or ageing now) and children (those blessed ‘thieves of our time / love’s worst scoundrels’, taking the best and worst of us.

There are so many arresting images and lines in Mark’s poems, it is tempting to quote and quote … although where would I stop in any one poem? There is such a flow of words; one memorable moment just leads on to another.

Here is one, a description of ‘Sandhill Cranes’:

………………………………………………………..They carry their legs
Behind them like music stands they never learned
To fold, and they slash a loose graffiti
…………………………………………on the cloudbank as they come.

The book is called Bluewren Cantos, and there are so many beautiful poems about birds. For that alone, it would be a treasure.

When I first started reading Mark’s book, in a very hot January when cicadas were the most deafening choirs all around our house, the dollar birds who visit us each summer were also in residence.

I saw one at twilight on the same day I read Mark’s dollar bird poem, and it was one of those electric shock moments that can come when poetry connects absolutely with life.

This is the poem:
The Currency of Turquoise (P 87)

“What is the worth of the world?”
……………..Tim Lilburn ‘The Return to the Garden’

“I caught this morning morning’s minion …”
……………..Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Windhover’

What is the world worth these days, do you suppose?
A dollarbird at a distance looks like nothing much at all:
A myna at Vipassana on the gatepost. But in flight later
He’s a peregrine falcon. The way of poetry never looked
So sleek: loneliness never travelled so fast. Wings raked
Back, her heart stenciled cheaply on both her sleeves,
Her colours running from scarlet tip to lapis tail, she free-
Falls in turquoise to the treeline, then pulls back hard
On the joystick, her bill slick with insect, and glides away,
As if the whole world were nothing more than a reject
Shop on a Saturday afternoon. But the world, in truth,
Is ten thousand expensive things heaven forgot to say.
And the dollarbird, at her semi-precious plunge, spruiks
Two of them for the price of one, and flies away for free.

Congratulations Mark! Apart from the excellence of the writing, what we have here is a BIG book, in a multitude of meanings of that word. It is an awe-inspiringly generous collection of poetry, abundant with language and vision and experience. I’m honoured to be launching it, and I wish it great success and the very many appreciative readers it deserves. May they be as enriched by reading it as I have been.

– Jean Kent


Bluewren Cantos is available from

Jean Kent has published four collections of poetry. Her most recent is Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks (Pitt Street Poetry, 2012).

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Clever and Surprising: Sherryl Clark reviews ‘Chains of Snow’ by Jakob Ziguras

Chains of Snow by Jakob Ziguras (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013)

chains of snowOften a reader comes to a first collection of poetry with certain expectations – that of a poet finding his or her voice, a varied range of topics and levels of craft, a moderate publication record. The first things that greet you in Chains of Snow are recommendations from three eminent poets, and then a list of acknowledgements which includes significant shortlistings and prizes. All of these serve to warn you not to take this collection lightly.

It quickly becomes evident that Jakob Ziguras is not afraid of forms or rhyme, and this also intrigued me. Many first collections are primarily free verse – here we begin with a number of rhyming poems, all of which relate to ancient history in some way: Akhenaten, Plato, Orpheus, Aristotle and the like. The rhymes are clever and surprising – edge/aslant/sortilege/ignorant – and unlikely to put any reader to sleep. If that doesn’t keep you on your toes, free verse poems are dropped in here and there, so that just when you turn the page expecting another form poem, there is a free verse poem to “lighten the load”.

That is not to say that the rhyming poems are too heavy. Often they are 12 or 14 lines, and Ziguras’s language is rich and varied, offering great depth in that small space, as in ‘Reading Nelly Sachs’:

Meanings, like sleepers who have spent the night
Beneath infested sheets, are torn, too soon,
From the milky comfort of the moon
Into the iron light.

In ‘Spring’, about returning soldiers in a welcoming cavalcade, the stanzas are three lines (it’s a terza rima) and, again, the imagery is rich:

… tireless wheels crush beauty’s gaudy trash.
They went believing in the hollowed pap
Fed them by old men hoarding tarnished cash.

Throughout the whole collection, many images captured my imagination, standing out from the poems like beams of light: a honeyed afternoon, rags of laughter, trees are but cracks appearing in the blue eggshell ceramic. I imagine other readers would find their own favourites.

