Living Life in the Rhythm Section: Nathan Hondros reviews ‘One Hour Seeds Another’ by Andrew Burke

One Hour Seeds Another by Andrew Burke Walleah Press 2014

Burke one HourOne Hour Seeds Another, Andrew Burke’s twelfth collection of poetry, is an important book and demands your attention.

This is primarily, of course, because of the quality of the work, which seems to me a landmark in Australian poetry. One Hour Seeds Another is a counterpoint of simple narrative, multidimensional confessional lyrics, complex religious and profane imagery, all beside and within the deceptively simple subjects critics have mislabelled ‘quotidian’.

More than this, however, Burke’s achievement in One Hour Seeds Another is the fusing together so many of the best tendencies in poetry that it feels like some kind of apotheosis. The ecumenical character of Burke’s poetry is also part of the man himself. As Andy Jackson pointed out at the Melbourne launch of this book (https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/08/15/a-disconcerting-bravery-andy-jackson-launches-one-hour-seeds-another-by-andrew-burke/), Andrew Burke turns no-one away: ‘…all poets are colleagues and poetry is democratic in the best sense’.

His refusal to be partisan to one form or school over another means he can move between classifications within a comprehensive and considered poetics, at times within a single poem, and choose his colours from a uniquely diverse and rich palette. Surrealism, jazz, rhythm and musicality, a kind of Australian formalism I’m yet to put my finger on (the whatever-it-is that a Geoff Page and a Robert Adamson have in common), Japanese forms: to Burke, these are tools employed to scratch at the rock face of poetry, not ideologies to use as broken glass in a fist fight. Each tool has an important job to do; no more, and no less.

This, perhaps to his alarm, puts Burke at the forefront of Australian poetry. The fusing of forms and subjects, an interest in most schools of thought without being a crusader for their cause, the sheer breadth and depth of knowledge of prosody, poetry and poetics sits under much of this work. While others are debating how to do the job by tossing useless barbs across the internet, Burke is doing it.

Andrew Burke gives away a rare clue in ‘Two Dead Matches’: ‘Why ask me. I like to live life in the rhythm section.’ He is feeling his way through the music of this collection. No prior knowledge of poetics and its controversies are expected or required of the reader; perhaps these poems should be listened to with the body like you would a drum solo, not over-analysed with the mind. They are expressive, emotional and Burke unifies their form with their intent almost perfectly.

For example, ‘Shikibu Shuffle’, a collaboration with prominent Canadian poet Phil Hall, is in part inspired by Japanese poet Murasaki Shikibu (973 – 1014) and jazz experimentalist Ornette Coleman, and works on a framework of Japanese forms.

Whistling without charts

I praise all swoops and calls

old red-throat has come back
the gentle violin-maker to the countryside

a left-footer’s choir
all language metaphor

All this manages to be uniquely Australian (in spite of its bi-national authorship of this one). Even when he messes with Japanese forms and experimental jazz, Burke meets my test for the importation of foreign forms into languages for which they were not intended: e.g., haiku in English must be good English poetry before it can be good haiku. There is a lot of feeling in poems like this, sometimes it only needs to be reached through the musicality of the phrasing and the images set against it. No agenda here, just like Ornette Coleman, who wouldn’t expect you to learn anything from him aside from the metaphysical lessons inherent in the experience of his work.

It is poetry like ‘Shikubu Shuffle’ that also confounds the too often repeated criticism of Burke’s work as ‘quotidian’. This does his poetry an injustice; if pundits and critics get away with this without appropriate extrapolation, then informed readers who approach this volume with those particular lenses will miss most of the show. True, Burke has in interest in the life he finds around him, but which poet doesn’t? Only those who are inept or dishonest. Burke does not embellish his life in the poems that are fitted up as ‘quotidian’, but takes it as it is and uses it as a framework for wringing out the poetry. And that’s how it should be. Poets who only write in aphorisms or ‘great thoughts’ bundled together in poetic forms or disparate lines too often seem afraid that their skills aren’t up to the job of revealing the poetry hidden in their daily circumstances. Instead they retreat into philosophical niceties or form tinkering or abstraction and obscurity. I’ll certainly confess this of my own poetry at times, and Andrew Burke was the first to point it out.

