An expression of awe & wonder: Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper reviews ‘Interferon Psalms’ by Luke Davies.

Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies. Allen & Unwin 2011

daviesThe title of this suite of poems refers to the treatment its author received for hepatitis C:

Interferons (IFNs) are proteins made and released by host cells in response to the presence of pathogens such as viruses,.bacteria, parasites or tumor cells. They allow for.communication between cells to trigger the protectivedefenses of the immune system that eradicate pathogens or tumors (Wikepedia).

He describes his treatment as follows:

I was on that stuff for 16 extremely debilitating months…It was actually a combination therapy (with an antiviral drug called ribavirin), the cumulative side effects of which are extensive, you could almost say comprehensive. Among the MANY side effects…the treatment, for separate reasons, reduces both the red cell count and the white cell count. This in turn leads to various unpleasant side-effects. (Comment on ABC website, 12 October, 2011)

His own perspective on the work:

I wrote a book of poetry in which illness was harnessed as a kind of metaphor for how one should engage with one’s life. (ibid)

The comparison that comes to mind for this long poem, with its sweeping changes of theme, mood and form yet complex architecture is the oratorio: ‘a large-scale, usually narrative musical work for orchestra and voices, typically on a sacred theme’, in spite of its avowedly secular nature. The mathematics involved in the 33 psalms on the 99 names of God also remind one of the mathematical relationships in Bach’s music, with its interweaving of point and counterpoint, theme and reply, prelude and fugue.

What it seems to be reaching for is an expression of awe and wonder not specifically linked to religion, though couched in the language and framework of a religious text. This seems very much a modern quest, where even atheists such as Alain De Botton (Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to Religion: Hamish Hamilton, 2012) and A.C. Grayling are acknowledging the human need for ritual and ceremony, Grayling even having produced a secular bible for such occasions (The Good Book: A Secular Bible: Bloomsbury, 2011).

Davies has said he is not in fact a religious man; however, he admits that his Catholic upbringing remains an abiding influence (Review, ABC National ‘The Book Show’, 12 October, 2011). The incantatory style felt good, he says, the music of the service is natural in his ear. He refers to Joseph Campbell, who talks of ‘the rapture of being alive’ (The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Anchor Doubleday 2011). He himself uses the phrase ‘the transcendent to be found in the every day’. Still, his relationship to the supernatural seems deeply ambivalent, is he an agnostic, or is he creating for himself a personal notion of the divine (if that’s not an oxymoron)? His struggle to reconcile the divine with the modern harks back to Apollinaire, a century and a half earlier, a poet whom Davies quotes in the ‘Psalms’ and whose tortured relationship with ‘Lou’ has much in common with the poet’s own love relationship (as represented in the ‘Psalms’).

Paul Auster (Introduction to The Random House Book of French Poetry; Vintage Books, 1984, p. xxiv) has described Apollinaire’s poetry as follows:

(it) ranges from graceful love lyrics to bold experiments, from rhyme to free verse to ‘shape’ poems, he manifests a new sensibility at once indebted to the forms of the past and enthusiastically at home in the world of automobiles, airplanes and movies.

This description could possibly be applied, with appropriate updating, to the ‘Psalms’, though I’m not suggesting that Davies is the equal of Apollinaire.

Bronwyn Lea, in her review of the ‘Psalms’ (The Conversation, 26 July, 2012), has also commented on the links between Davies and the French poet:

Nearly a century on and a world away, fragments of Apollinaire’s great longing – ‘I think of you my Lou your heart is my barracks’ – have surfaced with small distortions in a tour de force by Australian poet, Luke Davies…

I am reminded in particular of Apollinaire’s poem ‘Zone’ (Auster, op. cit. p.2), which is said to have been the jumping off point for modernism; even the style and tone have much in common with ‘Psalms’. In particular, Apollinaire manifests the same agony and ambivalence in regard to religion. On the one hand he declares that in this modern world:

La religion est restée toute neuve la religion
(Religion alone has stayed young religion)

but on the other hand

Vous avez honte quand vous vous surprenez à dire une prière (You are ashamed when you catch yourself at a paternoster)

translation Samuel Beckett.

