‘An intellectual and emotional complex’: Luke Fischer launches ‘The Sepia Carousel’ by Jakob Ziguras

Luke Fischer launched The Sepia Carousel by Jakob Ziguras, Pitt Street Poetry 2017, at Gleebooks on 2 August 2017

Jakob Ziguras

It is an honour and special pleasure to be given the role of launching (a little belatedly) Jakob Ziguras’s new and second book of poems The Sepia Carousel. Jakob and I will shortly converse about the book, and Jakob will then read a number of poems. However, to begin with I will say a few words as a way of introducing The Sepia Carousel.

Jakob currently lives in Wrocław, Poland, and over the past twelve years he has spent much time in Europe, especially in Poland. This time in Europe has involved a deepening of Jakob’s connection to Poland. In recent years he has been translating a number of Polish poets and been extensively reading modern and contemporary Polish poetry.

Jakob was born in Wrocław and lived in Europe until the age of seven, when with his mother he immigrated to Australia as a refugee from communist Poland. After studying visual art for a time, he moved on to study philosophy and completed a PhD at the University of Sydney. Through both his family background and his education Jakob is deeply connected to and versed in European philosophy, literature, art, and theology. If Jakob is correctly identified as a European-Australian poet, the emphasis should nevertheless be placed on ‘European’ rather than ‘Australian’. Jakob writes from within European traditions of poetry and philosophy rather than as a tourist or foreigner in Europe.

Among Australian poets, Jakob’s poetry is comparable to the work of Stephen Edgar in its formal virtuosity and versatility and to Kevin Hart in its philosophical and theological concerns. However, even though Hart’s poems make significant allusions to mysticism, theology and philosophy, Jakob’s poetry generally embodies a greater concern with intellectual complexity (rather than lyrical immediacy), such that a number of poems will remain opaque to a reader with little knowledge of the history of philosophy.

The German word for poetry ‘Dichtung’ contains the word ‘dicht’, which means ‘dense’. Ezra Pound on discovering that the German verb for composing poetry ‘dichten’ can be translated into the Italian ‘condensare’ (to condense) remarked that an essential aspect of poetry was the condensation of meaning. Pound viewed poetry as ‘the most concentrated form of verbal expression’. Jakob clearly shares this view with Pound as his poems concentrate meaning to the utmost.

Like Jakob’s first book Chains of Snow, The Sepia Carousel engages deeply with European history, philosophy, poetry and art and contains a mix of free verse and formal poems, with a predominance of the latter. Nevertheless, there are some notable developments. Firstly, there are more long sequences in The Sepia Carousel––the opening cycle ‘Roman Sonnets’ that consists of eleven sonnets being only one of many examples. Secondly, while Chains of Snow could be said to be an embodiment of poetry as condensation, The Sepia Carousel pushes this tendency further. Through multiple layers of allusion, symbolic compression, formal constraint, word-play and irony, the poems achieve immense concentration.

Jakob’s poetry tends to be difficult. It is far from the mundane realism and demotic diction of the American poetry that sparsely populates magazines such as The New Yorker. But Jakob’s poetry does not renounce or disrupt meaning and coherence in a post-modern fashion. Jakob is more of a high modernist than a post-modernist. His poetry is intellectually complex and allusive. It rewards contemplation and re-reading. It recognizes the complexities of existence and history, and the complicity of the individual in systems of violence and evil. His poetry does not seek refuge in simplistic answers, aestheticism, or sentimentalism.

The sensibility of Jakob’s poetry is notably European and historical. Like many Central and Eastern European poets, Jakob’s poems are deeply aware of the problem, most famously articulated by the philosopher Adorno, of how it is possible to write poetry after Auschwitz, after the atrocities of the twentieth century that have continued into the twenty-first.

Rilke was one of a long line of European poets who strongly identified poetry with the task of articulating the praise-worthy, of affirming life in spite of the transience and imperfection of the world. But after the brutality and systematic violence of more recent history, the task of genuine praising––free of sentimentality and escapism––has become more difficult and problematic. Nevertheless, as the contemporary Polish poet, and friend of Jakob’s, Adam Zagajewski has memorably put it, we must ‘try to praise the mutilated world’.