Among the extraordinary number of exceptional poems in One Hour Seeds Another are what Burke calls his ‘Notebook Poems’, which I gather are works masterfully excavated from the back catalogue of notebooks every poet lugs about. In these two poems ‘Notebook “singing they sang”’ and ‘Notebook (Darlington)’, I can see an Australian world transmogrified into an apposite and universal poetic representation of human experience. How many other poets can I write that about? ‘Notebook “singing they sang”’ binds Australian and American cultural influences into something unique: Burke thinks of Kerouac in the sparse Australian landscape, Tom Paxton and the Tasmanian Poetry Festival. He contemplates the music that exists independent of where it is sung. Any one of us could be in ‘Notebook (Darlington)’; for instance here I am:

in a cold
hillside morning
a boy repeats his callsign
…………..endlessly

The works to which I will return the most often in this collection are the ‘prose poems’. I’ve thought a lot about these poems, and have discussed them with the poet. They carry a powerful emotional charge. They sneak up on you. ‘Late Winter Night’ (the form of this one only verges on prose) is a contemplation of time explored through both an evening every one would recognise and ‘Berkeley Renaissance’ poet Jack Spicer: ‘The old dog is snoring…This poem has no birds in it, as Jack Spicer said some time/off’.

The two poems among these that caught me most deeply were ‘From The Centre Out’ and ‘Two Dead Matches’. Although an understanding of Ron Silliman’s ‘post-avant’ treatise The New Sentence is not required to appreciate the expressive power of these poems, it’s interesting to recognise that Burke is deliberately building on a tradition in language and poetics with these works. Phrases are repeated, and the poet appears in an almost renga-like dialogue with himself. The narrative and the phrases build and become more moving as each repetition is built upon those before and new lines introduced to elaborate the effect.

At the risk of upsetting people (including the poet) by using the term, ‘Two Dead Matches’, in particular, is a masterpiece of Australian literature. A review can’t do it justice; you have to read it, and I hope you’ll agree.

‘Last Rites’ is another poem alone worth the price of admission for this remarkable book. It’s a knot of mortality angst that fuses the modern with the avant-garde. I’m not sure how the critics of the ‘quotidian’ neatly fit this in their theory:

‘I shit with the dead’
How do the dead shit?
Their diners come to feast
corpus delicatus.

And for a final note, the poet who lives his life in the rhythm section summons Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung to sit along side ‘tea and finger food/for the living’ for last rites. What a magnificent and fascinating synthesis of ideas.

Years ago a friend and I hypothesised that the character of a person can be measured by the books beside the bed he or she wakes up next to. I’ll be happily judged for keeping Andrew Burke’s One Hour Seeds Another on the bedside table and it’ll be there for a long while yet.

– Nathan Hondros

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One Hour Seeds Another is available from http://store.walleahpress.com.au/andrew-burkes-one-hour-seeds-another/
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A Disconcerting Bravery: Andy Jackson launches ‘One Hour Seeds Another’ by Andrew Burke

One Hour Seeds Another by Andrew Burke. Walleah Press, 2014. One Hour Seeds Another was launched in Melbourne at Collected Works Bookshop on 19th July 2014 by Andy Jackson.

Andrew Burke discussing One Hour Seeds Another at Collected Works

Andrew Burke discussing One Hour Seeds Another at Collected Works (Photo Franceska Bussey)

When Andrew Burke asked me to launch his new book today, I had two simultaneous thoughts. One of them was “of course, I’d be honoured”. The other was – why me?! I mean, here is a poet who has had a dozen books published. Doesn’t he realise I’m a relative newcomer to poetry? What happened to getting someone more prestigious than you to launch your book, a sort of reflected glory? Well, what happened is that Andrew doesn’t see the world of poetry as hierarchy, or snakes and ladders, poets climbing over each other, or hissing and slithering with barely-disguised venom. To Andrew, all poets are colleagues and poetry is democratic in the best sense. He draws from a long lineage of poets of the past and the present, from writers and thinkers of other cultures and nations, from jazz musicians and friends, and from language itself.

And since he’s a collaborator, I’m going to insert little samples of some of the poems from “One Hour Seeds Another” throughout this launch speech. These samples of course belong in their contexts, but they can still breathe outside on their own – because, while each line presents itself as casual, they’ve been written with intense attentiveness.

It’s a compost heap.
It’s a tapdance on your grave.

