The Slipperiness of Meaning: Jean Kent launches ‘Instant History’ by Richard Tipping

Instant History, by Richard Tipping (Flying Island Books), was launched by Jean Kent at  Poetry at the Pub, in Newcastle on 18th April 2018.

Forty years ago — when I was such a new poet I would never have dared call myself one— I bought a book which is still one of my most treasured possessions. It was the catalogue for a touring exhibition of poems by Australian poets. There were only 75 poets included: one of them was Richard Tipping

 Richard had already published two collections by this time, and was a significant presence on the poetry scene. I didn’t know him personally, but I was certainly aware of his poetry. In the years since then, he became known both in Australia and internationally for his visual poems and his sculptural poems, many of which are now held in art galleries. But he has always also been a writer of finely crafted poems for the page, and Instant History is an important reminder of that.

In the beautifully produced, palm-sized format of all Flying Islands books, Instant History may look small, but in fact it is an extraordinarily large collection. Not only are there a lot of poems, their range is also vast. Thirty plus years of life and observation are distilled here, in the typical Tipping style, with dazzling wit, playfulness, precision and clarity.

 Richard’s delight in words is (to use one of his own words about the book) multifarious: simply reading the title and the names of the different sections – The Postcard Life, Rush Hour in the Poetry Library, Earth Heart, Kind of Yeah – suggests how he loves the slipperiness of meaning.

 Even the title Instant History can be understood in so many ways. Is it immediate history? The history of small instances? Or a nod to the way so much of our lives now is captured by the media and then forgotten?

Considering Richard’s gift for plucking the right couple of words out of air as if this is as natural as breathing, we might think it’s just another of his serendipitous , but very clever throwaway phrases … until we realize that there is also a poem in the book called ‘Instant History’.

This title, though, is not just ‘Instant History’. In brackets after that we find “Gulf War 1”. ‘Instant History (Gulf War 1)’ is a vividly shocking recreation of the way television and on the spot reporters changed the recording and receiving of news about war. Now that the transmission of news, both personal and public, is as instant as a click on a Smart Phone, it is chilling to be reminded of this time when, suddenly, cameras “at the place of the Arabs’ are “filling houses across America with worry”, the President keeps repeating “Read my lips. This war/ is not about prime time television”, and

collateral language
keeps bobbing its head up
out of the bloodied sand

where bodies have become pink mist
swirling in data smog.

 

Richard has been a film maker, visual artist and musician, as well as a poet, and his talents in all these areas are obvious in the poems. He has also travelled extensively, so not surprisingly there is a global awareness in much of his writing. There are poems of social and political commentary, postcards from everywhere, riddles, lyrics, meditations … and so many memorable phrases.  

I don’t have time tonight to offer more than a small glimpse into the surprises and treasures Instant History contains. But I’d like to mention one of my favourite poems from the travel section.

‘Snap’, is the poetic equivalent of tourist snap shots on a trip from London to Tokyo, interspersed with reflections on how “to find the Tao”. Moments all through the trip are observed with photographic clarity, giving glimpses of the world, gone in seconds, but vivid. There are acutely observed progressions from the confinement within the plane – “Jumbo shivering vast fatness / Dinners warming in the microwave” to the almost hallucinatory brilliance of scenes on the ground, at last, in Japan: 

…………….Globular persimmons, orange weights
glowing in bare branches

Old man, bowing to a crowd
of worn stone Buddhas.
Etched shadows on crystal moss

 and the wonderfully unexpected end, where

 …………….One hundred bobbing nuns
all laugh at once”

 In this poem, blank white space on the page gives a sense of time passing, or past. The way poems look on the page is important all through this book. It’s something I especially admire about Richard’s work. He also has a natural ear for the way words work, and there are some wonderful, pithy expressions of both the way language can degenerate into inarticulateness, and the power it has to work magic if we are alert to its possibilities—the way, for instance, a poem can be condensed to

…..a single
dot

of tensile energy
transmitted on the tongue.”

 There are also tantalizing examples in Instant History of Richard’s typographic and sculptural poems, including one which is in the grounds of Lake Macquarie Art Gallery. This ‘earth sculpture’ consists of bricks laid into the grass in a circle. From the air, the bricks clearly form letters, which spell out Richard’s title of the work: ‘HEAR THE ART (EARTH HEART)’. There are no gaps between the letters, so if you are at ground level, you have to walk slowly around the circle to make sense of it … Other words then start to form – like ‘HEART’ and ‘EARTH’ and ‘HEARTH’. It’s a classic Richard Tipping concrete poem—surprising, enigmatic, charming and clever.

This poem in the earth is much loved by the swallows that live by the lake—they swoop and dive and circle around the bricks, “quick-dancing in the rising wind”, as Richard aptly describes them in a related poem.

In this book as a whole, I think there is also a dazzling combination of aerial views and close attention at ground level. Instant History is a book to dip into, like the swallows, for light-hearted joy, but it is also a complex, comprehensive response to the experience of living in our times, a ‘his-story’ which rewards careful, serious reading.

  – Jean Kent

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Jean Kent is the author of eight books of poetry. Her most recent books are The Hour of Silvered Mullet (Pitt Street Poetry, 2015) and Paris in my Pocket (PSP, 2016), a selection of her poems from an Australia Council residency in Paris. With Kit Kelen, in 2014 Jean co-edited A Slow Combusting Hymn: Poetry from and about Newcastle and the Hunter Region. Samples of her poems and occasional jottings are on her website http://jeankent.net/

Instant History is available from https://asmacao.org/publications/instant-history/ 

A Sensibility Tuned to the Wonders of the World: Jean Kent launches ‘Scavenger’s Season’ by Kit Kelen

Scavenger’s Season by Kit Kelen, published by Puncher & Wattmann, was launched by Jean Kent at The Press Book Club, Newcastle on 18th December 2014.

scavengers_season_310_459_sIt is a very special pleasure tonight to introduce you to Kit Kelen’s new collection of poems, Scavenger’s Season, published by Puncher & Wattmann.

