Improvisational Openness: Jen Crawford launches ‘Semi’ by Owen Bullock

Semi by Owen Bullock was launched by Jen Crawford at the Poetry on the Move festival at the University of Canberra, 20 September 2017.

It’s funny how much a book of poetry can carry what one feels to be the essence of a person in text form – at least, I’m often struck by that. And I guess the lovely thing about that is that sometimes you can have the book where you might not have the person. This book is a great example. I feel like this is a kind of portable Owen – it has all his gentleness, the good humour and the vaudevillean variety, the honesty that has both a lightness of touch and a resonant depth.

This is not to say that Semi is in any way predictable. Indeed there’s a range and agility here that reminds me that Owen’s a guy who knows how to juggle. Swift movements of attention carry the grace of someone who’s been practicing their craft for a long  time, and with great dedication. Those movements don’t give the sense of a fractured or fragmented sensibility, but rather of the hand moving faster than the eye across a very broad skill base, with an improvisational openness to play with whatever might arise.

I’ve followed Owen’s movements for years – from New Zealand to Australia – and I’ve often been quite boggled by the volume of material that he produces and the quality he maintains across that body of work. Each book is worth reading, but this one strikes me as particularly special. Its poems form the creative component of his recently completed doctoral submission, and this means that it represents a kind of surfacing of a body of thought. Much like Hemingway’s iceberg there’s a certain amount here articulated directly in the words above the waterline, but you can also feel and discern the heft of the engagement that’s below.

The sheer variety of ways that the page and the line are explored here are a great indicator of this. The work with form shows a really full engagement with concepts, with literature, with possibilities. And again it’s worth saying that these explorations are not piecemeal, but purposeful, sustained, oriented partly  in the particular needs of the voice at a particular moment – narrating into the prose block, working the turn of the left-justified line, scattering away from the margin into space and erasure, distilling into grids, slipping in haibun-fashion from image into reflection, into narration.

The verbal range is delightful too, catching that sense of capacious openness and reflective depth. Listen to the way this moves:

I’m language
made into and out of
to be
…….in what the other has written. live
disappointments at what’s read
…………………..preceding delight, often in
the same
………………………..that’s changed
nothing, time moonched
perspective munted
                                         – ‘I’ll put a rainbow in your hand’

I think the other thing that comes through really strongly here is the sense of collaboration – collaboration as play, collaboration as dedication to the other (the other artist in a project, the other writer, the other loved one). There’s a moment in here where I expected one poem – ‘a good start’ to resolve with the noun phrase ‘hard work’ –

and laugh now I’m here

with the sunshine

and my tiredness

………………………– from ‘hard work’

but instead we have the adjectival ‘hardworking’ – it’s a quirk of voice that somehow catches the spirit of something I see in that collaborative presence, too – the sense of acceptance, ongoingness, pleasure in dedication.

There’s much more to say about this volume, about the generosity of self here alongside the openness to the world, for example – but we have just a little time to hear from Owen, so I want to make space for that. And for you to go acquire this lovely companionate book, which I am quite sure you will keep with you for a long time, as I will.

 – Jen Crawford


Jen Crawford is an Assistant Professor of Writing within the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra.  She is the author of eight poetry books and chapbooks, including Koel (Cordite Books, 2016), and recently co-edited Poet-to-Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan with Rina Kikuchi.

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Poignant and Necessary: Aidan Coleman Reviews ‘Vanishing Point’ by Jeri Kroll

 Vanishing Point by Jeri Kroll Puncher & Wattmann 2014

vanishing_pointVanishing Point by Jeri Kroll is Puncher & Wattmann’s first foray into the territory of the verse novel and could prove a shrewd business move. For not only is the story – a teenage girl’s battle with anorexia – topical but the novel has plenty to interest adolescent and adult readers alike. Teacher’s notes have already been prepared.

The novel’s protagonist, Diana, has a complicated relationship with her family: an often-absent father, a well-meaning but ineffectual fundamentalist mother, and a brother who has Down syndrome and with whom Diana has a strained but tender bond: ‘Some nights I tuck my brother into bed. / His honey almond eyes gleam and dim. / His moon face shimmers in …………………………………………………………….the dark.’

Friendless and at the margins of high school life, when the story begins, Diana’s consolation is staying with her grandmother in the Flinders Ranges. On one of these visits Diana meets Clara, who introduces her to horse-riding. It becomes an enduring passion that she shares with Conor, the son of a widowed horse-trainer, newly arrived from Ireland. The voices of Diana and Conor are shot through with equine imagery, which becomes a satisfying conceit. Take Diana’s early description of her not-yet-boyfriend: ‘The way he moves reminds me of that colt / by grandma’s place nearly ten years back – / free and easy. What a leggy beauty, // and so is Conor striding to the bar’. In a later poem, Conor compares the memories he banish to rats creeping back to the feed bins. Despite the close bond they forge, the reader wonders if their relationship will survive Diana’s obsessive illness and hospitalisation.

The narrative is handled gracefully: often pacey, but, in other places, catching its breath, to zoom in on telling details. The voice of protagonist, Diana, is direct and immediate but also ironic and world-weary. The novel begins: ‘I hate things that reflect: / mirrors, windows, pools of water, / father’s flashy car, / the eyes of that slim boy / in my old school – / ice blue, ice cold’. Most of the poetry is in free-verse, but when Kroll deploys the resources of formalism, the voice is no less convincing.

The embedded dialogue – an area where many verse novels fall short – has an easy fluidity, as this exchange between Diana and her boyfriend, Conor: ‘We’re nearly at the gates. I slow and turn / ‘Would you go home? / Ireland I mean. // ‘Father wouldn’t. I’d hate to leave him here,’ / Conor shades his eyes. / ‘Mother’s there for him. // He’d miss her something fierce.’/ His voice sounds anything but. Such dialogue is rarely unconvincing and, as in dialogue for the stage, is usually succinct and heightened in its diction. It’s unsurprising that the work has already been adapted for stage performances in Washington and Ohio.

Mythology, which acts as a consolation for Diana, functions in symbolic ways. Appropriately, celebrity culture is invoked, most interestingly is the use of the name Diana, both the Greek goddess and doomed royal: ‘When I was born, Diana was a princess, / an English myth my mother loved. / But hunters know the fate of prey. / Stalked, snapped at, caught on film / finally bailed up, dispatched.’

Kroll is best known as a lyric poet – her New & Selected Poems were published recently by Wakefield Press – and many of the poems in Vanishing Point retain the lyric intensity of that book: ‘I feel transparent, the wind whistling through… / I am no one thing / but muscle and tears / sweat and breath / I could die this way. / I could live this way, too’. (Second Flight). The title poem before Diana’s hospitalisation is starkly Plathian: ‘Rare as snow in the hills, / I drift past and you gaze / at my lightness and grace. / You glimpse the world through me’. In other places there is a loosening, often into prose: ‘The misty morning grass that crushed sweet under the horse’s hooves … Our land bordered a lake there. I remember how the swans scattered in the dawn when I hauled the stroppy geldings past.’ (Conor: Climate Change). The word ‘stroppy’ is an example of how a well-chosen adjective can still delight in post-Victorian poetry.