-‘Ars Poetica’

This book revolves around time, memory, change, death and life. It gives ample space for grief and not knowing. It celebrates the lives of now-departed friends, in moments and in experiments that are poignant, memorable and transcendentally mundane. These poems are moving, but they’re moving in both senses – they provoke an emotional response, but they never get stuck in one place. And while they are a kind of memento mori, they are also witty, sometimes even like zen koans that don’t require an answer.

……………………..………Cemetery birds are all black
except at the entrance where butterflies flitter.

– ‘Requiescat in pace’
.

I like to think the man with a scythe
is simply a man with a scythe.

– ‘Still Life’

The poems also revolve around moments, humble micro-epiphanies captured in language. His wife needles him more than once for his immersion in these fleeting and pregnant moments – the determined and thoughtful movements of a bee around a thistle bush in the garden; or the music of dandelion heads on the drive shaft of the car as they back out of the drive. They are always, like the haiku he includes here, the moments themselves, entirely, yet they hint at something beyond, a wisdom in the distance. These hints are invariably subtle, but sometimes they come with a wink.

I bring my porridge
to the table
and think in its steam –
too much cinnamon
and not enough
metaphor

– ‘She waits for me’

There is also a disconcerting bravery here (and by that I do mean brave, not foolhardy), as the poet shows himself dreaming of sex with red-haired women, or [quote] “reading AA recovery stories” while “socking water back”, or just openly admitting his ignorance at any number of life’s mysteries. Whether the poet here is Andrew or not I’ll leave that to you to decide. Either way, it’s an honesty that is not only thumbing a nose at the hubris, the cool detachment and false wisdom of some poets, but an example to us all. From one of my favourite poems of the book, which maintains its dark mystery and black humour even after we realise it’s about the experience of surgery, pre-op and post-op.

I enter, not knowing who
I’m going to see : : dead, living,
actors slipping into their roles
for theatre. I greet all I meet
with a face reflecting
the intelligence of a decorated biscuit
at a birthday party.

– ‘Anaesthetics’

One Hour Seeds Another is also very much about poetry itself. In fact, it’s how it begins. The opening section, bravely (there’s that word again) elaborates on Andrew’s Ars Poetica, directly and by example. It’s a poetry of play and experimentation. He clearly loves form – haiku, renga, concrete poetry, list poems, prose poems, erasure, and two poems in a form I’d never seen before and still can’t name. But this is poetry that is very aware of its own limitations, which is of course where its power resides. I’d like to read a poem which to me is about poetry as much as it is about cricket.

A Quick Single

1

I like a dark mystery
in the sun for five days

2

there is a book of rules
lots of people have read it

3

at the game my friends and I
don’t talk about each other
but about the men out in the centre
who we attribute various character faults to

4

it has the wonder of chess
with the athleticism

of billiards

5

as a nation
we are good at it
and we beat the poms and kiwis
on a regular basis

what more could you ask?

6

once upon a time
I could bowl
bouncers at bullies

Andrew also knows about silence. Many lines here are short. He can certainly elaborate, but he also knows how the white space of the page can speak as strongly as the text. So, just two more very short things before I follow his example and become silent myself. First, I’d like to declare One Hour Seeds Another launched, confident that it will certainly seed many other beautiful poems, for Andrew and for every poet who reads it. Second, a haiku from the book – not 17 syllables, but perfect.

fuse flash
lights ou

– ’12 Haiku’

-Andy Jackson

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Andy Jackson’s Among the Regulars (papertiger, 2010) was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize and Highly Commended in the Anne Elder Award. His poems have recently appeared in Meanjin, Best Australian Poems 2013, and the Medical Journal of Australia. A new collection Otherpoems won the Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize and will be published later this year. He blogs about the poetry of bodies and identities at amongtheregulars.wordpress.com

One Hour Seeds Another is available from http://store.walleahpress.com.au/andrew-burkes-one-hour-seeds-another/

Rochford Street Review relies on the support of its readers to continue. If you like what we are doing please consider making a donation.

The Ruthless Eye: Rae Desmond Jones reviews ‘Undercover of Lightness’ by Andrew Burke.

Undercover of Lightness by Andrew Burke, Walleah Press, Hobart Tasmania. 2012.