Perhaps the divine, for Davies, ultimately equates to the aesthetic. (E. Dissanayake – Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, University of Washington Press, 1995 – has said that the concept of ‘meaning’ is of its very nature aesthetic.) It is in poetry that he finds the transcendent.

There are three interwoven motifs, three parallel tracks Davies takes us on, but to untangle them would be like trying to listen to one voice in a multi-voiced contrapuntal musical work. These are: illness; love and loss; travel and alienation. The way in which he has woven these together, the startling shifts between them, sudden turns and dissonances, create unexpected and fresh connections:

My blood was crawling with messianic impropriety. I was a plasma-electric hybrid; it gave me more staying power through the galaxy of my auto-disdain. Or love, I forget which. Or loves. (18)

He is almost forcing us to take the journey with him and sometimes it feels uncomfortable, like looking at the inside of someone’s head, but we know that this is carefully crafted and it is not necessarily his head, but one that he has created. Each of the major themes contains its own narrative: a process, a development. But it is not a straightforward progression, more one step forward, two steps back.

At least I got to bed a minute earlier at night, a minute at a time. (12)
Nature came back to reclaim pretty much everything…The feral geraniums didn’t give up either. (13)
‘That I would narrow down the tasks: one thing, then one. (57)
Mine is to be content with you and not to adopt any one line of action other than that which I’m in… (84)
to overcome certainty was to accept it (85)
… Abide in the mind of the unknown.(85)
The salmon of wisdom was upon me. (85)

Eventually the treatment stops, at first that is difficult, but gradually he begins to thrive. At the same time, he learns to deal with the loss of his lover, and, in terms of his travel and alienation he ‘landed like a bird inside myself’ (97). Part of the ‘answer’ he finds is in the development of the work itself, in the artistic process. I am reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’, where the poet admonishes herself to ‘Write it!’

The lessons the poet learns are hardly earth shattering, but they are tempered by his humour and his humility, and the fact that this wisdom is discovered, rather than merely learnt.

The poet links his experience of treatment to themes of love, of travel, of identity, and even with the fate of the world and the universe. His appreciation of literature, of nature, are so embedded, that they are integrated into his language, even altered in a spirit of humorous punning, as he distorts them to his purpose. In particular, he plays with notions of time and space:

The ice came back. If you sped up the centuries you could hear the moraines screeching.

Retreated, too. The forests grew again. We would have gone insane with the dripping of the leaves had we been around to hear it. But millions of years passed first. (11)

Of the three motifs, the one I most engaged with was Davies’ representation of his treatment, possibly because I have myself experienced chemotherapy, but also because it is the driving force. He evokes within the reader the sensations of the treatment ravaging the body, making the language breathe with them:

The cells bubbled silently in my liver … (20)
Everything that could sting would sting. (21)…
Then all the injections thinned my blood, and with it my hair, and thus my Great Goat Self.(24)…
Day by day the hours evaporated; hour by hour my hair fell out. Then everyone and everything was gone, except for whatever was most inappropriate. I could not be trusted to drive, there were no bad drivers, only me. Rage peppered the weeks. (32)

We can feel the breathlessness in these short phrases, the fatigue in the repetitions.

In the midst of this breathless, hurtling prose, we come upon a gem of stillness, of repose, of rhyme and structure:

I missed a girl I could not help but miss.
Such missing was colossal in the face
Of all the tender hours that came to pass… (53)

Love and poetry provide a reprieve from ‘the pitch and drag of days’.

What ultimately distinguishes this epic poem is its emotional and formal range; the seamless transition between moods, themes and forms of language, its capaciousness, where in one breath, the deeply personal and the macrocosmic are linked in a universe in which absurdity and meaning are equally present.

Most reviewers have been enthusiastic about the ‘Psalms’. Peter Craven, in The Australian (August 27 2011) has praised it in the following terms:

a tremendous attempt to wrestle meaning from suffering.

It is one of the most ambitious performances in modern Australian poetry and it will command the world’s attention.