Vanishing Point is a : book with has all the hallmarks of a senior English set-text about it and there’s plenty to relish for adult readers as well, who are the people – let’s face it! – who make such decisions.

 – Aidan Coleman

Besides poetry, Aidan Coleman writes reviews, speeches, and Shakespeare textbooks. His most recent book, Asymmetry (Brandl & Schlesinger), was shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature and the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards.

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A resonance that lingers: Judith Beveridge launches ‘Everyday Epic’ by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson

Everyday Epic by Anna Kerdijk Nicholso, Puncher and Wattmann 2015, was launched by Judith Beveridge at the Rosie Scott Women Writers’ Festival on 18th September 2015.

everyday_epic_310_437_sI’m delighted to be launching Anna Kerdijk­Nicholson’s Everyday Epic and I’d like to congratulate her on this fine new volume as well as the publisher, Puncher and Wattmann, for another terrific addition to contemporary Australian poetry.

As the title suggests, this book has a wide­-ranging, grand scope to it – the poems cover a rich variety of subjects: from personal poems, poems about landscape and urban settings, poems about art and art­works, both historical and contemporary, poems with current social and political content, as well as the final and climatic, historical series on Burke and Wills.

This book values and celebrates both the large and the ordinary, travelling outwards into politics, history and culture, yet coming back to the everyday personal worlds of love, suffering, injustice. Though the book is wide in scope, it is not a baggy book. The poems feel necessary and are beautifully honed, they have a sharpness of mind, a penetrating focus of image and diction, a resonance that lingers. And this is important because so many poems, while they can be arresting and alluring during the reading of them, seem to dissolve or evaporate in the mind once your eyes leaves the page – Anna’s don’t do this, they have an astringency that hangs around, an allure that stays with you, and this is an effect of the craft: the way Anna has been able to weigh her words with intense thought and chose them with subtle and powerful discrimination.

One poem I’ll read to illustrate this is the poem “Desert” – (p. 63). This poem has terrific economy while saying a lot, which is what all the best poems do. I love the way the word “murders” at the end of the first line can be read as belonging to “wildflower” as in “allows wildflower murders”, yet as you read the next line you realize “murders” belongs to “murders the momentary”. This playful slippage, of keeping the language moving and dynamic, of constantly surprising the reader is another hallmark of the book. I love the way Anna bends her language and sometimes her syntax to achieve many windfalls. The last stanza in “Desert” is beautifully constructed as Anna takes advantage of the double meaning of “magazine” as in glossy publication, but also as in its meaning as a receptacle that holds the cartridges to be fed into a gun. This sense is picked up and amplified in the last line by “triggers Intervention” – there are so many little nuances of meaning in the poem and they delight you as they invite you to tease them out.

Anna’s poems kept me delightfully engaged with the way the imagery and tone negotiate the very subtle changes of mood or modes of feeling. These poems have that admirable ability to grow in intensity out of their own emotional necessity; these poems seem to rise to discoveries of ­ and are themselves – epiphanies. Take for example the poem “Bangarra” (p. 79) – I love the way this poem so wonderfully combines a sense of stillness and movement in describing the dance, that seamless bringing together of opposites creates a lasting impression, all done through the crystalline images.

What there is in spades in this book is a compassionate sense and sympathy for the effects of injustice and wrong-­treatment metered out to the less powerful. Anna writes movingly and convincingly about the plight of refugees, of the suffering of indigenous people, exemplified in her three­-poem sequence which looks at two photos and one painting of Truganini. But perhaps the most powerful of all in the book is the last section called “The Factitious Tragedy of Burke and Wills” – a sequence of eight poems of emotional and graphic intensity which depicts the disintegration through starvation of members of the Burke and Wills expedition. In just eight poems Anna gives the reader what it might take a prose account several chapters to do – the selection of detail, the narrative pacing, the characterisation are all magnificently drawn. Anna really makes us feel the tension and the uneasiness, the tragedy at the heart of this story.

But the poem I’d to finally read is called “Foucault’s Pendulum” (p. 89) – the way the poem handles time I think is terrific, the present and past come into beautiful conjunction through the watching of a flitter­bat – which brings into the speaker’s mind memories of a museum in Holland which house a Foucault’s Pendulum and a colony of pipistrelles. I love the backward lean of the poem into memory, and then the forward stepping into the kinesethetic and visual movements of the flitter­bat. The images and details are orchestrated so well, the long, slowly­ moving, fluent lines feel like time swinging back and forth. This is a finely textured, superbly wrought piece which I urge you to re­read in order to fully appreciate the way the connections are braided seamlessly together, how Anna has brought the disparate and multiple qualities into a unified whole.

In this poem, as in others, there is a real subtlety of thinking. Jane Hirshfield in her wonderful book on poetry, Ten Windows, says “It is by and in its subtleties that a good poem is able both to answer uncertainty and to contain it” (p.131). She says “Subtle thinking liberates its subject from the expected and the assumed, from arrogance and the ordinary versions of what is thought true” (p. 130).

I think it’s true to say that poetry always returns to the inner, private life, to the hidden feeling, the buried motive, to the details that embody emotion. Each poet for us defines a world and it is important for us as readers to be exposed to as many of these differing worlds as we can. The Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky has said, “Languages are many but poetry is one”. Anna, in this latest volume Everyday Epic, has found a convincing and rich poetry that makes us feel welcome and makes us value the work that poetry does, which is to say things with a “passionate syntax” on the margins of the sayable and allow readers to become participants in their own relationship to the world.

 – Judith Beveridge


Judith Beveridge is the author of The Domesticity of Giraffes, Accidental Grace, Wolf Notes and Storm and Honey all of which have won major prizes. Her latest collection, Devadatta’s Poems, was published by Giramondo Publishing in 2014 and Hook and Eye, a selected of her poems, was published by Brazilier Publishers in the USA. She is the poetry editor for Meanjin and teaches poetry writing at postgraduate level at the University of Sydney.