Jakob’s poems look for fragments of hope and possibilities of transformation amidst the ruins of history, try to affirm at least something beyond the nihilistic emptiness of contemporary capitalism and consumer culture. A characteristic moment of such affirmation is found in lines from the second poem of the sequence ‘Isola di San Michele’: ‘Song comes and goes among the bitter laurels. / I pluck a leaf, and crush it to release / the cool clean scent; then walk away, / the ash and bracing resin on my hands.’ The laurel leaves, the emblem of poetry, are noticeably ‘bitter’ and their trace on the poet’s hand contains ‘ash and bracing resin’. Poetic affirmation is intermingled with ash and decay, life cannot be separated from death. In the moving autobiographical poem, ‘Windows in the Dust’ Jakob recalls a childhood game in a courtyard in Wrocław in which he and other children made patterns in the dirt out of bits of rubbish and broken glass. This is a beautiful embodiment of the aesthetics and poetics of Jakob’s new book. Among visual artists Jakob’s poetics might be likened to the aesthetic of Anselm Kiefer, in the way it looks for beauty and affirmation in unlikely places of ruin and dissolution. Nevertheless, there are also quite bleak poems in this collection, in which despair seems almost inevitable.

Jakob’s poetry is not only notable for its intellectual complexity and range but also for the symbolic compression of his images, which extend imagist and symbolist practices. Pound famously defined the poetic image as ‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.’ Jakob’s lines frequently exemplify and instantiate images in precisely this sense. To offer one example, consider these two lines from one of the unrhyming sonnets in the sequence ‘Jet Lag Song Nets’: ‘A cold wind lashes at the merchandise. / You wear your scarf pulled tight into a noose.’ In just a few words, these lines capture the speaker’s feeling of the futility of life, which borders on a suicidal desire, in relation to the spiritual emptiness of the market place.

Jakob’s poems also deftly draw on and subvert traditional symbolisms in order to articulate a philosophy of history and a critique of our current moment. When snow appears in the collection, rather than its traditional association with purity and innocence, it tends to imply the cold rationality and amorality of the modern technological world. As a polar and equally destructive tendency, the season of spring, in the title sequence of the third and last section of the book ‘The Rite of Spring’, rather than symbolising positive forces of renewal, transformation, and resurrection, signifies violent irrationality, unbridled passion, and despotism.

While there is a remarkable density and wide use of allusion in Jakob’s first collection, there is a noticeable increase of allusive and narrative compression in the new book. Rather than elaborating a narrative or allusion within the body of a poem, these are tersely intimated as an assumed background of meaning. For instance, the poem ‘Introspection’ (in the sequence ‘Snow like Wool, Frost like Ashes’ dedicated to the late Polish poet Stanisłav Barańczak) we find the following lines: ‘The introspective paradox / is that introspection / is not––unlike Johnsonian rocks––/ subject to inspection.’ These lines assume that the reader has some familiarity with the philosophical problem of infinite regress with regard to self-consciousness, namely that the true subject or self can never be its own object as the observed self never coincides with the observing self. In addition, the expression ‘Johnsonian rocks’ tersely encapsulates the philosophical anecdote of Samuel Johnson kicking a stone as a supposed refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s idealist philosophy according to which the world only exists through being perceived.

