Horrors & Hay: Les Wicks reviews ‘Rain Season’ by Robbie Coburn

Rain Season by Robbie Coburn, Picaro, 2013. Reviewed by Les Wicks.

robbieAs a general rule I only write positive reviews of Australian poetry. Sure, the argument exists that this presents to the revered reader a one-dimensional aspect of this oh so wise critic’s poetic worldview. There are certainly alternative approaches out there, I note particularly a few who wrap up superficially cogent demolition jobs around malicious misreadings of a handful of pieces within a book to generate a few titters amongst their readership. I suspect there is a childhood history of torturing kittens. But what is the point? There are already more than enough reasons not to buy Australian poetry floating about. Sure, there are any number of books that I won’t review because I can’t be enthusiastic about them. I’d rather tell you about the ones that have enriched, surprised or challenged me.

I’m inclined to be generous when I open the covers of a first book. But all predispositions were unnecessary as I immersed myself in Robbie Coburn’s Rain Season. By any measure, this is an accomplished collection by a writer clearly confident in the voice of his work.

Coburn lives in Woodstock, semi-rural Victoria. The landscape lends itself to his sparse, sometimes ruthless lyric style through much of the book:

home suspended on brass hinges,
I ignore all motion. alive.
my hands have disappeared in front of me –

there is beauty in that.

– “There Are No Strangers”

.

it was weeks before Dad returned home from hospital
and even then he suffered death a second time
spluttering beneath his gutted body, his chest’s bloody centre
sewn shut.

– “The Heart Resetting”

To my mind he’s the best portraitist of Australian rural life since Brendan Ryan. This is no shallow pastoral – fire, death, abuse and depression roam alongside a rich connection to the landscape, evolution of an adult life, relationships et cetera. Throughout there is an endearing, sometimes heartbreaking, autobiographical journey…

I open the vein, twice
the deeply pressed blade embedded
in flesh like an extension of my limb

– “Poem”

Section II is the title poem of the book and examines the 2009 bushfire that burnt through his region. The challenges of drafting a consistently engaging long poem alongside the imperative to detail factual material has shipwrecked many practitioners. This poem, for me, is perhaps the weakest part of the book but there aren’t many who could do it better.

“Sophie” is a delightfully clean and simple love poem. Throughout, there are some great lines like daylight bends like a flame (“Chemical Winter”) and death was fashionable when we were kids (“Follow”).

I’ve often said it’s kinda hard to shake the foundations with yet another poem about middle-class greybeards sitting around drinking good coffee and whingeing about their backs. The newly examined has a great capacity to draw the reader in, to fix them in the poetic experience. A number of pieces in this book are centred around greyhound breeding/racing, an area of human activity completely alien to me and no doubt most readers. These poems manage to range across both empathy and detachment, a pre-requisite perhaps for those involved in working with animals.

There is much in this book that is confronting, but I laughed out loud when I read Coburn’s hilarious discussion around the point at which the poet settles on his sexuality – “Three Lessons Remembered” – there’s a punchline I’m not going to spoil by repeating, a great image.

This is an enriching read.

– Les Wicks

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Les Wicks has seen publication across 18 countries in 10 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013). This year he will performing in LA – Beyond Baroque, Austin International poetry Festival & RhiZomic.. He can be found at http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Rain Season is available from Picaro. www.picaropress.com/

So Honest, So Textured, So Real: Les Wicks Launches ‘What the Afternoon Knows’ by Ron Pretty

What the Afternoon Knows by Ron Pretty. Pitt Street Poetry 2013. The Sydney launch of What the Afternoon Knows took place on 15 August at Gleebooks. Les’ speech launched the collection on its way.

what he afternoon knowsIn the poem ‘Grace Notes’ Pretty pictures a budgerigar spilling seed. As a kid I had a budgerigar that had adopted me, flew in my bedroom window one day starving. He lived happily in a cage for some years then started spraying seed from his bowl out of the cage around the veranda which had been his home. Sparrows flocked there to enjoy the bounty…..?

This budgerigar seemed to stop eating himself, got thinner and thinner as the sparrows chirped busily about him daily. Eventually he was thin enough to simply step between the largest gap in the bars, he joined that sparrow flock and for years in Parramatta you saw the mass of brown at sundown heading for their nocturnal roost with that tiny slash of blue embedded in the middle. I’ll take Ron’s imagery and turn it back on him because I think he in many ways resembles my blue budgerigar’s trajectory.

When I first got to know Ron he was ensconced in the University of Wollongong. I have met so many people who have flowered under his patient and tireless guidance there. But that wasn’t all, Ron was generous in his millet distribution. For years he put out Scarp which was to my mind a high point in poetry/visual art collaboration. It is impossible to imagine Australian poetry without his long-term imprint Five Islands Press. For quite some time it was the biggest publisher of poetry in the country – many well fed famous sparrows were published there, alongside a solid number of scrawny hopefuls having their first shot at flight. Part of fip was also the new poets program which gave a unique mixture of intensive feedback, touring and marketing. So many have been propelled into a satisfying poetic life after being a part of this program. We won’t stop there, there was the establishment of the South Coast Writers’ Centre, the poetry cottage at first in Wollongong, then in Melbourne as he moved to the University down there, blue dog (another high water mark in Australian publishing), he regularly contributed to the poets union etc etc.