Perhaps I’m an impatient reader these days though – the much longer rhyming poems sometimes lost me, as if their subject slowly became smothered by the layers of words. Is it harder to write a long poem these days and keep it coherent and moving forward for an average reader? I’d hate to think Ziguras was writing only for academics! There is too much to savour here.

I admit I found that the free verse poems were more pleasurable to read, for several reasons. One was that it seemed the imagery became freer, the often shorter lines carrying less but allowing more reflection and thought. Another was that the poet was clearly thinking very carefully about his line breaks, and using them to advantage. In ‘The Bees Are Leaving’, it begins:

The bees are leaving, abandoning their hives,
the wax still warm, the cells impeccable.

The word ‘impeccable’ is impeccably placed. I could read that stanza several times and still be caught by that word.

The four poems in ‘Varanasi Cycle’ work well together, a mix of free verse and rhyme with the rhyme, in Ziguras’s way, rarely falling into the predictable. All the sensory details bring the setting and events alive, as in ‘Poem IV, Night’:

Every night, as if raging against the gods,
the temple drums drive the red-faced monkeys
crazy, screeching over the rusted rooftops.

It’s inevitable that when poems are mentioned as winning or being shortlisted for competitions, you can’t help examining them more intensely. What did the judges see in this, you wonder, to make it a worthy winner? Was it just their length? Do you have to write long poems these days to be noticed? While ‘Varanasi Cycle’ and ‘Abendland’ were richly rewarding, I did think ‘The Last Man in Pompeii’ became a little too heavy-going. That may simply reflect my reading preferences.

Overall, Chains of Snow is a sterling first collection that rewards many re-readings.

– Sherryl Clark


Sherryl Clark was the supervising editor of Poetrix magazine for 20 years. She teaches poetry at Victoria University TAFE, and completed her Master of Fine Arts at Hamline University in Minneapolis/St Paul in 2013, where her critical thesis was on verse novels. She writes verse novels for young readers, and her most recent title is Runaways (Penguin, 2013). She is currently undertaking a PhD at Victoria University.

Chains of Snow is available from

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The Accumulation of Instances: Martin Langford launches ‘Peony’ by Eileen Chong

Peony by Eileen Chong was launched by Martin Langford, at the Tilbury Hotel in Woolloomooloo on Sunday 30th March 2014
chongI first came across Eileen’s poetry when she submitted samples of it for the old Poets Union’s Young Poets’ Fellowships. The work picked itself, and despite the delay occasioned by the transition from that organisation to Australian Poetry, the poems she produced under the Fellowship were eventually published in the first of Australian Poetry’s New Voices series in 2012, in the chapbook, burning rice – a collection which, it is pleasing to see, has been re-issued by the publisher of the present collection, Pitt Street Poets.

Many poets make bright starts and then struggle to kick on, so it is gratifying to see Eileen producing her second collection: I say second collection because, as chapbooks go, burning rice was a remarkably substantial effort – shortlisted as it was for the Prime Minister’s Poetry Prize.

And now we have Peony.

If one loves the idea that a country is a space in which one never quite knows what is going to happen next: that – ideally, at least – a country is a cultural space in which new possibilities keep emerging, then I suggest you have a look at Peony. Because it is precisely the sort of book which allows one to believe in such a thing: a little left-field, the surprising and satisfying product of what must be an ongoing interior dialogue between cultures, and – alongside the work of other Asian-Australian poets – a real contribution to the ways of doing poetry in Australia.

Even though Eileen’s principal language is English, and even though she grew up in a country which shares many customs and traditions with Australia, when she entered this slightly different space, she brought with her enough difference to collectively shape an edge against the usages she found here. It is precisely this edge – subtle, various, but distinctive – that constitutes the nature of the gift she brings here.

A literary tradition is never an homogenous entity: if it is, it’s dead. Rather, it is an accumulation of fracture zones and areas of tension – of differences – that its authors variously attempt to resolve: tensions, say, between city and country, between differently gendered perspectives, between Indigenous and settler. Difficult as they can sometimes to be to manage, they are also stimulating: it is these confrontations which keep traditions vital. Most originality, after all, is largely a product of having one set of perspectives in one’s head, and a slightly different reality to deal with.