In the new collection there is also an increase in word play and punning across various languages. One of my favourite lines of this kind (from the sequence ‘The Rite of Spring’), ‘If children ask for bread, then give them Stein,’ alludes both to Marie Antoinette and to the biblical account of the devil tempting Christ to turn stones into bread, and puns on ‘Stein’ as a reference to Gertrude Stein and the German word for ‘stone’.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section titled ‘The Appian Way’ is primarily situated in Italy, especially Rome, and engages with and critiques Western history. The second section ‘First Snow’ is primarily situated in Poland. The third section ‘The Rite of Spring’ ranges widely across European history and literature and includes poems set in Australia. The collection contains a number of brilliant free verse poems but long sequences of formal poems predominate, including terza rima, sonnets, pentameter quatrains, and a variety of other forms. The masterful handling of forms is not only aesthetically significant but also part of the semantic complexity of the poetry. For instance, the sequence ‘Snow like Wool, Frost like Ashes’ is written in ballad meter but these are highly philosophical poems with nothing that resembles traditional balladic narrative; thus there is something like an ironic tension between the meter and rhymes of the ballad form and the ostensible content of the poems.

In our current age of hype, platitudes, doublespeak, and attention spans limited to the length of a tweet, Jakob’s poems ask us to read more carefully, think more deeply, and to widen our understanding and appreciation of history, philosophy, theology and art.

 – Luke Fischer


Luke Fischer is a poet, philosopher, and scholar. His books include the poetry collections A Personal History of Vision (UWAP Poetry, 2017) and Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013) and the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems (Bloomsbury, 2015). His editorial work includes a co-edited special section of the Goethe Yearbook (2015) on ‘Goethe and Environmentalism’ and a forthcoming volume of essays on the philosophical dimensions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Oxford University Press). He frequently curates poetry and music events. He has received various honours and awards, and is an honorary associate of the philosophy department at the University of Sydney. For more information see: www.lukefischerauthor.com

The Sepia Carousel is available from https://pittstreetpoetry.com/jakob-ziguras/


A Wonderful Variety of Tone and Theme: Melinda Smith launches ‘The Loyalty of Chickens’ by Jenny Blackford

The Loyalty of Chickens by Jenny Blackford, Pitt Street Poetry 2017, was launched by Melinda Smith at the Press Book House on 8 April as part of the 2017 Newcastle Writers Festival

Welcome everyone. What a privilege it is to be launching the first full-length collection of this prize winning and widely anthologised poet.

I was very pleased when Jenny asked me to be her launcher because there is something about the sensibility in her poems I have always enjoyed. The way they connect everyday life with dreams, nightmares, myths and the mystical, while maintaining a light touch and a sense of fun. Also, cats. And palaeontology. And geekdom – there is at least one Star Trek and one Lord of the Rings reference – I’ll leave you to find those on your own.

The book also contains more serious pieces: meditations on history and mortality, and the stories families tell – and don’t tell – each other. All in all a wonderful variety of tone and theme is on offer here.

As always Pitt St Poetry have made a beautiful container for Jenny’s words, and I should also mention the fabulous illustration by Gwynne McGinley of the loyal chickens themselves.

Animals + Birds

The first thing I noticed about this collection is it is teeming with animal life. Not only cats, but dogs too, and dozens and dozens of birds, starting of course with loyal chickens! But there is a huge variety, from penguins to gulls to butcherbirds to noisy miners to lorikeets and cockatoos to all sorts of waterfowl. They are all beautifully observed. In one poem a cormorant is ‘drying dark silk wings’. And you can both see and hear the birds in this one if you listen closely:

‘Magpies | glossy as glass-dipped demons | chortle on the lawn | like church organs | dreaming’

Nature descriptions

Jenny also excels at beautiful descriptions of natural scenes more generally. Here are some of my favourites:

  • ‘The weed’s thick-layered onto the water, slathered by the sky’s bright knife.’ in ‘The Drowned Brickworks’.
  • In ‘the sun’s bright crayons’ she describes rays of light in sea water as ‘lines | that cross-criss-cross || a fishing net of light | to catch moon-jellies | fallen from the blue above,| and tiny salty stars’
  • And finally, in ‘Road Trip’, ‘Autumn poplars shine cold yellow candles, lighting dry fields.’

Deep Time

Something I have always appreciated about Jenny’s work is her awareness of deep time, the long long planetary past of geological eras, on the scale of which the whole of our civilisation is a tiny blip.

