The Late Poems of Stephen Lawrence (1958-2012) curated by Aidan Coleman

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family

I met Stephen for a beer the day before he took his life, and for the next couple of weeks replayed our conversation. He seemed calm and cheery. We talked then, as always, mostly about poetry. As he left, he gave me some new unpublished work, most of which I include here, with the permission of his family.

Known to South Australian readers as a columnist for The Adelaide Review, Stephen was building a reputation nationally as a poet and critic. His sharp reviews appeared frequently in Overland, Cordite, Wet Ink, Australian Book Review and Rochford Street Review, among others, and he had recently received news of his inclusion in The Turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry (2014).

Stephen published three volumes of poetry with Wakefield Press: Her Mother’s Arms (1997) – a sequence of poems in the voice of a female medical student – Beasts Labial (1998), and How Not To Kill Government Leaders (2002). He edited the Adelaide-based journal Wet Ink and a number of anthologies, and judged the John Bray Poetry Award for a decade. In 2010 he completed a PhD in Creative Writing. His research, A Poetic of Disunity: Selves and Silence, was accompanied by what proved his final collection, A Spiritual Problem is a Chemical Problem – a title that might sum up his metaphysics.

Stephen’s poetry is dense with allusions to politics, classical and renaissance literature – his Master’s thesis explored ornithological imagery in Shakespeare – and, above all, science. He was watchful for any debasement of the language, and harvested the worst excesses of advertising and government cliché with more gusto than horror. His poems vary widely in length from monochords to monologues, and teasingly elliptical narrative poems, that stretch over many pages.

The bureaucratic and corporate monologues that end How Not To Kill Government Leaders, are a genre Stephen made his own. Set against the backdrop of the rise of digital media in the late-nineties and early noughties, they anticipate the spin and weasel words epitomised by The Thick of It and Utopia:

 

No-one’s going to be performance-managed out of their job. No.
Boy, some days I wish someone’d ask me to retire!
But no such luck.
Sure, systematising your knowledge will mean outplacements.
But that’s good!
You’ll be leaner, meaner and stronger for tomorrow –
Outplacement? No, it’s not sacking.
It’s de-layering.
It’s not forced redundancy.
It’s re-tooling the organisation.
No, it’s not minimising staff numbers. It’s optimising.
No, it’s not Downsizing.
It’s Rightsizing. It’s Redimensionalising.
It’s overcoming your entrenched paternalism, gentlemen.
It’s overthrowing constrictive in-house paradigms.

 – How Not To Kill Government Leaders, (119-120)

Such poems parade a cast of recognisable characters and many of the jokes and sleights are cumulative. Stephen worked in a number of government roles, including communications and speechwriting, and the book’s final monologue, in which the speaker – or “Knowledge Manager” – identifies as Stephen, might hint at some complicity. “THE TOWN HALL MEETING”, included here, is an answer to such monologues, from the other side of the desk.

Stephen also specialised in short forms, particularly haiku and gnomes. The majority of these poems inhabit long sequences: “Hazardous Accumulations” in How Not To Kill Government Leaders stretches to 66 haiku, “Is This Poetry?”, in the same book, to 117. As with the monologues, these shorter forms show Stephen to be a poet of rhetoric more than image.

Emotions stop you
from seeing that they are all
that is important.

 – How Not To Kill Government Leaders (44)

I respect the church
and grieve, for the human thought
that’s gone into it.

 – How Not To Kill Government Leaders (50)

These, and most others, obey the strict five-seven-five prescription. Every syllable is counted as much as it counts, and poetry is often the butt of the joke:

This line of haiku –
Squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched,
is the longest plod.

 – How Not To Kill Government Leaders (43)

A similar playfulness informs “HAIKU” below. As with the monologues there is a sort of circular movement reminiscent of last century’s absurdist dramas. The metaphorically precise “Fallujah”, is a perfect tanka:

I fire a bullet
at my horse’s head, because
a fly lands on it.

My horse drops dead, and the fly
buzzes off to the next horse.