I would like to note two elements which Eileen brings to the range of possibilities in this country: one deeply embedded, one suspects, in her imagination, and the other, quite incidental.

The first is the development of emotion through what one might call the accumulation of instances. I missed it at first in these poems: mostly, they are continuous with the tones of conversation, handling the development of their ideas lightly and easily. In fact, when I compared them with what I knew, from translations, of classical Chinese poetry – thinking, also, of the work of another Singaporean-Australian poet, Kim Cheng Boey – it struck me as remarkable that poets who had been brought up in a tradition which seemed so dense and allusive, should be writing an English that was so clean-lined and accessible. The accessible surface, however, was deceptive: just because the manner was different didn’t mean that the thought hadn’t been developed in time-honoured ways. Perhaps the clearest example is the beautifully taut first poem:

Chinese Singing

after Li-Young Lee

My grandmother cannot read
the words dancing across the screen,
lighting up in time with the music.

She sings from memory,
in the dialect of her youth:
the two of us walk in the rain

sharing a single small umbrella.
If my grandfather were alive
he would light a cigarette and draw

breath until the end glowed
into a fiery red, saying nothing.
It is my father’s turn, and he handles

the microphone as if it’s an old friend.
Beside the road, beneath the banyan tree
is a place I think of often. My mother smiles

and mouths the words in Mandarin,
soundlessly. She too cannot read Chinese.
The tranquil skies and the balmy breezes,

the sweet scent of the grass. I hear only
snatches of meaning in the few words
I understand. Meanwhile, I think on

the puzzle of my grandparents, fertile
and warm, lying together in the dark.
Of my parents, young, newly-burdened

and afraid, whispering each other to sleep.
The rain falls around us with great intensity.
We must walk with care, under the one small umbrella.

It is my turn to sing. I don’t know
any Chinese songs, so I sing in English.
My family is listening.

Each member of the family reveals something different about themselves – by what they understand, by what they sing, by the way in which they enter into the event. Collectively these differences constitute a portrait of the family, as it migrates across geography and cultures, building and shifting, until its complex and disconcerting gaze comes to rest on the author. The point is that this hasn’t been done with commentary and explanation, or with verbs of contrast or similarity. This multi-faceted and quietly emotional situation – the author, after all, has to deal with each of these expectations differently – has simply been allowed to develop through the accumulation of individual voices. I am not suggesting that juxtaposition is not used by Australian poets, it is. But it seems to me to be a starting point in Asian writing, whereas in Australia it has often been an end-point: a minimalist sophistication. To approach one’s material like this brings a slightly different pressure to the creative process to the one we are mostly used to. One can’t predict what effect this may have on Eileen’s work over the long term – if any – but it is clearly an important and effective component now.
A slightly different example can be found in the one really dark poem in Peony:

Morning, Kookaburra Song

i.m. E.M. Kennedy (1932-2009)

It was dark this morning, Mister,
when I heard you, alone and keening,
laughing at the world with its funerals
and deaths, at its four presidents
in the one room.

You laughed at the priests in their unblemished
cassocks shot through with gold. You laughed
at the woman with the strong throat
from which issued a song practised
in chambers as hollow as our hearts.

You even laughed at the son who limped,
laughed at the memory of the child
who’d forgotten the mystery of walking
on two whole limbs. Mocked his false leg
smothered under fine, grey wool.

You picked out the woman so elegant
in her black grief. The pearls on her live skin
gleaming like teeth. The years she’d watched
her husband with one eye, both hands
cupping the fabric of their lives.

It was dark this morning, Mister,
but I heard you. I was awake in bed,
waiting. The man next to me lay deep
in sleep. But I knew your laughter
would come. I knew it would come.