I’ve always loved Ron’s work – there is a deep humanity in his observations and as you would expect, the deft hand of a master craftsman. If there was to be a criticism, then it would be that we never saw enough. He was doing so much to help other poets and poetry in general his own output suffered. But now, he is out of the cage and flying free across sunsets with the rest of the huge flock he so lovingly sustained. He is that stunning shard of blue with his “post institutional” books, the latest being what the afternoon knows, that we are privileged to be sharing today.

I had a bit of a chuckle at the first line in this collection “I am in the third level of irritation”, wondered what journey I had to share with the poet in the pages ahead. It was a great poem but it wasn’t by any means a guide to the work ahead. For me, the lines that summed up the whole collection were to be found towards the end in the poem on “the Last Half-Hour” – “

meeting me under this leaking awning, the rain
tumbling down. 30 minutes here & every
minute we’ve been given seems a lifetime.

Every minute of this book seems to introduce us to a new life, a new angle. Ron had a poem in an earlier collection, I think it was in Halfway to Eden that played around the work of Philip Glass. I will admit today that I hadn’t heard Glass when I had read Ron’s poem but immersing myself in that composer’s work in subsequent years has always been coloured by the moment created in that poem. You will see this throughout What the Afternoon Knows. Whether that be in a recreated Juliet far more real than Shakespeare managed, or maybe in ‘Respect with Steve’ “black sheep of the everyday” or the beggars and buskers of Italy. Pretty works off a deep well of personal experience alongside immersion in the arts that lift him. Throughout this is not an irritation but a deep engagement and empathy with the breadth of society.

Much of the work concerns the quotidian, but it’s an everyday that is always at the edge of fracture. In the poem ‘Montaigne’, a child undams the evening & death floods each consciousness.

Ron has also had a long history of writing about landscape and people in landscape. This is also a marvelous vein in this new book, some experienced, some imagined. Wonder at his poem ‘Four Hands’ wherein the delicacy of a piano glides alongside snow on eye lashes, join with him driving through a squall of desert grasshoppers in ‘Desert Storm’, I sweated with the heat of an Australian back Veranda in ‘Change’. He totally gets Hobart’s Battery Point writers cottage. I was back there again with him. In ‘Barista: a Love Story’ we see rural Australia made magical with no more ingredients than coffee beans & lantana. This mythic resonance can also be enjoyed in ‘Eyewitness Report’ as a crocodile is sighted on the Shoalhaven and in ‘Fool’s Gold’ with its lost daughters.

The style throughout is largely accessible but there is much language there to enrich and inveigle – particularly for me the poems ‘Burnt & Kiss’. Where the poem dictates such he can veer off into a wildly divergent voice such as in the poem ‘Unfinished’.

Imagery, when utilised, simply shines… His “barking night” in ‘Nocturne’, In ‘River out of Africa’ we see early humans spreading like candle wax. Self as cicada is explored in ‘Envoi’ and in ‘Burnt’ we’re told “ours was the mourning that burnt”

Many poets, particularly ones so heavily focused on creating and celebrating external characters as Ron does, veer purposefully away from the personal. You never feel this in Ron’s work. He is always a figure there in the action, usually the concerned, engaged onlooker. But we’re invited deep into Pretty’s life in the poems starting with ‘Folders’. Here we see an extended, riveting exploration of his parenting experience. So honest, so textured, so real.

This book is a wonder. It is a privilege for us to share this wise, generous, laughing man’s treasure of work. What the Afternoon Knows is duly launched, all of you here are about to share a delight that I’ve been lucky enough to revel in over the past weeks.

-Les Wicks

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Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication across 16 countries in 9 languages. His latest book of poetry, Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience), has just been published by Puncher & Wattmann. http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm.

What the Afternoon Knows is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/ron-pretty/

A Welcomed Life: Les Wicks reviews ‘Honey & Hemlock’ by Julie Watts

Honey & Hemlock by Julie Watts. Sunline Press, 2013.

Honey and hemlockWhen I was lucky enough to have a stay at Tom Collins House in Perth I was told about the historical resentment that WA writers had about the exclusionary attitudes of “the scene” over east. Considerably lessened, they’d say, but still very real. I was surprised at this proposition in the age of comparatively cheap airfares and e-mails scuttling across the globe, but in the end I saw their point.

Julie Watts was one of an array of dynamic, fascinating emerging poets whom I ran across during my stay. I was expecting good writing when I received her first book “Honey & Hemlock” but I got a hell of a lot more. Like many inaugural titles the subjects are heavily autobiographical ranging across lovers, parents, daughter, mishap, nursing home and pets. But given that familiarity of theme, the reader is even more enriched by the gift of her language… the way she makes enlivens these themes.