Everyday Epic is available on the Puncher and Wattmann website:

When Romance is too Culturally Meaningful to be Common: Rebecca Law reviews Martin Langford’s ‘ground’

ground by Martin Langford. Puncher and Wattmann 2015

ground_310_440_sReading Martin Langford’s ground made me long for the kind of mood state celebrated in the Rick Springfield song ‘Free and Easy’. In this tense, studious collection ‘just knowing that you’re there’ is not enough to sustain happiness and ‘waking in the morning’ doesn’t illicit a casual ‘walk by the shore, miles from everyone…feeling free and easy’. So instead, here we are in Australia, you, me and the next door neighbour wondering with great angst why the climate isn’t great, the future looks bleak and the past is too miserable to forget. What’s needed is a beginning and the ground is a good enough start excepting that’s in trouble too- the clay is cracking and dried up, roads ‘shimmer, tacky with heat’, the ‘bleached grasses’ are dying and what is more, the sky here only ‘swells’ and the sun is ‘colourless’. With such constant negativity I wanted some sense of an RU OK day just to check if Langford’s insistence we never arrive anywhere and it is impossible to ‘articulate home’ was a nationwide catastrophe waiting to happen. A sort of where have I been all this time if this is what is really going on in Australia (says Langford with a wink and a nudge).

This is a poetry of disjunctions, of the pull of the wild that can’t sustain its original intentions, of the unsettled and the pathetique. The human gazes at its world looking for something and nature carries on its persistent evolutionary tumbles and turns; but always in reaching out or even meeting our utmost energetic states we are forced to recede again to ‘sorrows of the limpid and mild’. What happened was Captain Cook came and ‘planted a flag’. Our soldiers ‘died at Gallipoli’. First they said ‘nobody lived here’ then ‘they made room for Indigenous people’. And for that, the massacres and the silence, the absences and the emptiness (of spirit) there is the ‘working out what to do next, and then doing it’. There is a fight going on, a struggle to settle in and settle down but Langford is dismissive and wants to dance. After all, in “Broken Bay”, where there is a will there is way: ‘back in the suburbs/ the small rooms light up/ for the night cliff’ and ‘shearwaters shoulder/ the bomb of the wind’.

In the heart of Sydney’s CBD ‘someone/ keeps making a point but the listeners/ vague out when the seagulls tilt sideways’ and this is either the malady or upside of living in Australia: language matters less when the ‘air…is swarmed by a perfume called “Distance”/….and ‘there’s a breeze/ off the river so faint it’s like breath on the skin’. Here, the best conversations come in the wind or are summoned by the gaze but never form words: instead, find the ‘gaze of an other’. Good sense is like ‘woodsmoke-and-lassitude days in the streets without trees’, of little consequence or meaning for the intransience of living in a country whose histories are so eclectic even your own can be untold ‘heart-work’, a granted legend. The point is we are all here together, scrambling for place, for destinations, a sense of arriving ‘home’. But with consideration for the wildflower principle, there is another way to bloom and that is to amble and plonk respectively: for ‘beauty is not destination’. Which begs the question what was land first but ‘a clearing of prayer for our barley’. Or ‘a meadow at Windsor with hayricks and steeples’, a ‘pastoral idyll’, a ‘dancing-itself of the rhythms of seed-life’, the ‘site of our stories/ our lost child/ our sorrowing ground’. And then that familiar retraction, a kind of Langfordesque erasure: ‘what was this land?’

In ground everything is a problem because, like Eric and Annersley, the two dozer drivers who don’t gel, living in Australia is complex, complicated. There are animosities but in the end, we have to work the same land ‘because we are clever/ because need is tough’. Here, there are ghosts of soldiers ‘whose footsteps..echo in halls like important, dull songs’, crows who ‘tell the plain, not the kind truth’ and ‘thrushes…cuckoo-shrikes- / carving dusk-contours and -hollows’. And the ‘impulse’ to dance, ‘a sun of participants dancing/ a source/ not a grief’. That way we might ‘get the weight of this place/ in our bodyminds’ and in dancing help ‘the small creeks run clear again/ …the firetails and wrens to come back/ …our own understandings…/ specific, loose-limbed’.

On “The Kingfishers Wings” beautifically light can refract from the sorrows, deaths, dismissals and shadows to the ‘azure’ of our attention, our tears, our desire for flight from/ out of the mire. In ground meaning is lower case and simplified, less a definition and word than a sense of something to look at and look around from the vantage point of feeling it beneath you…Like a poetic encyclopaedia of Australia’s transition from paddock to city, from ship to house, war to a makeshift peace, ground is sensitive to its subject matter and respectfully inoffensive. Its gaze is studious and uptight and captures details with such eloquence they almost seem caught in the lines of their stanzas, prized or wittily expressive. The subheadings assist an orientation through what seems otherwise a hike through a terrain of surprises and eccentric journeys. Alas, you don’t feel ‘free and easy’ reading the collection, being in Langford’s world for the 155 pages of poetry, but you learn something and perhaps that too, is time well spent.

 – Rebecca Law


Rebecca Kylie Law is a Sydney based poet, essayist and reviewer. Her poetry collections include Offset, Lilies and Stars. The Arrow & The Lyre and In My Days and In My Sleep  (May, Interactive Press). Other  publications include Notes for The Translators, Poems for the Young Chinese Adult, Best Poem Journal, Australian Love Poems 2013, Southerly, Westerly, Rochford Street Review, The Australian, The Euroscientist Ezine, The Lake, Pacific Poetry, Spiritus and Assisi: An online journal of Arts & Letters. She is currently completing her Phd at the UWS. Rebecca Kylie Law was Rochford Street Review’s featured writer for Issue 16

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A Slow Dance: Shane Strange Reviews ‘Moments’ by Subhash Jaireth

Moments by Subhash Jaireth Puncher and Wattman, 2015

MomentsSubhash Jaireth has produced an increasingly rare thing in Australian prose fiction: a book that is both unashamedly intellectual and international in scope without succumbing to the awkward reverence that sometimes mars Australian writing. This is not to say that Moments is impenetrable or experimental (gasp!). On the contrary, it is a seductively written collection of stories that reimagines the lives of (mostly 20th century) prominent thinkers and artists through a series of vignettes. These are equally at home on a train to Leningrad as a rock formation in the Kimberley—equally up to the task of retelling the tragedy of an indigenous massacre as the horrors of Pinochet’s Chile. And yet the stories are subtle enough to make each tragic moment (and there are many, of varying degrees) uniquely felt. But this isn’t a book of sturm und drang. It’s a quiet book: a whisper; a slow dance; a growing realisation.

The success of these stories relies not on a pyrotechnic style, or what Raymond Carver called ‘cheap tricks’, but on a deft focalisation technique that takes the glare away from a story’s  central subject (and their often well-rehearsed biographies) to rest upon tangential characters who have a certain connection, or particular way of seeing the subject. This in turn reveals that subject as an effect on someone else— a ripple in time and place if you like.

Take, for example, the wonderful pair of stories that form the central part of the collection. In ‘The Electric Dress’ conceptual performance artist, Atsuko Tanaka, is portrayed in her older years,  living out her days in the Japanese countryside far from her beloved Osaka.  Her health (mental and physical) is strained. She is tended by her husband Akira, and sometimes a young relative, Hiroshi. Into this mix comes a conceptual artist from India, Amrita, on a pilgrimage to meet the creator of the seminal performance  piece: ‘Electric Dress’. What we learn through this encounter is not only the tenderness of the relationship of the older couple, or —in reflective passages —Tanaka’s ground-breaking work, but also a rumination on ageing and the artist, the capacity of performance art to incorporate the body in its expression, and for that expression to be truly novel.