 –  A Spiritual Problem is a Chemical Problem (89)

Much of Stephen’s work could be described as found poetry: some gnomes – as the John Howard poems do here – use politician’s words (or something very like them); some earlier poems, if not lifted from Hansard, have perfectly mastered its cadences, but such material – where not invented – is trimmed, recast or amped up.

Not wanting to play Bridges to Stephen’s Hopkins, I have preserved inconsistences in capitalisation, and only been bold with the most obvious of typos. I know of no “Gnome 223” but have gone with Stephen’s numbering. Biographical readings should be undertaken with caution – if at all – remembering that Stephen’s is a poetry of multiple voices, and any number of selves.

 – Aidan Coleman

Stephen Lawrence with Dash Taylor Johnson at SA Writers’ Centre – Photograph supplied by Heather Taylor Johnson

Stephen Lawrence: Rochford Street Review

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Late Poems by Stephen Lawrence

 

THE TOWN HALL MEETING

Never mind that it was not in the Town Hall.
I found a front row seat. My mind remained open.
My job’s safe. I do not worry.

When the CEO flapped his sportsman’s hands
cufflinks semaphored from his sleeves’ stiff flags
caught the spotlight.

The CEO shook his sportsman’s head.
He gave us opportunity. We were not on the block.
We were not to worry. We did not worry. We listened.

Carl Jung, he sparkled, proudly.
Jung showed the way to accept change.

We were going forward. And Jung gave it meaning.

There were animal pictures used in the focus groups.
They were important to select the path,
the way forward.

Don’t think about it, he told us. I do not think.
The CEO will let me keep my job. I do not worry.

.

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family.

.

MY FAULT

When I say it’s your fault
I don’t mean it’s your fault
I mean [that] it’s your fault
When you say it’s my fault

 

GNOME 221.

Emily Dickinson made
her room the universe.

 

GNOME 222. — Creation

Creation, flawless, evolved
to meet its own end.

 

THE WRITERS’ WEEK FLOWER

This is a sedentary festival. One-way.
Nodding in the same chair for days
papery bonnets and programs
crunch into crepe fist-tissues.
I spoke to a tree far up the slope
behind blurred rows of sun hats.

Electrified, I held their consideration
talking to a pen-thin microphone
of poetry. “Voice makes verse alive:
it is not enough to stroll in gardens
recline in your comfortable trance
on benches, cast out a line, catch
observations; then, fish-slippery
jot them into your notebook,
lay silver words out in rows
like arranging sticks in sand.

Cathartic, not amounting to poetry,
at best half a thought, without
something to animate these words.
What to do” – a wheelchair sneezed –
“is rouse the poem with your voice,
the voice will find a story, have ideas.”
Does the audience have thoughts?

I gave my last minutes to smiling at trees,
fielding questions about earlier books,
the new book, my travels, anything.
An intelligent sun-hat posed this:
flowers are life and conduct us to death.
Flowers from next to her backyard seat.

I answered another question. No return.

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family.

NEIGHBOURS

when they can be heard
we note their bass registers
their percussive life

 

HAIKU

why you no pay me
why you no pay me pay me
why you no pay me

 

IT IS WHERE I LIVE

“Why did she phone here?” asks my wife.
I’ve forgotten. In love with her fair skin,
I try to answer, but now can’t think why.
Tight black curls of innocence engorge me.
No, I have not forgotten, but cannot imagine.
I did think I knew, but have nothing to retrieve.

I am erect with honour and care. Reason aches.
The peace of purity downs me with a punch.
It reveals the culpability of this friendship
with a woman who has telephoned me.
My feeble eagerness breaks forward
into a further moment of innocence.
Moister than parting lips, as clean of conscience
as one who knows he breathes deception.

I am a good man, guileless, without outrage
and so very stupid, without plan or graph.
My wife’s pale downy face entrances me.
The only way she can answer my pleading,
“Let’s kiss,” is to slap me. And she is right.
When the phone rings, I try to kiss her again.

.

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family.

.