In ‘the wide dark’: there is ‘a creek which has carved cliffs from an ancient plain’ singing ‘of the wide dark between the stars | before our earth was brown and green and blue’.

This awareness of what for want of a better expression I’ll call the long context is reflexive and permeates everywhere. Plesiosaurs and shallow ancient seas appear in ‘The Drowned Brickworks’. Gulls become Pterodactyls; Tree ferns have ‘silver-green lacework older than most dinosaurs’; the blue-tongue lizard has a ‘Pre-Jurassic brain’, while crocodiles claim their place as the older siblings of the dinosaurs in ‘Masters of the mud’.

The long context also shapes her poetry at the metaphorical level: one of my favourites, ‘An afterlife of Stone’ imagines an eminence beside the Hume highway as an enormous petrified mammoth.

She also engages with the prehistoric human past, exploring for example the incredible usefulness of the mussel shell as a tool before metal and plastic – ‘a Swiss Army Knife free from the sea’.


Moving from pre-history to ancient history, Jenny’s training as a classicist is much in evidence in this book – but she wears her learning lightly and it always serves the poem.

In ‘Pleiades’ (‘the seven sisters’), there is this gorgeous line, about the elusive 7th sister: ‘Some say | they’ve danced with her | high in the blue. | Clouds of shy stars | drift in their eyes.’

Demeter appears multiple times, and we also meet with Poseidon, Aphrodite, Herakles / Hercules and the Graiae – the sisters of the Gorgons. There are allusions to the Iliad and the Elysian Fields. ‘The gods’ in a more general sense misbehave in ‘Driving through smoke’, her poem on the ‘Black Saturday’ fires.

There are even memories of her old classics professor Godfrey-Tanner in ‘The beast in socks and sandals’.

We get a sprinkling of characters from non-Greek mythologies too – including a fair wodge of old Norse material with a mention of Fimbulwinter (the great winter), Yggdrasil (the world tree) and the Midgard serpent – the serpent that circles the world (disguised as a cat – as it once appeared to Thor). The semi-mythological also features: Boudicca makes an appearance, and that ancient weapon of mass destruction, ‘Greek fire’.

And Jenny makes her own myths too, as in the haunting ‘Aluminium apples of the moon’ that gives its title to the last section of the book.

Relationships and history

In ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ Yeats wrote of the necessity, eventually, to understand that myth is only part of the picture. ‘…Now that my ladder’s gone /I must lie down where all the ladders start / in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. I’m not saying the results are foul in Jenny’s case, but in this collection she does turn her gaze to humanity’s recent, yet-to-be mythologised past, and also to the sometimes perplexing mythmaking of her own family.

She considers the refugee experience in the moving ‘Polenta memories’.

In ‘The Interchange’ she delves into the myth and truth of her great grandfather Charles Clements’ life and death.

‘The patriarch’s lurid past’ explores poverty and the misdemeanours it compels.

‘Full of church’ is a meditation on different seasons of womanhood in the family.

She has also written some heart-wrenching poems for her mother at the end of her life, ‘Dipping into that lake’ and ‘Beloved impostor’.

I have great pleasure in declaring The Loyalty of Chickens 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.

The Loyalty of Chickens is available from https://pittstreetpoetry.com/emporium/

Tilting at Poetic Windmills: John Foulcher launches ‘Goodbye, Cruel’ by Melinda Smith

Goodbye, Cruel by Melinda Smith was launched by John Foulcher on 8 April at the Civic Digest Cafe, Civic Theatre as part of the 2017 Newcastle Writers Festival

I first heard Melinda read at a Canberra venue with ‘local poets’ about ten years ago. They were all good poets but Melinda stood out – this was the real deal, here was an authentic voice who knew about craft. So I bought her slim, staple-bound volume, First . . . then and found the poems were as good on the page as they were when she read them. When she sent a manuscript to Pitt Street Poetry, John asked me if I knew her and what did I think. I think I said something like ‘read the manuscript’ but I can’t really remember. Soon after, John rang me to say that, although PSP’s year was full, he’d have to fit this one in – Melinda, he suggested, was Australia’s Wendy Cope. His faith was justified when Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call beat a host of luminaries to win the 2014 Prime Minister’s Award. And it richly deserved to do so.