It’s companion story, ‘Dance is like water’, is also of the body, and puts its central figure, Merce Cunningham, even further into the background. Here the narrator is Visnu, an Indian mathematician estranged from his despotic  father, who runs a traditional dance studio in Madras. Visnu reflects on his enduring love for Lara, a young South American dancer who he meets in 1972 in New York. She is studying with Merce Cunningham. Visnu visits Lara at one of Cunningham’s classes and becomes entranced by the older dancer:

He was wound up like a spring ready to uncoil at any moment. When it came, the moment was utterly magical. I have never seen anyone so wonderfully animal-like: the sheer agility, the ability to turn unexpectedly, to leap high and float in the air as if he had wings and then land with immaculate ease, precision and grace.

This is all we see of Cunningham, whose impression Visnu carries with him through his love for Lara as they tour with her political dance troupe through Chile and the tumult of General Pinochet’s coup.

These echoes and reflections form a prismatic structure that seed impressions throughout the collection as characters appear and reappear.  However, the central concern of the collection seems to me to be a fascination with the making and effect of art in its various forms.  The technique of the stories seems to undermine the idea of the ‘great people’ of art (these are after all ‘fictional autobiographies’), while refocusing on their work and its influence. And this influence is often surprising.

In the penultimate story, ‘Quartz Hill’, a fictional Chinese photographer, Li, is taking photos of Alice, a young Australian dancer. In these opening passages, the story lingers on the fragile, but deep, collaborative bond between photographer and subject. Later, Li writes to Alice to tell of the deep significance of a painting by Paddy Bedford she has come across on the internet. Li decides to use this as an excuse to visit ‘the land of her grandmother’: Hall’s Creek in the Kimberley, also the home of Bedford, where she visits the site that is the subject of the painting to uncover its brutal history. Here, Jaireth is able to weave an indigenous massacre; the art of Paddy Bedford; the ephemeral nature of photography, and family, and history, and truth, into a satisfying, understated grandeur that easily inserts Australia and Australian culture into a broader global narrative without appearing deferential. The book is filled with these moments, and it left me very glad to have read it.

 – Shane Strange


Shane Strange lives in Canberra. His writing has appeared in various print and on line journals, including Overland, Griffith Review, Burley and Verity La.   He is currently studying at the University of Canberra, where he also tutors and lectures in Creative Writing.

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Professor Jen Webb’s launch speech for Moments was previously published in Rochford Street Review



Depth & Surface: Jen Webb launches ‘Moments’ by Subhash Jaireth

Moments by Subhash Jaireth was launched by Professor Jen Webb  at the National Library of Australia Bookshop, Canberra on 8th October 2015.

MomentsI first came across Subhash through his writings, nearly two decades ago. At the time I was reading a lot of John Berger’s work, and he was doing some writing on Berger; and I found in Subhash’s essays, and later in his creative writing, something of the same accent, or dialect: a fluent but meticulous mode of expression; a delicate wistfulness combined with threads of optimism; the capacity to recognize beauty in the most unexpected of places. I am flying a kite here, but I have wondered, from time to time, if it mightn’t have been his training in geology that gives him the ability to see the strata of things, and their texture; to understand both depth and surface; and the patience to chip away at the world until it discloses its nature.

Subhash is a prolific writer, across several genres; critical prose, poetry, long and short form fiction, and nonfiction, as well as works for theatre. He is also a translator, with a feel for language, and its sonorities and cadences; and a sense of how culture infuses communication—a sense that, I suspect, comes from moving between linguistic modes. As I read him, and listen to him, it seems to me that he sees the world in a variety of ways, and then communicates what he sees in a lyrical voice: sometimes delicately limpid, sometimes densely recursive, always observant and insightful.

This new collection of stories announces its focus in the title, Moments. It comprises a series of vignettes about moments in the lives of mostly famous people, who are mostly located during, or bearing the traces of, of what Roger Shattuck called ‘the banquet years’: the fin de siècle, from the mid-1880s to world war 1, and thus the birth of the avant garde.

The title also reflects the narrative structure of these pieces; to me they have the effect of light scattered by a prism. They don’t simply recount the ‘chopped-up tapeworm of time’ (to use EM Forster’s phrase for plot). Instead, they weave to and fro, across time, across space, building a portrait of a life, or lives out of glimpses; using elements drawn from impressionism, or cubism, reflecting the avant garde than of the classic traditions of story.

The individual pieces are told, for the most part, obliquely; usually by someone other than the famous person who is the foundational character, and often with that famous person being on the edges of the narrative. This technique makes me think for just a second of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead: a story told in the wings, where what is minor takes our attention, and meantime the giants of the stage act on, almost out of our view.

It can also be read as a puzzle book: Subhash seems to be playing with us the child’s Twenty Questions game, so that readers are teased to work out the identity of many of the characters that populate these stories. It isn’t necessary to know who they all are; they work as stories nonetheless; but once the characters are draped in the garments of their historical referents, they take on more complexity, more colour, and are perhaps better able to convey the clash between the vibrancy and violence of those decades, and the tenderness, the poignancy, of the lives being lived.

This mixed emotional texture is probably inevitable, because that period heralds the death of established ideas and practices, and the birth of something radically new. Subhash’s stories take us into that space of vivid potential and deep loss, and are peopled by reflections of individuals who lived then: those giants of art and philosophy, who so often put all their brilliance into their works rather than their lives. The stories treat cellist Pablo Casals (b.1876); philosopher Walter Benjamin (b.1892); sculptor Henri Laurens (b.1885); writers Anna and Fyodor Dosteovsky (b.1846 and 1821 respectively); the radical avant garde artist Atsuko Tanaka (b.1932); that complex philosopher, Martin Heidegger (b.1889); the Jewish poet Paul Celan (b.1920); and others.

These are names to conjure with: names of people who have been written about, their lives and works dissected, for decades now. Subhash adds something new to this literature. His ‘fictional autobiographies’, as he names them in the preface to the book, add in what he calls ‘emotional fibre’. And more than that: for me, they add in the flavour of a place, and a period; they offer reminders of human potential, and of the political, social, familial and other pressures that go to shape us and make us. They also draw attention to what I nervously call ‘truth’, or truth: those recondite things we call love and memory and friendship and creativity and death; the things that make up a life, and allow the threads of that life to be woven in to others. As they are woven, through these stories: Tolstoy, for instance, appears in the story of the Dosteovskys as well in his own; Pablo Casals – also called Pau – appears in his own story, and then is mirrored by a Pau who appears in the story of Walter Benjamin; Atsuko Tanaka has a bit part in Cunningham’s story; and so on, in a series of hints and gestures that flow through the book.