The Harrowing of Hell

a wristwatch brings light into the tank
my reflected spot travels solar minutes

to strike off glass and become a tiny boil
blisters, plays against their sides, gilding

the fish who have nothing else to live for
but find eye-brain company in this smudge

tagged by the twitching luminous coin-probe
they convulse and lift against their glass wall

this play is to enliven the unnatural sphere
a glum box ribboned with trailing skin-rags,

but I brought Hell to Hell: lucent glimpses
torture hopeless souls in their dwelling

swinging sun-mirrors drill the caged spirits
spray them with flames of unbearable time

the fish gape horribly in drenched air
mop water-clouds with their mouths

the Damned remain mute, strain silent,
my whim of sun twitches away a last time

after the light drops from sight, souls
hitherto unregarded by light and time
have had eternity added to their sentence

Stephen Lawrence with daughter Georgia – Photograph supplied by his family

.

 

HOWARD ON GILLARD

A total failure.
In my view, real people don’t
need to say they’re real.

 

Gnome 224

In my view, real people don’t
need to say they’re real.

 

HOWARD ON ABBOTT

Mr Abbott is
an authentic believer,
a family team.

 

Gnome 225

an authentic believer
A family team.

 

My Last Thoughts

To bring time into the universe.
Four dimensions. Four last thoughts.

I lay, on the slab of city square paving.
Snow eddies. Self goes first.

I lay, dying, cold, on a Budapest square
face receiving the crystal snow.

What is the last last thought? My love?
I’ll leave that until last. Last last last. Ha ha ha.

Snow lava drops enter me, through skin.
Hot is a bad sign.

Each livid burst gouges me from me.

Why is there not room in the universe and (for) me?
Asking is why. Consciousness resist life.

Bits of me are going.
All limbs have been sacrificed to zero.

Are my arms and legs now visible elsewhere?

As my ears and nose and penis burn away
I bring a toe or finger back.

As my brain sleeps against forever
I squeeze my heart awake.

All of me has gone, but each part has returned.

The universe has seen me whole
but over four dimensions.

Saved, by time and logic. Ha, ha.
No, I am not.

Existence needs me all, simultaneously.
I am without function if not at once.

My cock does not imply my brain.
My thumb does not imply my lungs.

Cold zero-one me one-zero.
Or perhaps I have got it all wrong.

Outside looking in, the world has won.

Absolute implies the universe.
I have brought the world to meaning.

At last. Oh, my love.

Stephen Lawrence on Houseboat – Photograph supplied by his family

SHE REFUSED LOOKS

fades, passes from sight
blurs, becomes unseen

vision shapes light
eyes slip from her body

not noting scrutiny
she eludes being viewed

___

not quite a shimmer
a human thought in time

might have snapped
her back into sight

but she was invisible
for not thinking of us

____

the atmosphere allows
tiny breaths to gleam

her radius shifts
a question unasked

leaving her presencePhotograph –
I feel myself inhale

Stephen Lawrence with son Joe –  Photograph supplied by his family.

anchors vision

curled under brush
sale for forty years until now
in full view by the roadside

relying on landscape
to deter human will
from entering this vista

_____

our car mocks solidity
the windows we breathe against
curse their diaphony

a road train bursts by my head
resets the country flow
sound changes forever

a gate now open
white-green scrub muddied
time smeared across space

bushes’ tongues bivouac
shades flattened by perspective
daub and stain pasturePhotograph – 

can no longer be held as knowledge
parsed or thought
into homely understanding

thirsty salt-erect tussocks
take colour from rubbed plinths
erupted out of this instant

behind falling and catching fence-wire
fields of parallax blue
melt apart in two directions

bent in winds lasting all their lives
stands of trees accompany us
for relative time

_____

hills barricade clouds
sky-shapes whittled by geology
carve apart elements

slowly progress away
to dialogue with root and sky
about borders, about time

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family.

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.

Vanishing Point is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/vanishing-point

New Shoots Poetry Prize banner 2

A Contemplative and Exacting Art: Aidan Coleman reviews ‘Something is Said’ by Lidija Šimkutė

Something is Said by Lidija Šimkutė, Lithuanian Writers Union Publishers 2014

Something is said‘There is a kind of contempt in the act of speaking’, Nietzsche wrote in one of his cheerier moments. I think it articulates what the more garrulous of us feel after a day of too much talking – or too much listening. Lidija Šimkutė, who divides her time between Adelaide and Vilnius, is perhaps more economical than anyone writing in Australia today. Very few of the poems in this 144-page Lithuanian-English edition are more than a page, the lines are generally short – rarely longer than six syllables – and most poems have fewer than thirty words – including the titles which are the opening lines written in capitals. Everywhere the abundance of white space seems to underline the motifs of silence and quiet so prominent in the poems.