Command of a wide diversity of tone and subject matter, as well as consummate control of form, marked Melinda’s first PSP book, and while those qualities can again be found here, Goodbye, Cruel is a real step forward. Someone once suggested to me that, when you’ve got an achievement under your belt, you shouldn’t try to get better, you should try to get worse – by that, he meant you shouldn’t simply repeat what you know you can do, but you should try to do some things which are new territory for you, you should risk failure. I think Melinda has tried to get worse in this book, but I have to tell you she’s failed spectacularly, for every risk she seems to have taken here has worked. This is a terrific book.

Let’s start with the title: Goodbye, Cruel . . . yes, we all know what the next word is, but it’s not there. The omission is a verbal wink – there’s the hint of a sly laugh in it. ‘There are so many clichés about suicide,’ it seems to say, ‘but can we just put them aside and start again?’ The second section of the book, from which the title is lifted, does exactly that – it stares down an act which many would see as the ultimate obscenity – returning the most essential gift we’ve been given. Why would you do it? When I was a secondary school teacher (for my sins I spent forty years in the wilderness of classrooms), we weren’t allowed talk of suicide with kids. It was always rushed over, mutely hushed, avoided for fear the very acknowledgement of the act would put its seeds in other young heads. In newspaper reports, when someone suicides it’s usually not articulated; death in such cases is ‘untimely’. The absence of stated cause becomes a whisper of shock, almost embarrassment. It’s as if the perpetrator/victim shouldn’t be further humiliated by the ownership of the act.

This isn’t the approach Melinda takes. In a blisteringly good series of poems, she enters the act, she gives the voiceless voice, granting those who cross into death by their own hands a kind of dignity. This isn’t to say that she approves or affirms their decisions; she simply makes such a response irrelevant. In trademark fashion, she does this through shifts in voice and form. She moves effortlessly from the intimate and the colloquial to the formal and the elevated, allowing people to speak for themselves through time. Take, for instance, these wonderful lines from ‘A plate of biscuits’, written from the adult point of view of a child whose mother suicided when she was young. The poem addresses her mother:

That morning
you rose
iced the special biscuits
placed them on the baby-blue plate
made porridge for us
laid out clean clothes for my brother and me
combed our hair, oiled down my forehead curl
drove us to the school
dropped him at his classroom
walked me to my kindergarten class party
chatted to the teacher as she took the plate
from your pale hand
(above my head
it seemed you were passing her
a piece of the sky)
got back in the car
drove to your friend’s empty house
taped the doors and windows shut
and gassed yourself.

From the child’s perspective, an ordinary day – the list of routines which seem completely average, harmless, capped with a horrific action as if it, also, was nothing in particular. The simplicity of the language not only mimics the child’s viewpoint but it begs the question – what prompted this? Yet, as the list of daily tasks builds to its awful climax, its pounding rhythm becomes oppressive – you can hear a rising tide of frustration in it. The child may not understand this, but we who find ourselves slave to a numbing tide of routines that imperceptibly overtake and control us – we understand. Whether we’ve peered into that dark abyss or not, we get it.

How this contrasts with ‘The Undiscovered Country’, the poem which precedes ‘A plate of biscuits’. In this poem’s spare, fluid tercets, Melinda takes the voice of one of the suicides from Dante’s Inferno, condemned to exist as a gnarled, prickle-infested tree for eternity. A hatred of the body, always inferior, always inadequate, is at the heart of the woman/tree, who mutters to us:

I never once loved my body.
At first I hardly noticed it
then later – when it bled every month

when my breasts swelled. intruded themselves,
complicated my every move – it felt more
like a punishment, a humiliating

costume into which I had been sewn.
Too big, too floppy, too pale, too slow.
Sometimes I tried to take control

to starve it, cut it, knock it out with drink.
Later I simply bore it as a burden
as one does.