There is a heavy dose of joy and wonder throughout this collection, yet more vital medications for the future of Australian poetry. All within the context of a fully nuanced life; in “After the Eye Injury” we’re breathlessly led along a pilgrimage of newly re-experienced colours to her altar of light. With “A Swim in the Sea” the poet plays with a simplicity of moment to a turn at the end that saw an audible ah from this reader. The familiarity with and love of the sea is evident throughout this collection

Watts savours a real sensuality in “6:45 AM” and “Achilles heel” then follows through with this startling new take on an eggs & sperm in “Eggs” – sperm on a tissue in a bin:

for three days they butt
at a white rough sheet
of pulverised tree.

This open sensuality carries through so much of this collection in everything from the stroking of the cat to breathing salt air… “A Spit of Sun”

and the world bursts
a pollen of people

The expenditure of time honing her craft is evident throughout. “Lilith” is a deeply satisfying study. In “I like Old Women” she comments:

they understand invisibility
no one can touch them now

“Maslow and the Ladybird” is another poem that careens out from the simple proposition of a ladybird landing on the poet’s wrist. It concludes:

vermilion folds a savannah
of all libidos

“So Much Depends” finishes the book and I couldn’t extract a single word from this poem, the whole works so perfectly. Had I been allowed only to read six books this year, there would not be a moment of regret if this had been one of them. Any of us “eastern-staters” who may not have run across her or even Roland Leach’s Sunline Press are strongly encouraged to rectify the issue.

– Les Wicks

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Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication across 16 countries in 9 languages. His 10th book of poetry is Barking Wings (PressPress, 2012). This year he will be performing at the world’s biggest poetry festival in Medellin. http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Honey & Hemlock is available from Sunline Press. http://www.sunlinepress.com.au/

A Voice Caged in Paper: Les Wicks reviews ‘Private Conversations Vol 2’ by Cameron Hindrum

Private Conversations Vol 2 by Cameron Hindrum. Walleah Press, 2012.

private conversations

Cameron Hindrum is a familiar figure amongst the slam community, a big presence both on the stage and physically. He has comparatively recently ventured into the world of words on paper with his novel the Blue Cathedral published in 2011.

I always expect a lot from Walleah Press, a bright light in what can be a narrow, dark poetry tunnel. They publish mostly, but not exclusively, Tasmanian work. As usual the production and design of Private Conversations are first rate. It is a 32 page chapbook with space to spare, I did wonder, however, why they went with the two-volume chap book model.

There is so much to like about this book. Hindrum’s is an openhearted voice capable of the belly laugh, freely given love and shared poignancy. If Australian poetry needs a medical plan to treat its chronic disease, this inclusive veracity will clearly be a core part of the treatment regime. Language is appropriately simple and clear.

Poems like “Zen Suite” gleam:

a footstep
is a map
of all things

“Driving East” finishes:

All things drift towards the water:
By the water, find the beach.
It’s of no importance that
The horizon’s always out of reach.

“Good Manners” is a delightful study of a visiting Japanese woman. Hindrum deftly works with the dissonance between the expected, clichéd mannerism of a different culture, her politeness, to the piercing on Koyuki’s throat (which also works as a marvellous metaphor for her limitations in English). Towards the end there’s a brilliant play on both her tackling of Western language/mores and a jibe at Japanese whaling:

At dinner I watch her harpoon
a California Roll with
an expertly-handled chopstick

so much achieved in so few words, so unforced.

Consistently over decades I have seen adept page poets murder their work on stage through arrogance,laziness, sheer incompatibility or incapacity. Conversely, many of the leading performance poets fail to make the transition to the printed page. They are not mutually exclusive mediums, but each requires a certain critical mindset to be applied. Many poets who straddle both mediums will say that certain pieces can be performed regularly but will not appear in any book. Other works would almost never be read out loud. From a slam poet like Hindrum the challenge really was to look again at all his work and make sure they function on the printed page. “On explaining the facts of life to a six-year-old” and “On finding 20,000-year-old footprints near Lake Mungo, NSW” are examples of work that generously reward both the reader and the audience equally. But this doesn’t apply to all pieces with a little lazy language detracting from otherwise engaging narratives. “Love poem for Jack and Sylvia” was a joy to read but the constant repetition of the word old, while I saw it working phonically, just served as a dragging chain on paper for me.

Having said this I return to my core point that this is a book well worth reading and possibly more importantly a book that makes one hungry for Hindrum’s next.

– Les Wicks

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Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication across 16 countries in 9 languages. His 10th book of poetry is Barking Wings (PressPress, 2012 http://www.presspress.com.au/Wicks.html). This year he will be performing at the world’s biggest poetry festival in Medellin. http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Private Conversations Vol 2 is available from Walleah Press http://www.walleahpress.com.au/recent.html or http://walleahpress.com.au/garradunga/?tcp_product=private-conversations-volume-2-cameron-hindrum