Philip Salom, in in the So Long Bulletin, begs to differ. What I have termed ‘emotional and formal range’ is, in his eyes, a ‘sadly uneven’ work. Salom admits to the seductiveness of the poetry, of the ‘wildness that a reader is supposed to swept up in (sic) and might well enjoy, for the wild ride…a seductive otherness.’ He acknowledges that the self-mocking humour is its ‘saving grace’ but his ultimate judgement is that the work is ‘sadly uneven’. Above all he bemoans the trend to ‘overblown personal…over inflated romantic voicing’; a trend he finds disturbing in contemporary poetry.

I have been somewhat shaken out of my trance by this cool assessment, and perhaps rightly so: the reader should be able to depend on the reviewer to stand back and not be swept along. On the other hand, at the heart of even the coolest critique is a gut reaction. I agree the work is ‘uneven’ but not that this is inevitably ‘sad’. Might it not be worthwhile at times to attempt something wildly ambitious and not quite succeed? Perhaps Beethoven is a better metaphor for the ‘Psalms’ than Bach. I prefer Bach, but at his best, Beethoven sweeps you away.

– Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper

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The Interferon Psalms are available from http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=94&book=9781742370347

Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper was born in Amsterdam and survived the Holocaust in hiding. She arrived in Australia at the age of 11 with her family. She taught foreign languages and English as a Second Language and lectured in Teacher Education at several universities. She has been published in Australian and overseas journals and anthologies, has won several poetry prizes. Her Dutch-English poetry book and CD Island of wakefulness appeared with Hybrid in 2006. She is a former president of Melbourne Poets Union.

Diversity and Cohesion: Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper reviews Thirty Poets edited by Felicity Plunkett

Thirty Poets edited by Felicity Plunkett. UQP 2011.

Martin Duwell (Australian Poetry Review, 1.2.12) considers anthologies:

… weird and fascinating reading experiences. In many ways they are rather like poems themselves. They have an intention … but the possible meanings of the work often overtake its intention. Like poems they have a personal stamp but they also have a context – the context of other anthologies. Like poems they have complex and important internal structures …

An anthology is like a bunch of flowers, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, and there is an art in arranging both flowers and poems. The two opposing principles of variety and cohesion often create a tension, as it is difficult to achieve both in equal measure. In the case of this anthology, the structural principle is the nature of the selection criteria: the poets were born after 1968 and had to have at least one publication. In fact, as far as we can judge (not all the poets reveal their date of birth in their biography), the dates of birth fall somewhere between 1968 and 1980. Apart from the criterion of year of birth, the arrangement is studiously neutral, poets being represented in alphabetical order, a common practice these days (e.g. Best Australian Poems). The advantage of a neutral arrangement is that readers may find their own connections. For example, there seems to be a deep link between the first poem, Ali Alizadeh’s ‘Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran’and the last poem, Petra White’s ‘The Gone’: a journey across geographical and cultural territory and a mourning for those ‘packed into the present tense of here lie/ and the single past tense of the headstone’. David McCooey, in his introduction, has commented that Plunkett ‘has chosen the poems…so that the collection reads like a ‘book’, with artfully repeating motifs and themes.’

Themes and motifs I have chosen to trace have been those identified by David McCooey (‘Surviving Australian Poetry – the new lyricism.’ International Poetry Web, May 1 2007) as being part of a ‘new lyricism’. He identifies three elements of this new lyricism: ‘worldliness’, ‘the uncanny’ and ‘lyricism’. While, as McCooey has stated in the introduction to the anthology, there is clearly an enormous variety of theme and form represented, and we would not push this framework too far, I found it useful in exploring the ‘flavour’ of the anthology, with the caveat that both Potter (Poetry International Web, July, 2011) and Alizadeh (Cordite, 30th May, 2011) have expressed reservations about such a classification.

McCooey defines ‘worldliness’ as: ‘… the ‘recumbent poetic’ that can be found through any number of antecedents not determined by nationality.’ He has identified ‘key concerns in Australian poetry’ as ‘self and place’.