I’m sure the girls I taught with who had eating disorders – too many of them – would understand this as well.

Goodbye, Cruel . . . when we get to the final poem of this sequence, ‘Contemplating the Gap’, the title and its omission take on a new significance – Melinda tells me she’s going to read this poem, so I won’t ruin for you, other than to say the sequence ends on a note of strength and hope. In the end, the poem farewells cruelty itself, celebrates life in all its frailty and imperfection.

Don’t think, though, that this sequence is the extent of the book – Melinda tilts at an enormous number of poetic windmills here, from the elegant interpretations of Persian poet, Rabi’a Balkhi in the section entitled ‘Safina’ to the crisp observations of country and our own national history in the final sections, ‘Riverine’ and ‘Endtime’. The evocation of cattle in ‘A paddockful of Black Angus’ is as good as anything by our great poetic chroniclers of rural life:

So dark
the light slides off them,
they scan as silhouettes,
cave-painting cattle
radiating peace
as old as herds.
One of them arcs tail away from rump
with the suggestion of an arabesque,
makes a soft pile

podder podder
on the silent grass.

And that razor-sharp, Cope-like wit – many poems here lull you into laughter, then turn the knife. I can’t resist this delightful fantasy on a line of graffiti:

BRIAN LOVES Vicki . . .
…………I think someone should tell her
I think if she knew she would leave town
I think he should arrange to meet her in real life soon
………………………..I think this is a good thing
…………I think she might not love him back
I think now would be a good time to tell her about his wife
…………I think he did before though and it didn’t end well
………………………..I think she is just trolling him
…………I think maybe this is not such a good thing
I think this is a triumph of hope over experience
…………I think he wants to give her all his money
………………………..I think he’ll change his mind when he finds out
………………………..about Trevor
I think he should stop hitting her if that’s the case

There’s a sting in the tail there that leaves you wondering if laughter was the appropriate response to anything in the poem.

When I was at university (yes, I can just about remember it), I took a course in literary craftsmanship, conducted by a really fine poet, Professor JM Couper. Ultimately, Couper told us, a poet’s worth is measured by the way he or she handles the long poem. As I’ve grown older and done a little writing poetry myself, I’ve come to doubt that. Often, I think a poet’s real talent is exemplified by the way he or she handles the short poem, the one that demands significance from a shard (think of WC Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’). As good as all Melinda’s more expansive poems are, you only need to read a few of her micro-poems to see how impressive her talent is. In this, the book’s final poem, ‘the bone tree’ is among Goodbye, Cruel’s finest:

in the bare blue air of my dream
there is a bone tree growing

it may not know where I have been
but it knows where I am going

Congratulations, Melinda. This book is a major achievement.


 – John Foulcher

John Foulcher has written eleven books of poetry, most recently 101 Poems (PSP 2015), a selection from his previous books, and A Casual Penance (PSP 2017). His work has appeared in national magazines and anthologies for over thirty years. In 2010-11 he was the Literature Board’s resident at the Keesing Studio in Paris. He lives in Canberra.

For information on how to order Goodbye Cruel contact Pitt Street Poetry at http://pittstreetpoetry.com/

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 http://pittstreetpoetry.com/

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

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  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/04/20/a-resonance-that-lingers-judith-beveridge-launches-everyday-epic-by-anna-kerdijk-nicholson/

Painting Red Orchids is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/eileen-chong/

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
…………..is 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 http://pittstreetpoetry.com/anthony-lawrence/

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 https://www.facebook.com/events/268999346771528/




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  (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/2013/08/23/speaking-of-love/)

Photograph – Southerly 23/8/2013. Speaking of love – Blog post by Mark Tredinnick (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/2013/08/23/speaking-of-love/)

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 http://pittstreetpoetry.com/mark-tredinnick/


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 http://pittstreetpoetry.com/emporium/jean-kent/


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 http://pittstreetpoetry.com/mark-tredinnick/

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 http://pittstreetpoetry.com/jakob-ziguras/

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