It is a poem about how there is something in the world that laughs at everything we are moved by or find valuable, everything we strive to achieve. One of the things that makes it distinctive is its use of the kookaburra. Traditionally, the kookaburra’s laugh has been viewed as benign, as not breaking the communion of good fellowship. But this laughter does.This bird takes no prisoners: it has no respect, and no pity. I must admit, I have listened to kookaburras myself, and thought that their laughter was of a heavier character than was indicated, say, by a Lindsay cartoon. I never used it: no doubt I was a captive of the conventions. But Eileen has. And although, in itself, it’s a relatively small thing, it has added to the way in which we see the creatures around us, to the range of possibility they represent. Possibly, the fact that Eileen has been marginally less subject to customary Australian perspectives has been an advantage, allowing her to see something that people who have lived here all their lives may not have. Creative misreading, however, is one thing, but you have to be able to use it: this slight adjustment would have meant nothing if it hadn’t been accompanied by her sense of such an unforgiving perspective, by the dry and economical survey of the Kennedys, by the way the whole poem is grounded in her silent address to the bird. Out of it, she has produced a strong and disturbing poem – a poem that sticks in the mind precisely because the use to which the kookaburra’s laughter is put is just that one step away from conventional usage.

Sometimes, when a person goes to live in another culture, their head remains in the place from which they have come. Sometimes, their affiliations and perspectives realign with those of their new world. And sometimes, and most creatively, the act of entering a new land is like stepping onto a tightrope of the imagination, in which neither past nor present has been deleted – because good imaginations pay their respects wherever it needs to be paid. These poems, it seems to me, walk such a tightrope. On the one hand, there are the memories of Singapore, of family – and on the other, poems of the new life – of preparing food with friends, of Europe and of love.

The tightrope is a creative place, and I hope that Eileen continues to walk it. It has given us the poems of Peony; we will watch in anticipation to see where it may take her to next.
Congratulations to all involved, to the publishers, and above all, to the author.

May this peony flower for a long to come.


Martin Langford is the author of The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (Puncher and Wattmann, 2009) and the editor of Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1788-2008 (P&W, 2009). His new collection, Ground, will be published later in 2014.

Peony is available from

Mark Roberts’ review of burning rice can be found here:


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The Petrov Poems land in Melbourne and Sydney

Rochford Street review has been fortunate to have been able to access both the Melbourne and Sydney launch speeches for Lesley Lebkowicz’s The Petrov Poems. jaonne burns provided the words in Sydney, while Kevin Brophy stepped up in Melbourne…


What Does a Spy Look Like? Kevin Brophy Launches The Petrov Poems by Lesley Lebkowicz in Melbourne

Lesley Lebkowicz’s The Petrov Poems (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). The Melbourne launch of the The Petrov Poems took place at Collected Works Bookshop on 29 August 2013. Kevin Brophy did the honours…..

Lesley Lebkowicz was a child in Canberra when the Petrovs defected.

Lesley Lebkowicz was a child in Canberra when the Petrovs defected.

What does a spy look like? How do you recognize one? Why is it we all think it would be interesting and exciting to be a spy? Perhaps none of us is sure we are not a spy.

The figure of the spy reminds us that after all, all we perceive are surfaces. We don’t truly know what another person thinks, why another person acts in the way they do, how sincere they are, or insincere, what their fundamental motives are. Any one in this room could be a spy, all they would have to do is blend in. In our case, since most of us are poets, it means wearing creased and mostly unfashionable outfits, leaving our hair relatively uncombed, and being prepared to quote a line or two at the drop of a pen or a bookmark. An interest in red or white wine would help. The occasional longing look at the book shelves too. Easy.

The spy lives a double life, one more than each of us is blessed with. The spy is one who might lose sight of which life is actually the one they prefer, the one where they are most themselves. The spy might eventually ask of herself or himself, when am I not acting? Or does the spy shrug off these doubts and tell herself, himself, it’s just a job, not too different to any other job where the consequence of making mistakes is death. There are plenty of jobs like that, including cleaning windows.

Is it the spy who knows, like a perfect Buddha, that eventually at our core we do not have anything except an infinite series of inner ‘spies’ who are taking on, on our behalf, role after role, identity after identity, costume after costume — that there is no core?

While the poet or the novelist might want to bring reality somehow into their fiction, the spy (that transgressive creature) brings fiction into our reality, as if fiction could be part of reality, proving to us that it can, that reality is as much a costume drama as any Maeve Binchey novel.

Volodya Petrov, third secretary in the Russian Embassy in 1953 was fat, short, often disheveled, too fond of drink, aware that his wife Dusya might have married him as a second-best choice, and he was a spy. Outside his spy-self he dreamed of freedom as a chicken farmer in the countryside, and of girls who might satisfy his alcohol fuelled desires.