Place is interwoven with memory, as in the poems of Samuel Wagan Watson; as a source of ambivalence, as in ‘Antipodes’, by Bronwyn Lea, exploring the ambivalence of a European in Australia. Jaya Savige, in the persona of Michael Dransfield, exposes the Australian abroad:

I guess I’ve never understood
the romance of those ruins of the blood.

In Sarah Holland-Batt’s poem ‘The Art of Disappearing’, it is the self that keeps changing:

Desire will not hold …
Something is always about to happen.
You get married, you change your name…’

In Petra White’s poem ‘The Magnolia Tree’, the tree is a metaphor for:

A mind beginning to know itself again
after a long period of hostage.

Finally, Alizadeh and Kambasovic-Sawers explore self and place from the perspective of their bicultural heritage.

The ‘uncanny’ has to do with ‘strangeness, eeriness … we can find it in the unfamiliarity of the familiar, or in the sense of the familiar in the unfamiliar.’ The uncanny, of course, has a long list of antecedents, not least surrealism. In discussing the uncanny, McCooey uses as an example a poem by Michael Brennan, which has been republished in this anthology: ‘The Other’:

‘… the doppelganger (sic) … is associated with sleep … with
death … sleep is uncanny because it unsettles notions of the self …’

In Brennan’s first ‘Letter Home’ the narrator’s brother, who has died, appears in his mind: he seems to see him everywhere, as in a dream. Whilst he doubts there is an afterlife, the image is at once disturbing and comforting. The second ‘Letter Home’ consists of a dream sequence where dream and poetry are interwoven:

The people douse themselves in petrol
As though poetry mattered

As in a dream, all elements: earth, sky, water, fire, are confounded.

Kate Fagan’s ‘Dadabase’, dedicated to Michael Farrell, is a mosaic of non-sequiturs, a word- and soundscape.  ‘A Little Song’ presents a surrealist landscape, with juxtapositions that make you sit up: ‘Before the world was blue/it was a little darker …’ ‘Concrete Poem’ consists of a series of mini-poems, statements reminiscent of Neruda, dream-like associations with their own internal thematic logic.

In Lisa Gorton’s ‘Dreams and Artefacts’, dreams, history and poetry merge:

‘ … the mimic ship’s hull half-
sailed out of the foyer wall,
as if advancing into somebody else’s dream –
… these things raised
from a place less like place than like memory itself –’

Lyricism ‘is what we associate most commonly with poetry: musicality; brevity; intensity; the drive to epiphany or insight and an emphasis on thought, feeling and subjectivity… The ‘new lyricism continues the lyrical project by being both faithful and unfaithful to poetry.’ (McCooey, op.cit)

Lyricism is as old as the hills – so what might be new about the ‘new lyricism’? Perhaps nothing, or perhaps it lies in the notion of poets being ‘both faithful and unfaithful to poetry’ – maintaining an ironic distance from their own work, weaving into their poetry reference to the whole poetic enterprise. Many of the poets make specific reference to the poetic process in a variety of ways, such as using words such as ‘poetry’, ‘rhythm’ ‘syllable’, thus doubling the frame; the poem contains within it the history of its evolution. In Nick Riemer’s: ‘The Thing You’re In’, the poet is ‘in it’, yet sees himself somehow as an outsider, sitting on the sofa watching movies: ‘Everything happens fast and then is gone’. The poem is also about the frustrating task of capturing this fleeting reality speeding past as water down the drain:

I type full stop and an arrow
appears: today is a flickering thing, there’s
not much I could say about today.’

In Petra White’s ‘Karri Forest’, the forest, in the process of being destroyed, still ‘swirls you in its poem’, so that the creation of the poem in some way counteracts the destruction of the forest.

Referencing other authors and literary works: David Prater’s ‘Sunbathing’ begins with a quotation from Bernard O’Dowd, and the narrative voice seems to suggest this author; in ‘Oz’, Prater references O’Dowd’s ‘Australia’, at the same time creating his personal sardonic eulogy to the country. In ‘A821.4’ that library classification stands for ‘…the place where we all somehow hope to die’, a place where we are ‘in solidarity with those whose fame/ exceeds our own’.