Šimkutė’s poetry is a contemplative and an exacting art with a proper reverence for the writer’s task and the limits of language. It may sound like an austere – almost monastic – project, ill-equipped to compete with the noise of our century. But the clamour and constant muzak of the contemporary world is just what makes poetry like Šimkutė’s necessary. We need the right words – the right kind of eloquence – to both renew the language and recommend quiet. Šimkutė’s poetry is part of an Eastern European tradition that is burdened by the past, and therefore skeptical of the embellishments of rhetoric. Its return to the fundamentals or bare bones of language constitutes a kind of forgetting that the poetry paradoxically presents as remembering. ‘Silence’, a word repeated throughout the collection has a personified, eerie presence, that can just as often be the silence of horror as of wonder; as often the silence of contemplation as that of the grave:

CLOUDS FALL

into the sea
and emerge as islands

white sails
drown in fog

birds shriek
horizons vanish

 

WALKING THE FIELD

I become the flowers
turn greener than grass

your silence

is a perfume
about me

It is poetry grateful for what remains. Its truths, as its silences, are hard won:

you say my name
place roses on my head
lilies at my feet

no bird’s song saddens the air

-IN MOURNING DRESS

perhaps in some remote place
I’ll stumble across a shadow
bearing your light

 – THE DESOLATE COURTYARD

As with most Eastern European poets, Šimkutė is incapable of triviality. Whatever the subject – solitude or language, love or nature – the physical and metaphysical are inseparable and the sacred merges with the material, as it does in icons.

The addressee – the you – of these pieces, as in so many of the poems, seems in constant flux, shifting in interesting ways – blurring the line between reader and speaker, everyman and poet – and the sparse punctuation adds to this satisfying ambiguity. In places the imagery can be almost unbearably realist, as in the end of WIND KNOCKS:

rain
drops
fill
the beggar’s
bowl

But it can also veer toward the surreal:

TO FIND THE MOON

in a fingernail
is easier than to hunt
for the sun in sleep

 

from WATER BOILS

we slumbered
like wine in seashells

In other places Šimkutė is richly allusive, as in the detail that ends THE BALTIC STORM:

a sparrow dropped
a wing in my mailbox

Such lyrics are fragile but tough. Fragile in the sense that a misplaced word might upset the delicate balance but tough in the best minimalist traditions: in their subject matter and in the fact that they are elemental and essential in a way that may remind readers of Serbian poet Vasko Popa’s Quartz Pebble Poems.

As we learned from Spinal Tap there’s a fine line between clever and stupid – fans of the film will remember their minimalist, black album cover. So too in minimalist art and poetry the line between the banal and the transcendent. Šimkutė is aware of this danger and, while these lyrics are simple and short, they are only occasionally slight. As there is very little to hang a judgment on, I should qualify that this seems more a matter of taste than discrimination. Take the short lyric below, typical in its uncomplicated syntax and diction. I like it but – if you don’t – there is little fodder for argument:

A BIRD CALL:

pierces
first flicker of light

sun hides
its gold
in the trees

Although richer in metaphysical possibility, the following lacks the same impact:

A THOUGHT OF EARTH

upon a seat of sky

and you are here
and you are here

Such poems – few in number – will be different for each reader, and, as with the brevity of haiku, can hardly be resented.

Though Šimkutė’s poetry has been praised by JM Coetzee for its ‘purity’ and ‘receptiveness to the world’, and has been anthologised recently by John Kinsella, it remains relatively unknown to readers in Australia. I hope Something is Said will redress this.

 – Aidan Coleman

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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.

Something is Said is available from https://www.knygos.lt/lt/knygos/kazkas-pasakyta–something-is-said/

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