Not only do the characters share fragments of each others’ tales; they also have in common a capacity to make and/or recognize things of beauty, things of art, while acknowledging that it cannot be fully defined, or contained. Pau, for example, is disabused of his notion that the beautiful is important when he meets, on the beach, Juanita, a little girl who is collecting shells. Pau agrees with her that she has collected a lot of shells—‘and aren’t they all beautiful?’, he says. Juanita disagrees, ‘and looked at me as if I had erred again. She pointed at those she thought were truly pretty. … She touched each of them, the pretty and the not-so-pretty, and sang a little ditty for each of them as if they were little creatures’ (page 18). This encounter reminds Pau, pointedly, that beauty is neither gnomic nor numinous; that it is not the necessary thing that fills and empties us. Rather, it ‘merely is’, part of the fabric of the beautiful and the not-beautiful—woven together, of equal value—that makes up the world.


Pau’s story is gentle, full of light and the pursuit of love, beauty, truth. The one that follows it, on Walter Benjamin, shifts the emotional texture to despair, and the juxtaposition of these stories creates a kind of chiaroscuro. Benjamin’s narrator, Margaret, notes that ‘death, unexpected, violent and tragic, must have become a leitmotif of Walter’s life’ (page 24). Indeed, she thinks, pursuing her reflections on that terrible period of history, and the sorrows of his life and her own, depicts death as a seducer, one who pretends to be a friend but ‘not only trips you, breaks your favourite toys and spills your soup, but is ready to push you off the cliff’ (page 25). Be on your guard, his story warns; and yet, despite everything, she finds the capacity to go on—the capacity Benjamin himself did not possess.

The characters in these eleven stories share the need to pursue art, and the extraordinary in art. For sculptor Henri Laurens, who is the narrator of the third story in the collection—‘He likes Picasso but loves Braque’, the art is in observing the world so that the world will disclose itself to the artist. ‘However to merely observe the world around him wasn’t enough. He wanted to learn how to anticipate the moment when something novel, something truly magical, was about to reveal itself’ (page 36); and to achieve that revelation, one needs to connect with others: ‘his daily meetings with Braque, he was convinced, were helping him move closer to this cherished objective’. While these stories examine death and loss very closely, and colour the worlds of the stories with the practice and pursuit of art, they do not lose sight of the central and signal importance of love, affection, connection between human beings, and between humans and the natural world.

The revelations sought explicitly by Subhash’s version of Laurent, and implicitly by the others, initiate artworks that allow the characters to endure the hardness of things. The story that draws on the life of dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham (b.1919) is an example of this. Its narrator, Visnu Mahalingam, introduces readers to a dancer, Lara, who had been Cunningham’s student, and who was Visnu’s love. He travels with Lara and her troupe of performance artists to Chile, at the time of the first great September 11 horror—the CIA-assisted coup against Allende. In the upheavals that followed, they are all arrested, and Lara dies in custody. Telling this story, years later, Visnu writes about the effect that art can have on the heartbroken. Listening to a recording of ‘Two Sounds’, a composition by avant garde artist La Monte Young, which was used by Merce Cunningham in his Winterbranch, Visnu achieved what could be called an epiphany, but I think is better called simply a realization. His realization is that art has helped him carry the grief, ‘that if I have stopped grieving it isn’t because I have stopped feeling sad but because the sounds have kept the grief alive but bearable’ (page 94).

Subhash is treading difficult ground in the writing of these stories. He has taken as his subjects real people who exist in history; and has placed them on a stage whose sets and props come largely from his imagination. By treating their historical stories in a fictional way, he is doing what Kate Grenville did in The Secret River, when she roused the ire of historians who were disgruntled by the idea that the boundary between history and fiction might be broached. Mark McKenna¹, for instance, complained that novelists are attempting to ‘elevate fiction to a position of interpretative power over history’.

Certainly historians are responsible for the interpretation of the historical evidence, but they cannot be in control of history: it cannot be controlled, or owned, by any category of person. The writers of fiction too take up the task of reflecting on the past, and provided they make it clear to their readers that they are in the presence of imagined worlds, peopled with what Roland Barthes called ‘paper beings’, I see no struggle with history, no assault on the work of historians. The task of the writer of fiction is, surely, not to interpret historical facts predicated on archival evidence, but to provide insights into, and understandings of, the feeling of being. I can’t say whether or not Subhash’s stories get to the facts of the people they treat; but to my mind they get to the facticity of the world. They convey the feeling of its qualities, and provide a sense of how people live in the world, and die, and are remembered; how they engage with each other and with art; and how this cobweb of co-existence forms a secure foundation for us, living in the here and now.

¹ Mark McKenna, ‘Writing the past: history, literature and the public sphere in Australia’, Australian Financial Review, 16 December 2005, 12, 8.

 – Jen Webb


Professor Jen Webb is the Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra

Moments in available from

Rochford Street Review will be reviewing Moments in the near future.

A Hummingbird Mind: Les Wicks reviews ‘Porch Light’ by Ivy Ireland

Porch Light by Ivy Ireland Puncher & Wattmann, 2015

porch light.
I was keen to receive this title, Ireland has a hummingbird mind, the reader is led into places they had not previously experienced to then find themselves pinned into that place by richly original language. Mercurial.

These are rarely simple journeys, you have to concentrate to stay on board as she flits from foam pits of human love to the Throne of the Most High (‘Porch Light’). Like planes slowing, edging in towards landing, the pieces tend to find focus as they finish:


constantly switched on to reveal
meat, guts and skin twisting
another idea back on itself

 – ‘What we do for Survival’

I did, however, found some parts of this (comparatively short) book to be meandering – ‘LAX’ for example seemed to me be a big so what until we get to the sparkling last line clutching this airport lounge margarita as if it were magnetic pole.

Against this, Ireland can pick up subjects that didn’t promise much of interest (for me at least) and turn them into a linguistic delight. Take for instance ‘Velocity’ which concerns a carrier pigeon, with a line she grabs us –

his own mass the only anchor:
Hooked into sky.

Repeatedly the reader comes across the richest linguistic nectar. There is a great clarity in this woman’s vision:

while we live altogether alone out here
against the secrets of our bodies

 – ‘Venus Transits’


The soul must be wedded to the flesh. There is only this. You leapt.

 – ‘Angel of the Neo-Burlesque’

‘Glass Eater’ is just fabulous.

This is one of those books that works so well on many levels as it stands while simultaneously holding out the promise of what the poet’s next book will achieve.