Finally, in Jane Gibian’s ‘Sound Piece’, the items stored in the curiosity cabinet, such as ‘a baby sister sucking her dummy in the night’ are the stuff of poetry, making the whole poem a metaphor for the poetic process.

There are many more paths to explore through this varied and cohesive anthology. You could simply revisit your old favourites and acquire new ones. A poet who has for some time been a favourite of mine is Sarah Holland-Batt. In ‘This Landscape Before Me’, the natural environment, history, the present, in the form of the poet, and the future, in the shape of the rabbit, who is about to die, are all anchored. Then there is the delicacy of ‘Night Sonnet’, with its startling metaphors: ‘Cars drowse under the window quiet as mousetraps’ and ‘a grit of light trembles…’

I am not in the habit of criticising choices made by editors of an anthology. We all have our favourites and each editor has their own notion of what matches. Generally, the poets are all beyond the ‘emerging’ stage and are both competent and interesting. However, not all poems by individual poets are at the same level. The practical constraint of selecting roughly the same number of pages from each contributor, while having the advantage of providing a substantial representation, also carries the disadvantage of including some lesser work. As the poets are relatively young, this may eventually prove to be a disservice.

Another constraint perhaps too rigidly applied was ‘post 1968’. Plunkett herself mentions in the preface several poets  who could have been included, both ‘emerging’ and older poets. I agree. I wonder why she did not do this, as it would have provided greater continuity, instead of giving the impression that the cut-off point had more than ‘practical’ significance.

This collection has effectively balanced competing demands of diversity and cohesion: it is a richly coloured and thoughtfully arranged bouquet of poems. It has already inspired another anthology with authors selected on the basis of age: John Leonard’s Young Poets: An Australian Anthology (John Leonard Press, 2011), featuring 7 poets at greater length (some of the same poets, and even the same poems, as in Thirty Australian Poets). It will be interesting to see what other anthologies might follow in its wake.

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Thirty Poets is available from UQP http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/

Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper was born in Amsterdam and survived the Holocaust in hiding. She arrived in Australia at the age of 11 with her family. She taught foreign languages and English as a Second Language and lectured in Teacher Education at several universities. She has been published in Australian and overseas journals and anthologies, has won several poetry prizes. Her Dutch-English poetry book and CD Island of wakefulness appeared with Hybrid in 2006. She is a former president of Melbourne Poets Union.

Signifying the Feminine: Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper reviews This Woman by Adrienne Eberhard

This Woman by Adrienne Eberhard. Black Pepper, 2011 Reviewed by: Marietta Elliott-KLeerkoper

The title of Adrienne Eberhard’s new collection of poetry states her intention boldly: This Woman. ‘This’ signifies the place: the here and now. ‘Woman’ signifies the feminine, the female domain, a domain also encompassed by the symbolism of Susan Hawthorne’s ‘Cow’. Margaret Bradstock, in her review of the collection in Mascara Literary Review (Issue 10 October 2011), states that it is ‘female poetry’ and that it is ‘confessional’. I find these epithets limiting. Maybe ‘personal’ and ‘lyrical’ are more apt. However, as we know, the personal is both universal and political. And these qualities are not necessarily ‘female’, as is demonstrated in new collections such as Luke Davies’ Interferon Psalms and Christopher Swan’s Daylight Dark and Shadow.

One of Eberhard’s most significant and enduring influences is Seamus Heany:

Seamus Heany … his ability to invoke childhood … his ability to use language and metaphor … his way of anchoring his poems in the natural world … Heany was (sic) a poet of place …

‘In dialogue with Poetry: The intimate self/the invisible mender.’ Adrienne Eberhard. Zest e-magazine, 2007.

And Eberhard is herself a poet of place. How could she not be, living by the beauty of the D’Entrecastaux Channel in Tasmania?

… Across the Channel,

Bruny stretches like a tawny lion, colour leaching

from tawny hills until grassy slopes are sandy

as the beaches rimming the island like an endless

string of pearls …

‘Littoral’

Within this landscape, under the ‘enamelled cobalt’ of the sky, are the children ‘claiming the world with their noise’. In this way, the microcosmic and the macrocosmic are united.