Over the last year, one of Kit’s projects was the production of an anthology of poetry from Newcastle and the Hunter region, which he invited me to co-edit.

The book we assembled, A Slow Combusting Hymn, is an abundant celebration of both the best current poetry in this region and the region itself.  It is, as Kit describes it in the cover flap, a ‘book of words for and from a place’.  It is a book of ‘experience of somewhere’ – and that somewhere is the place  ‘most of the poets in its pages call home’.

The idea for A Slow Combusting Hymn began at Kit’s home, a small paradise in the bush at Markwell, near Bulahdelah. We saw a glimpse of his place in his poems in the anthology, in descriptions like this from ‘Time with the Sky’

of stray clouds
and of skies untethered
all gone floating

It is a place where there is

no blue like the blue after rain
then everything has its true smell
like childhood returned
then the sun learns its yellow
and thick socks keep you

the house sinks in its sandstone roots
a year deeper fenceposts …

Now, in Scavenger’s Season, we have another celebration: an abundant twenty-five years worth of poems, and at the heart of all this writing, Kit’s love of the place he calls home.

In Kit’s poems, we are treated to a sensibility tuned to the wonders of the world.  He celebrates so many ‘small things’ in the landscape – wings and grasses, fences and creeks – and even the way a human might need to ‘puzzle a way in my limbs / as roos do’ in order to follow, or pause, on a track … There is a sense of not only the words but the whole human being behind the words being immersed within beautifully lived-in moments.

The world in this book is full of potential and good things. Some of them are very simple, and sensual. In ‘mulberry hill of plantings’, I love the utter charm of his description as a stick is planted and thoughts seep through the poem of purple fruit for tarts and birds drunk on the fermenting fruit.  So few words are used, but all the stained mulberry fingers and lips of childhood seem to be there, along with the adult uncertainty of what will come from these cuttings.

The poem ‘fantasy here at home’ refers to “a tiny stone cottage / where the bush cosies up”, and suggests that this might be

big enough for a virtual age
where all there’s to know
crowds the head of a pin
so a pinhead like me
may still hear the birds …

 We, too, can hear the birds in these poems – kookaburras, a frog mouth, white cockatoos, black cockies … even the voices of flies and ants and the speech of “hoof and snout and paw”.

But if the writer of those lines has a ‘pinhead’, it is also a very crowded and buzzingly learned one. There are poetic echoes here of Gerard Many Hopkins and Les Murray, the rhetoric of Dylan Thomas and the almost under-silence strangeness of e.e. cummings … 

There is much plundering of poetry through the ages, but in a good way – with reverence in the references.  You don’t need to know all the poems that hum in Kit’s brain to appreciate his own writing, but it does add another layer of delight to recognize the little riffs here and there, from centuries of literature from around the world, which have obviously pleased him.

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Most importantly, though, what comes through in this book is a voice that is distinctive and original. Kit’s style is very much his own. Reading these poems, you may have to stop and learn a new way of letting the English language surprise you.  But the surprise will be worth the pause, because this book offers us the chance to hear words as if they’ve become new again, as if they can be mysterious, as they make what they’re describing fresh and wondrous.

One of my favourite poems, ‘Time with the Sky’, contains this line:

oh how I love the way words make off with day itself

 This is what happens in Scavenger’s Season, over and over again … Words are Kit’s work and his play, and he plays and works with them with an uncanny blend of skill, intuition and serendipity.

Sometimes the result is a multi-layered tour de force like ‘for the bears, a leg-up’ or ‘The Shed’, where page after page carries on in a mesmerising engagement with humour and lyricism, rhetoric and laconic throwaways.

Sometimes, the poems are small snapshots, often homages to something in nature – a frog, for instance, brings the lines

no one’s as loud as you
no one’s as green

‘A caravan rots’ ‘on holiday / from humans’, but humans in these poems are mostly trying to live kindly on the earth. There is a marvelous generosity of spirit in Scavenger’s Season, an acceptance of the way the world is  — whimsically, in lines like ‘my skin should come in handy / for night’s sweet-toothed mosquitoes’ — but also wisely, as the inhabitants try to be at home on their land whilst acknowledging

that nothing was meant
for us or otherwise
we make the meaning

 There are puzzles in this book as well as sensory delights. There are marvels and meditations.  There are ‘blokes’ and ‘yokels’, cows and wrens; there is a poet who is both a meditator in his hideaway and a tender of land who needs to keep an eye out for the young snake in a boot and the threat of bush fires, as well as wondrous images for his writing.

Kit has a gift for memorable, apt phrases. Here is one of his little gems

go to the makers
never the mockers

tend to the habits of homage
you’ve found

 In Scavenger’s Season, he has followed his own advice and made us a book brimming with homage and celebration. I found it intensely rewarding and moving and I feel honoured to be recommending it to you.

 – Jean Kent

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Jean Kent has published four full-length collections of poetry. A new collection, The Hour of Silvered Mullet, is forthcoming from Pitt Street Poetry in March 2015.

Scavenger’s Season is available from http://www.puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/scavengers-season

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