 – Les Wicks


LES WICKS has toured widely and seen publication across 23 countries in 11 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013), his 12th (a Spanish selection) El Asombrado (Rochford Street Press, 2015). He can be found at

Porch Light is available from


martin h launch

Pursuing the Elusive Whole: Ashley Haywood Reviews ‘3 Painters: Collected Works Volume 5’ by John Watson

Three Painters: Collected Works Volume 5 by John Watson Puncher and Wattmann 2014

three_paintersAlbert Marquet, Pierre Bonnard and Max Beckmann are early modernist artists who have in common a resistance to categorisation. Belonging for a time with the Paris-based Fauves, Marquet would go on to forge his own artistic path into outlier-wilderness with an obsession for coastal waters. After a time, Bonnard took a couple of side steps from Les Nabis, and went his own way, too. As for Beckmann, his artistic associations are, more or less, for the sake of comparison and art history, verist, anti-Romantic, Neue Sachlichkeit. However, we can imagine all three of them crossing paths in Paris, perhaps via Henri Matisse, with whom they each shared a friendship.

John Watson’s collection Three Painters brings these three artists together in three parts: ‘The Invisible Albert Marquet’, ‘Bonnard’ and ‘Carnival: 40 Max Beckmann Poems’. Suites of ekphrastic poems on the subjects of Marquet and Beckmann bookend a lengthy, middle prose poetry engagement with Bonnard and his paintings.

Resonating in each part’s distinctiveness are concepts: to visit and revisit, arrival and departure, glimpses and residues, completeness and incompleteness, ‘diverse harbours’, ‘diverging impulses’—complexity. ‘Fragments, interludes, tropes, anecdotes, sketches’ become more than the sum of their parts in this poetry collection.


Watson’s ekphrasitic engagement with Marquet’s ink sketches is introduced as a ‘loose collection of glimpses’: fictionalised biographical fragments based on ‘a detail or incident’ in the life of Marquet, a painter-traveller. From the opening long poem Sketches in Ink the reader is drawn into Watson’s pursuit of Marquet in pursuit of his always-elusive subject:

… The waves appear to be doing something
They’ve never ever quite precisely done before.

This surely must validate the endless attempts
To capture them in a few strokes …

Marquet’s flight is always to the next coastline, seaport, dockside or harbour. Seaside brothels continually promise shoreline subjects, as voiced by Marquet’s wife, Marcelle Matinet, in ‘Marcelle Enters the Picture’:

In Marseilles the brothel is near the water.
His subject is accordingly the fluidity of form
And its arrest in fitful moments of stillness,
Waves which curl and slide under one another.

We follow the rapid-sketching Marquet as he journeys—often by train—back and forth across most of Europe and North Africa. Marquet’s voice is also employed which gives breathing space to this restless pursuit, for example, again from ‘Marcelle Enters the Picture’:

… It’s late. I haven’t drawn a single line
That’s not expendable. But the window without curtains
Gives upon the harbour. Therefore, Yvonne, if you
Would stay like a mirror reflecting the snow
I’ll draw instead the seawater turning to ice.

Bodies are given the qualities of water in all its forms: they are ‘flesh-toned water’, things that ‘wake and turn entwining … like a stream’. Cephalopodan bodies—‘Within, the gaslight shines / Darkly white on white reflecting bodies / Requiring pen and ink’—also foretell what more like this is to come when we reach Beckman and his ocean.

In ‘Marquet’, and throughout, terrestrial landscapes are enveloped in aqueous metaphors, wherein they mingle (‘Hydrangea blue or hydra blue’) and become something singularly terraqueous: ‘Fields like harbours and harbours like fields’ or ‘The water / Is like a ploughed field’.

Watson’s concept of the poetic ‘glimpse’ evolves with Bonnard, but with Marquet it’s like catching a glimpse of the sea from a train window before the landscape quickly rushes in to obscure the view.

As we embark for Watson’s Bonnard, there may even be some anguish or admiration felt for this characterisation of Marquet who is so obsessed with coastal waters (and light)—who, furthermore, ‘delights in reacting’ to these subjects that epitomise the certainty of change.

Watson’s Marquet is less invisible than he is seemingly always a step-ahead, chasing change, while giving chase—‘And vanishing into the woods / Of ships tied up at anchor’—which can be a pleasure for the reader-in-pursuit.


On arrival at the subject of Bonnard, we encounter a new narrative voice. Contrast to pursuing Marquet, the narrator is inviting and forthcoming, very much like T.S. Eliot’s Prufock: ‘Let us go then, you and I’. And so we go into the ‘middle ground’ of Bonnard’s paintings: into ‘echoes, revelation, playful asides, forgetful lapses, abrupt transitions’. These modes of thought are proffered to the reader in the form of an admirer and storyteller’s ‘journal’, ‘written over a long period of intoxication with the paintings of Bonnard’, and in the style of prose poetry (for the most part).

With the narrator, we visit and revisit symbols—Bonnard and his paintings, oranges, flowers, water, weather, harbours, momentum itself, for example. Subjects or objects or ideas are sites of poetic reiteration, sites of telling and retelling, points of continual arrival and departure, where what has come before is added on to, allowing for an almost fractal-like narrative to emerge.

As the narrator claims: ‘ I conceived the idea …[to] make repeated attempts on the same subjects’. Or, in other words, allow for things to ‘grow in the telling’. This driving concept, or philosophy that embraces complex emergence, is explicit in the narrator’s storytelling; take, for example, this extract from the prose poem ‘Winter Days’:

There were days in winter where only ideas ventured out. While everything else struggled just to maintain the sum of its parts—the assailed garden, rooms with closed doors—ideas conspired to something vastly greater … They did not go outside all day and during the morning Pierre mixed a particularly warm vermilion laced with Naples yellow and spent much of the day finding places to use it up.

Watson’s philosophising narrator makes excellent use of Bonnard anecdotes, which, in a way, led to keys for the writer to enter the ‘middle ground’ of Bonnard’s paintings. Two anecdotes: Bonnard struggled to be in ‘the presence of the subject’, preferring to paint away from his subjects, and the artist also had a ‘habit of returning to paintings after many years’. With these anecdotes, the concept of the ‘glimpse’ as a key, for example, seems to grow or evolve with Bonnard and with his desire to detach from his subjects.

Watson’s narrator attempts, then, to deal with the subject, ‘glancingly, tangentially’, to leave it ‘intact, untouched almost’, preserving what was while it, at the same time, ‘takes us further on, away’. In other words, ‘residues’ of meaning are carried from one place to another (as in metaphor) toward the ever shifting ‘borders of the inexpressible … like things always about to be!’ As the narrator discovers: ‘Such … is the achievement of Bonnard—the preservation of possibility!’ The narrator returns to Bonnard’s paintings, revelling in his new discoveries with each viewing, similar to Rainer Maria Rilke’s experience with Paul Cézanne’s paintings in ‘Letters on Cézanne’.

Yes, falling apart at absolutely every point. Yes, falling apart like the distant vista of mountain slopes dropping down as we reach the top of the commanding hill. Yes, falling apart like the expanding universe celebrating the widening gaps between things. Like leaps of affection between objects.

As for Bonnard’s fetish for incompleteness—‘ he even carried a little paint-box with him to galleries or the homes of friends where he would discreetly add touches of colour to paintings sold or given away years before’—further gives the narrator cause to celebrate symbols’ potential for growth.