The notion of place includes its history (a previous volume was ‘Lady Jane Franklin’). While Margaret Bradstock may have a point, that Eberhard has romanticised that history in omitting its less palatable aspects (I am not qualified to judge), Eberhard does not shirk from confronting even the most painful experiences. Her poems on breast cancer are hard-hitting, almost savage:

Soon her own breast will radiate lurid colour, her son

will hold out his small arms and she will turn away,

her breasts dangerous. The surgeon will take his knife

and rectify. Her breast will follow the knife’s hollowing,

all pertness spent in the sharpness of steel,

falling into itself, as if trying to salvage something.

‘This woman’

and there is the pain of witnessing her son’s colour blindness, a condition ‘carried by daughters, inherited by sons’ (‘Vision’). For me, these poems are the most poignant, perhaps partly because I too have suffered breast cancer.

Another way Eberhard says Heany has influenced her is in his use of metaphor. She says of metaphor:

… in the beginning was metaphor. This is what enables us to see the potential of the world

Adrienne Eberhard. Zest e-magazine, 2007.

Kinzie has defined metaphor as follows:

Usually something physical and capable of being imagined by us visually … is transferred from the literal realm over to the spiritual

Mary Kinzie: A Poet’s Guide to Poetry.

University of Chicago Press, 1999

In Eberhard’s case, the ‘physical’ is commonly the landscape or the body – one expressed in terms of the other, for example, in poems such as ‘The Natural Order’, where the girl is described in terms of the wind, and ‘Trust’, where the child in his different stages of growth is described in terms of the animals he encountered. Out of this comparison, the message is that we are anchored in the natural world. The comparison can also enhance the description of both the landscape and the figures in the landscape. However, if this becomes too much of a pattern, the power of the comparison can be weakened.

Kinzie also points out that:

… the poet must find the right objects and the means of shifting the conception of them from one realm to another.

This can be difficult to achieve. There is a danger of bathos (so well illustrated in the works of Alexander Pope, who uses this device with intent): for example: the comparison of a flock of crows with a bikie gang; a bird’s nest ‘soft as suede shoes’ (reminded me of Elvis: ‘Don’t step on my blue suede shoes!’).

A further issue with comparison is its formulation. Simile (‘as’ or ‘like’) introduces a foreign element, to paraphrase Kinzie. In this way it is less direct. Moreover, there is an inherent ambiguity in the simile: the two arms of the comparison are as much unlike as like. It is less of a shifting from one realm to another. In Eberhard’s work there is a preponderance of simile, as opposed to a more direct form of metaphor. Take, for example, the similes used in ‘Littoral’ (see previous quotation).

In relation to diction, Kinzie states that:

… the more syllables in the word, the more conceptual, cerebral, conversational, and/or editorial it will tend to be.

Eberhard seems to have a fondness for the longer, latinate word, such as ‘luminous’, ‘translucent, ‘illuminated’, ‘excoriation’. Clearly, there is a place for both what Kinzie calls ‘objective, thing-or texture-filled’  language and abstract language. However, at times, this kind of consciously poetic language, especially if repeated from one poem to the next, or even in the same poem (see use of the word ‘golden’ in ‘Instructions for Learning the Saxophone’, p.80) the language seems over-written, especially in the case of phrases such as ‘luminous light’ and  ‘ancient past’, where the adjective is in fact largely redundant.

In this collection, the poet has drawn us into her world with intimacy and honesty.  It is a world rich in beauty, in history, in love of family. We are indeed ‘very lucky’:

And if we are very lucky … the poems we write will briefly repair the holes, the tears, the scatterings, the separations, so that for an instant, as the transaction between reader and poem takes place, the reader will inhabit a world made whole.

Adrienne Eberhard. Zest e-magazine, 2007.

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Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper was born in Amsterdam and survived the Holocaust in hiding. She arrived in Australia at the age of 11 with her family. She taught foreign languages and English as a Second Language and lectured in Teacher Education at several universities. She has been published in Australian and overseas journals and anthologies, has won several poetry prizes. Her Dutch-English poetry book and CD Island of wakefulness appeared with Hybrid in 2006. She is a former president of Melbourne Poets Union.