Dusya’s chance for love and motherhood had passed already by the time she reached Australia, though not her longing for love, especially the love of family, community and companionship. Late in The Petrov Poems, in the days after their lives as spies had passed, we read:

The whole street knows they are Petrovs —
Too many photos, too much publicity.
One journalist never leaves them alone.
He lurks in his car outside their house.

A kind neighbor builds a gate in their fence
So when the journalist comes, they slip out
Through his garden.
In Russia it would have been different —

No one would have known who they were.
Dusya had hoped to grow old in her village —
An ordinary woman buying onions
And bread, scolding her man

And holding his withered flesh to her own. (p. 69)

These apparently imagined, and beautifully paced details—in four line stanzas with a final line dropping down dramatically to make its own stanza—of Dusya’s experiences and private hopes are not simply coming from Lesley’s imagination, for they are based in thorough research, including the oral history archives in the National Library of Australia. This is a deeply and sensitively researched book of poetry committed to bringing those fragments in the record, lost observations, over-looked glimpses and insights forward in order to re-create these hapless, confused, venal and hopeful individuals as beings who are as real as we know ourselves to be.

Lesley uses the marginalized details of the historical record to bring us a human story that allows her themes to emerge. As I understand it, this theme centres upon the observation that dimly, and sometimes vividly, we cling to and rehearse what love means to us.

To revert to history’s broad sweep, the death of the murderous Stalin in March 1953 was followed by a political purge in Moscow, a purge that put the spy Volodya Petrov in fear for his life. Defection, under the offer of five thousand pounds, enough to set up a chicken farm, seemed the only way to ensure his personal survival. Five thousand pounds translates to something like $170,000 in today’s money. The Russians claimed he had been kidnapped by the Australians. Armed Russian officers sent to escort his wife back to Moscow had their plane diverted at Darwin, where their guns were taken from them, and while their backs were turned their spy was taken from them too, after a brief phone call with her husband to check that he was not a prisoner, and had defected (the fool, did he not know what terrible punishment might now come down on Dusya’s family back in Russia?). It is likely that this dramatic double defection assisted Robert Menzies to win the 1954 election for his Liberal Party over Dr Evatt, just as the Tampa much later was a possible election clincher for another Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard. The spy scandal that followed in 1954 included the discovery among Petrov’s papers of a document naming some of Evatt’s staffers as Communist contacts or informants. Evatt was convinced the document was manufactured and planted by ASIO in order to discredit him. He almost lost his mind over this conspiracy, and at the Royal Commission where he represented himself he was said to have acted strangely. This was a catalyst igniting the split that saw the emergence of the Catholic-based Democratic Labor Party, a party of  ‘clerical-fascist conspirators’ in Evatt’s phrase. As a result, the Labor Part would be lost in a politically helpless impasse for two decades. All this the result of a bewildered Russian spy wanting in his heart to be a chicken farmer somewhere in the Australian countryside, free to work and drink and visit the nearest city’s brothels at his whim.

Lesley’s book is in four sections. The first comes under the dramatic heading, ‘Volodya defects’. With deep canniness and sympathy, Lesley Lebkowicz brings Canberra into focus as the Petrovs try to see it for the first time.

They go to look at their enemies. High on a slope
opposite the Prime Minister
sit the Americans.
The red brick of their buildings is picked out in white.
The portico and the frames of their colonial
Windows are white.
Red and white and the warm grey
Of slate roofs. The grass is so green …

On the other side of the hill, close to the Parliament,
The British rest in a flat-roofed rectangle – white too
As though white were perfection and not paint.
It glows against the Canberra scrub.
The windows are set deep in stone frames.
We are quietly solid, the rectangle says.
We’ve been here a long time.