This is not the end. ‘Bonnard’ is concluded with an interlude: a narrative about a growing friendship between two characters, Barnard and Brunel, and the influence each has on the other’s philosophical thinking, thinking which is in vein of the mathematical and metaphysical philosophy sustaining ‘Bonnard’. This interlude is like a summary, but more like a new layer or outgrowing—and a delightful reading experience, wherein Watson settles most into his storytelling and philosophy.


We return to water with the Beckmann poems, ‘hovering between approach and retreat’, seeking the ‘inwardness’ the painter seeks, and maybe the ‘everything and nothing’ of a brushstroke.

Of the three ekphrastic engagements, Watson’s suite of poems with Beckmann were written the fastest over the course of, what I imagine to be, a feverish month. We are slowly taken further from watercourses and harbours, out into deeper womb-like waters, and ‘down into the realms of dreams and art’ and myth.

Beckmann’s character speaks: ‘I’m painting still lifes / Landscapes, beautiful women, visions of cities rising from the sea’. As like stage curtains, Watson parts these Debussy-like spectacles to enter behind the scene. We come to Beckmann-inspired sensations. The poem Pretty stands out to me as a poem about desiring to enter the sensation of painting:

We’re talking here about a pretty
Severe case of
We’re talking here about a pretty severe case

Of wanting to be where
Willingly compliant otherness –
I mean ocean-wave-waving nakedness –

Is like a sentient valley with uplands and fields;
We’re talking here about his wanting
To be part of, to enter, many abstract nouns

And to regard them as objects of desire,
Of his wanting
Of wanting to be where the action is.

The following quote is attributed to Beckmann: lf you wish to get hold of the invisible, you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible. ‘All over the midnight blue water’ there are sea-creatures and ‘dolphins bearing women, the men / Riding white swans into a squall’, women straddling birch on Walpugis Night, ‘Calypso walking on the water’, where ‘The half-naked siren must remain’. Watson’s ekphrasis attempts to plunge into momentum, happening, the interval between approach and retreat with a carnival of Beckmann symbols.


Watson’s poetry and prose poetry is at its best and most inventive when he fully embraces narrative and his painter-subjects as characters—when his philosophy courses between his words with ease. This was my experience, for the most part, of this collection Three Painters. Additionally, ‘Bonnard’ is an experimental mode of ekphrasis and an excellent resource for interested readers. Watson’s ‘Bonnard’ is a creative meditation on the ekphrastic performance (‘out-speaking’, ‘pointing-out’), the relationship between writing and painting, and the concept that objects evolve with each ‘telling’—what ekphrasis in itself demonstrates. ‘Life is the sum of distracting contingencies’: with glimpses, glances and residues, Watson pursues this elusive ‘whole’, (more than) the sum of distracting contingencies and possibilities that a painter holds in their brushstroke.

 – Ashley Haywood


Ashley Haywood is a writer with work published in Australia and performed in the streets of Paris. Recently, she received a PhD with her thesis Harlequin Blue and The Picasso Experiment. Most recently, her writing appears in Spineless Wonders’ anthology Out of Place. She also paints with pigments collected in her travels. Ashley currently lives between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

3 Painter: Colledted Works Volume 5 is available from


A Wonderful Cross-Woven Web of Sensory Delights: Andrew Burke reviews ‘Scavenger’s Season’ by Christopher (Kit) Kelen

Scavenger’s Season by Christopher (Kit) Kelen, Puncher & Wattman 2014

“Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” – Thoreau Walden

scavengers_season_310_459_sAs the publisher says, Christopher (Kit) Kelen’s Scavenger’s Season represents a quarter century’s poetic engagement with a place. In this case the place is five acres between two forests – at Markwell via Bulahdelah, in the Hunter Region, on the NSW North Coast.

The sense of place is fundamental, but it is also inspiration for the imagination and intelligence of the poet. That is an essential element – the poems may have well changed if the scene was in another locale, but the drive behind it all is the perception of an ‘outsider’ to a natural environment. I don’t want to dwell on any abstract theories here because this collection is firmly rooted in the gritty relationship of this city poet with the local fauna and flora and the ever changing aspects of the weather. He brings with him decades of writing contemporary Australian poetry in a modernist manner flavoured by recent decades of translating and teaching translation at the University of Macao. It is simple English, mostly without punctuation and capitals, which is a well-accepted form for contemporary poetry, but occasionally leads a reader to misread a line and have to circle back to clarify meaning. Line breaks and syntax avoids this happening too often, but even when it does happen it may be because the phrase in question may apply to what went before and what comes after. It is one of those wonderful shades of ambiguity we enjoy in today’s poetry. (And constantly working in various Asian languages would provide daily examples of different ways of presenting the written word in continuous text.)

Kelen doesn’t praise the Australian bush or damn it; he explores nature without judgement. He introduces the reader to his explorations without overt value judgements, yet his perceptions – from ‘silence’ to ‘nothingness’ – let us enjoy his reactions on a philosophical level as well as a sensory on.

seasickness of the soul
righting itself
……………in all that it cannot compass

– ‘hunting wild nexus’

Hence, as I mentioned before, it is both a poetry of intelligence and imagination.

Scavenger’s Season is loaded with delight and sprinkled with wisdom. I am a little loathe to select examples because it is page following page of delight, but I will attempt a few examples of ‘wisdom’. Firstly, wisdom as Kit revamps his Shed, a longish early rambling poem:

form follows function and a shed’s always getting ahead
of itself.
……corner turns to alcove, aisle – this is the result of pile,
because there’s nothing new here but everything
is born again, and messianic so.

so many perfections to life. then death must be perfect too.
……………………………………….it follows, fits.

in shed we dwell on it – there’s time. rain on the roof’s a kind of
proof. and also it’s a dare. there’s grief.