Many of Andrew Burke’s poems begin with a chatty casual style but end with a comment which carefully deflects the mood of the poem and makes it a reflection or moral observation deeper than the reader might expect from the tone. The process is not formulaic, as the reflections are diverse and most follow a narrative logically from each poem’s beginning. In ‘Washing, for example, Burke engages the reader with the tone of an experienced and skilful teller of tales of the good old days:

Today you won’t see one
but back in the sixties
the historic house I lived in had
a timber and wire clothesline,
propped up in midstring
by the long sapling of a eucalypt tree …

With this easy style the reader settles in for a straightforward yarn. However, by line eight, the points of reference broaden:

…………Urban Aborigines,
out of work and down on their lunch,
walked door to door selling these props …

Significantly, the washing line wires

hung loose between two crucifixes
with movable arms…

Details continue to accumulate without any explicit moral, although the poem’s sympathies are clear at the end:

…… on the night of a full moon
a small feathered woman would arrive
and sit on top of the post near
the gnarled and knotted mulberry tree,
her wisdom silent in her,
two deep eyes focused on me
as I wrote by moonlight,
sitting on the backsteps,
pad resting on sunburnt knees.”

Andrew Burke is a keen observer of people, politics and behaviour. The method he uses in Washing is typical, however he ranges across a variety of subjects and themes. The conversational tone sets the scene then he draws his point out with subtlety. There are poems when the opening gambit becomes blunt, when the subject is confessional, as in ‘Diary: Royal Perth Hospital 2010’ , where the title is an alert:

I am Bed 6GC
beside the helipad.

He (assuming that the subject is the poet) is no longer Andrew Burke, but a number and two capital letters:

identity band on
they won’t lose me
I’ll know who I am.

A double appears, disturbing evidence of his fragility:

There’s a ghost of myself
on this bed’s TV –
star of my memories.

The poem relates the central events of the following days. On Operation Day

Christ and his two thieves
left their crosses
at the cathedral next door:

weathered concrete,
not a splinter on them.

It’s just a story,’ the chaplain says.
‘You should know that, Andrew.’

I grew up with Christ’s thorns
tattooed on my brain.

The narrative (there is almost always a narrative – this poet is a natural teller of stories) describes a conversation of “cross / rhythms and syncopation” with a tall, urbane African orderly, as he enters the theatre where the spotlight is on him. He is not comfortable with this particular starring role:

My Greek chorus
leans in leans out.

By Day three, his body is a battleground:

as choppers drop
squads of para-
noia troops – terrorists
attack through tubes
into the interior night
shadows of my brain,
a mind field. I am
reduced to fears…

Gradually the tone of relaxed confidence returns with recovery, as he watches the 2010 Wimbledon men’s Final, and

A woman in
the crowd has
my mother’s hat on
last worn when
Rod Laver won the cup …

in the meantime,

Obese bed K2 farts robustly,
bed K4 snores to wake the dead.

Finally, he “keeps (his) eye on the exit sign.” It is an explicit use of poetry as therapy, which is not his usual way, although in the last section of the volume, entitled ‘Selected Poems, he ruminates at length, on some difficult family relationships:

Dear Father 

How sick I get of your ghost
stirring the blood between us,
how sick of the ties
that hold me.

Then resolves it:

father, I untie you –
air rushes out / and I whoop…

Burke’s eye for exercising (or exorcising) the telling detail re-appears in the series written in China, where he captures the poverty and seething vigour of China. He observes Bike mechanics in the street:

One old spark plug
lies on the pavement,
and a young boy,
opportunist at five,
picks it up and scurries away.
Maybe Dad will be pleased.

In ‘Linfen Morning’ he makes a series of acute but innocuous observations of household economic activity, then: “One man is gone from the streetscape. He wrote an anti-government message in his shop window and was not there the next day.” The prose poem continues to describe the bustle of the town as though the disappearing man is not important or significant, then the work is abruptly closed by a pointed haiku:

at night, fireworks
at dawn, torn red paper shells
dye the gutter pink.

The volume is replete with a variety of subjects scrutinised through an impeccable bullshit detector. The tone is mostly gentle but the eye is ruthless. Undercover of Lightness is a good title: beneath the cover a lot happens.

– Rae Desmond Jones

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Rae Desmond Jones is a major Australian poet. His first book was Orpheus With A Tuba, Makar Press, 1973. His latest books are Thirteen Poems from the Dead, Polar Bear Press 2011 and Decline and Fall Flying Island Books 2011.  He has just finished editing The Selected Your Friendly Fascist which will shortly be published by Rochford Street Press.

Undercover of Lightness is available from Walleah Press http://walleahpress.com.au.