Dusya and Volodya look at each other.
She attempts scorn: Capitalists! She says.
Volodya is silent. Their embassy is much further
From Parliament. Once a block of cheap rooms
Its pale bricks are unpainted. (p. 6)

Lesley Lebkowicz beautifully reminds us that in a new place we see newly, we feel ourselves differently, we might even sense ourselves inside ourselves for the first time in a new way. Lesley is alert to all this. I like it that Dusya comes before Volodya in the poem’s final stanza, and I like the ambivalence, the possible and silently understood falsity of her attempt to speak like a true Communist in this capitalist enclave. I like it that surfaces speak deeply—that a coat of paint might not just cover-over, but might expose something of the self-images that rule in this part of the world. Lesley gives them a vista to view, but her poem is aware too of the smallness of individuals. I like the hint here, that if these two are attracted to the Capitalist West, if they are indeed treacherous in their hearts, it is their baser, more shallow selves that yearn for what coats of white paint promise against the absolute unpretentiousness of a disgracefully neglected Russian compound.

This is attentive poetry. And it is at home in this city, because Lesley grew up in it, and heard the rumours about the Russians as the town grew shocked and anxious over the spies in its midst.  From Part II, ‘Dusya defects’: April 19, 1954, Mascot Airport:

She sees lights flash over the crowd and
glint off the plane. People are screaming:
Let her stay. Why do they care so much
About her? The mass swells and jostles —
Crashes its voice into her ears.
Buttons are snatched from her suit
She loses a shoe. She must limp.
Beneath her bare foot the tarmac is rough.

The couriers lock her arms through their own.
They shove her along. They stink
Through their clothes — sweat, fear,
Rancid, sour. If only she could focus her mind
On one thing — her dead daughter’s fine hair or
A white cup, its tea warming her palm. (p. 42)

Dusya’s image of the ‘one thing’ is, strangely, quite British. She had been in Australia for three years by this time, and tea was of course our national drink after beer. This was in the days before Australia discovered wine. Here too, that telling colour white — her preferred refuge now. This poetry inhabits its character, as all good fiction does, and it notices the importantly impressionistic aspects of the scene based on the famous photograph that now accompanies our collective memories and accounts of these episodes.

In part III, ‘The Petrovs at Palm Beach’, an account of the ramifications of the Royal Commission, and the safe houses around Surfers Paradise where they were kept between visits to the Commission, we read:

He is hungry. ASIO food lies in his gullet like lumps
of malevolence. For breakfast they give him spaghetti — white

Slugs caked in red that come out of a can
And slump over toast. Bread should be black and have strength.

ASIO dries chops and steak under a grill and serves them
With drowned peas, mashed potato and carrots. ASIO gobbles it up

While he washes it down with beer and whisky and wine.
He wants duck roasted sharp and sweet with mustard apples,

Gravy that comes from the meat and not a packet,
He wants soft steaming dumplings and broth,

Cucumber pickles and cabbage with caraway seeds,
Wild mushrooms, veal simmered for hours with tomatoes

And eaten with buckwheat. (He remembers his childhood.) ….. (p. 58)

So, the table are turned, the colour white is now associated with the sickening sight of slugs like lumps of malevolence; the food of the democratic West is a capitalist plot serving to nauseate someone who has been fed on peasant food cooked lovingly, taken fresh from plots in backyards or bought from local stalls. It is enough to make you regret ever wanting wanting freedom. What is it we love about the life we lead, and how can we know what we have unless we first lose it? This is funny, this ASIO food poem, and it is wrenching.

After Volodya’s death in 1991, Dusya lived on in Australia with her dear, close sister Tamara who migrated to be with her. Dusya did not get to live out her life in a Russian village as an old woman buying onions, but in Lesley’s account she does find an antipodean version of her dream of love and connection:

Dusya and her sister walk along the flat paths of Bentleigh

Like any two women from Europe.

They’re on their way to drink coffee in the suburb’s first café.

They talk about whether to buy veal
For dinner and watch The Bill on TV. Whatever
Tamara says makes Dusya happy — it’s hearing
Her voice. Occasionally Dusya mentions Volodya

And Tamara looks at her
But says nothing. His name falls out of their lives. (p. 83)

Lesley Lebkowicz has achieved something iconic here, in response to one of the oddest iconic moments in Australia’s early modern history.

– Kevin Brophy


Kevin Brophy is the author of 13 books of poetry, fiction and essays. His latest book is Walking,: New and Selected Poems, published by John Leonard Press in September 2013. He is a Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne.

The Petrov Poems is available from

Lesley Lebkowicz can be found at