– ‘shed’

The domestic world breaks into the review writing process, so I take the dog for a walk. Millie’s 13 and takes to nosing among the winter leaves and other natural detritus. I find her poo warms my hand as I collect it and I smile at the world, thinking of Kit’s response to his ‘getaway’ at home, his praise of the wood that supports the sky and the wood that warms us and the woods that birds feed and nest in. The dog’s sniffing ‘the great gramophone of puzzling existence’ (‘Dog’ by Ferlinghetti)  as I contemplate Kit’s words on our walk –

who is it sings in my breast?

go out walking
and the grass gets deeper

a track says
and this way
and pause
tune an ear to this nothing

– ‘walking’

And then I see a stone, a flat plateau stone placed in a garden at the fringe of a house, a stone half-covered in moss as is much of the town, but this moss is a brighter green, somehow greener for being fed by more vibrant metals in this rock (if I was a dog I’d sniff it). Again I think of Scavenger’s Season where the richness of observation grows with the experience of working, building, gardening, living with the shed and its inv, presented in his rich breath … occasionally enriched by source metals in kit’s language:

in binges of dwelling
moss green the world grows

-‘ sacred to the memory’

go to the makers
never the mockers

– ‘to tend’

what the sea wears away is itself
and all ends

-‘ view of broughton island’

what comes into my house becomes me

– ‘mimesis

But it’s no use, I feel frustrated as I dip forward and backward in this text like a punchdrunk flying ant! I want to quote to you this whole wonderful cross-woven web of sensory delights and philosophical meditations, this moss upon bright moss enriching my view of the world around me.

lost eddy of dusk displaced inside

a bat flies in
everything dropped
we weave our arms around like one
and fold up when it stops
we with our gravity
this one hung up

– ‘mimesis’

Like Thoreau’s Walden journals, Scavenger’s Season is Kit Kelen’s personal journey about building and exploring, about man in nature and, conversely, the nature of man. One man’s experience, for sure, but through its heightened examples, a universal application for contemporary citizens clustered in unnatural air-conditioned urban zones where lawn-mowing is the closest they ever get to nature, if they have a lawn, a left over from British rule.

– Andrew Burke


Andrew Burke has been writing and publishing in Australia and beyond since the 60s. He holds a PhD from Edith Cowan University, and his current titles from Walleah Press are Undercover of Lightness (2012) and One Hour Seeds Another (2014) Burke blogs at

Scavenger’s Season is available at


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Inexplicable Angles : Charlotte Guest Reviews ‘Babel Fish’ by Jillian Pattinson

Babel Fish by Jillian Pattinson, Puncher & Wattmann 2014

babel_fish_310_449_sIt is often considered bad practice to focus too heavily on the relationship between the title of a work and its content. It’s too easy an entry into criticism or interpretation, they say, an obvious foray – what ‘meaning’ does one lend the other? Yet Babel Fish, the title of Jillian Pattinson’s first collection of poetry, is such a perfect distillation of the work that it demands attention.

Babel Fish glides through the biblical, the linguistic, and the scientific with serene elegance. Each poem reads as a confident inquiry into the specifics of being, straddling the celestial and the terrestrial with ease. The story of the tower of Babel and the splitting up of language, along with other biblical narratives and figures invoked, lends the collection a religiosity that is simultaneously dissolved the non-scriptural, the biological. Take, for instance, the opening poem:


Fifty billion Ehux algae converge at the surface
of the Southern Ocean, their brilliance a mirror,
a mayday, that might well be mistaken
for the second coming. Heavy weather
blows up, scattering the host across the ocean
like so much spilt seed. But, even as it sinks back
into the abyss, each algae glows. Even washed up
on an empty beach. Even in the gut of a cuttlefish,
a lone E. huxleyi deciphers capillaries of internal ink
in light of its own bioluminescence. So much
to wonder at in the single cell of this simple being.
As if, by some trick of osmosis, it has plumbed
the essence of the Buddha’s own fading illumination—
make of yourself a light

With the eye of the biologist, attuned to the poetry of science and the natural world in a manner not unlike Rachel Carson, Jillian Pattinson reminds us of the interconnectedness of all things. The ‘uni’-verse is exploded, splintered into ‘multi’-verse, but through a kaleidoscopic lens of what already exists – established disciplines and discourses. Keats said Newton destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining where the colours came from, but Dawkins argues that knowing where the colours come from enhances the beauty of the rainbow. Babel Fish appears to share this attitude to science and enquiry, locating beauty in origins, causation and explanation. Pattinson explores the celestial and the terrestrial, the corporeal and the ethereal in a way that seems to say I have not combined these polar opposites, but rather discovered them already united, one and the same, disgruntled at their separation.

Indeed, what is striking is how disarming Pattinson’s collection is. As a self-declared ‘avid reader’ I was embarrassed by my own surprise at the interdisciplinary nature of Babel Fish. Not only does the reader encounter different fields, modes of enquiry, and poetic forms, but ever-expanding subsets coexisting harmoniously. On the whole, disciplinary boundaries are becoming more porous, more permeable, yet it is testament to the tunnel vision that has so characterised ‘uni’-versities that the idea of a decompartmentalised and integrated world is so novel. Babel Fish says that what we see when we truly look is an inextricable ecology of life.

By focusing on the biological/botanical in Babel Fish, I don’t mean to suggest that Pattinson’s poetry is limited in its subject matter. Pattinson simultaneously probes the quality of taciturn lives, the workings of those people whose quiet veneer masks layers of deep feeling. Take the following excerpts from the poem ‘The Still Point’, which won the inaugural UTAS Place and Experience Poetry Prize:

At the still point of the turning world – T.S. Eliot

Only here,
in the crease of the map,
in the midst of things,
are we so placed,
so oriented.

From the bank
the river moves slowly.
From the water
the ground shears
and slides away.

‘The Still Point’ speaks of the folded quality of a moment in time, oriented by the narratives within which it is encased. This notion is reminiscent of Nabokov’s predilection for the substance of units of time, or of Blake’s depictions of the finite and the infinite residing in the same symbol.

Here you float
face down,
eyes open,
searching the rocks
and shadows below.

There is a way back.
Then there is no way.
Then there is.

The rocks are always
and never the same.
The river is always
and never the same.
So is the light.

The deep pool holds you still
against the slow turning
of the world.
Here you well up,
you eddy.

You are here.
Then you are not here.
Then you are.

chest deep amid the river,
all you can’t see
into all you think you know.

Dusk swells the slow pool.
Rocks merge into water.
Inexplicable angles of light
catch the cast line.

Her command of rhythm and repetition makes room for thoughts to echo; the patterns of imagery and phrases create sonic ripples that reflect the routines we fall into and which shape our lives.

In a recent interview with the Australian Poetry Podcast, Andrew Burke stated that poets must school themselves in the traditions of poetry before attempting to shake off their shackles. This is of course a rephrasing of the old adage that one must abide by the rules before they can be broken. The truth in Burke’s words can be illustrated by Jillian Pattinson’s poetry. Pattinson utilises a number of recognisable forms alongside free verse; such forms include portrait, lyrical, imagistic, narrative and ekphrastic poetry. Further, the second section of the book, ‘The Night God Introduces Fox & Cat to Crow’, functions as an embedded verse novella. The effect of such multitudes of form and thought is ‘kaleidoscopic’, which indeed comes from the Greek terms kalos and eidos meaning ‘to examine beauty.’

Babel Fish is an accomplished debut collection and a deserving recipient, in its manuscript form, of the 2010 Alec Bolton Prize.

– Charlotte Guest


Charlotte Guest is the Publishing Officer at UWA Publishing, and a first class Literature Honours student from the University of Western Australia. She is also a regular reviewer for The Australia Times Theatre magazine. Her work has been previously published in a number of journals, including dotdotdash and Run Rabbit Magazine.

Babel Fish is available from