A Wonderful Cross-Woven Web of Sensory Delights: Andrew Burke reviews ‘Scavenger’s Season’ by Christopher (Kit) Kelen

Scavenger’s Season by Christopher (Kit) Kelen, Puncher & Wattman 2014

“Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” – Thoreau Walden

scavengers_season_310_459_sAs the publisher says, Christopher (Kit) Kelen’s Scavenger’s Season represents a quarter century’s poetic engagement with a place. In this case the place is five acres between two forests – at Markwell via Bulahdelah, in the Hunter Region, on the NSW North Coast.

The sense of place is fundamental, but it is also inspiration for the imagination and intelligence of the poet. That is an essential element – the poems may have well changed if the scene was in another locale, but the drive behind it all is the perception of an ‘outsider’ to a natural environment. I don’t want to dwell on any abstract theories here because this collection is firmly rooted in the gritty relationship of this city poet with the local fauna and flora and the ever changing aspects of the weather. He brings with him decades of writing contemporary Australian poetry in a modernist manner flavoured by recent decades of translating and teaching translation at the University of Macao. It is simple English, mostly without punctuation and capitals, which is a well-accepted form for contemporary poetry, but occasionally leads a reader to misread a line and have to circle back to clarify meaning. Line breaks and syntax avoids this happening too often, but even when it does happen it may be because the phrase in question may apply to what went before and what comes after. It is one of those wonderful shades of ambiguity we enjoy in today’s poetry. (And constantly working in various Asian languages would provide daily examples of different ways of presenting the written word in continuous text.)

Kelen doesn’t praise the Australian bush or damn it; he explores nature without judgement. He introduces the reader to his explorations without overt value judgements, yet his perceptions – from ‘silence’ to ‘nothingness’ – let us enjoy his reactions on a philosophical level as well as a sensory on.

seasickness of the soul
righting itself
……………in all that it cannot compass

– ‘hunting wild nexus’

Hence, as I mentioned before, it is both a poetry of intelligence and imagination.

Scavenger’s Season is loaded with delight and sprinkled with wisdom. I am a little loathe to select examples because it is page following page of delight, but I will attempt a few examples of ‘wisdom’. Firstly, wisdom as Kit revamps his Shed, a longish early rambling poem:

form follows function and a shed’s always getting ahead
of itself.
……corner turns to alcove, aisle – this is the result of pile,
because there’s nothing new here but everything
is born again, and messianic so.

so many perfections to life. then death must be perfect too.
……………………………………….it follows, fits.

in shed we dwell on it – there’s time. rain on the roof’s a kind of
proof. and also it’s a dare. there’s grief.

– ‘shed’

The domestic world breaks into the review writing process, so I take the dog for a walk. Millie’s 13 and takes to nosing among the winter leaves and other natural detritus. I find her poo warms my hand as I collect it and I smile at the world, thinking of Kit’s response to his ‘getaway’ at home, his praise of the wood that supports the sky and the wood that warms us and the woods that birds feed and nest in. The dog’s sniffing ‘the great gramophone of puzzling existence’ (‘Dog’ by Ferlinghetti)  as I contemplate Kit’s words on our walk –

who is it sings in my breast?

go out walking
and the grass gets deeper

a track says
on
and this way
that
back
and pause
tune an ear to this nothing

– ‘walking’

And then I see a stone, a flat plateau stone placed in a garden at the fringe of a house, a stone half-covered in moss as is much of the town, but this moss is a brighter green, somehow greener for being fed by more vibrant metals in this rock (if I was a dog I’d sniff it). Again I think of Scavenger’s Season where the richness of observation grows with the experience of working, building, gardening, living with the shed and its inv, presented in his rich breath … occasionally enriched by source metals in kit’s language:

in binges of dwelling
moss green the world grows

-‘ sacred to the memory’

go to the makers
never the mockers

– ‘to tend’

what the sea wears away is itself
and all ends

-‘ view of broughton island’

what comes into my house becomes me

– ‘mimesis

But it’s no use, I feel frustrated as I dip forward and backward in this text like a punchdrunk flying ant! I want to quote to you this whole wonderful cross-woven web of sensory delights and philosophical meditations, this moss upon bright moss enriching my view of the world around me.

lost eddy of dusk displaced inside

a bat flies in
everything dropped
while
we weave our arms around like one
and fold up when it stops
we with our gravity
this one hung up

– ‘mimesis’

Like Thoreau’s Walden journals, Scavenger’s Season is Kit Kelen’s personal journey about building and exploring, about man in nature and, conversely, the nature of man. One man’s experience, for sure, but through its heightened examples, a universal application for contemporary citizens clustered in unnatural air-conditioned urban zones where lawn-mowing is the closest they ever get to nature, if they have a lawn, a left over from British rule.

– Andrew Burke

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Andrew Burke has been writing and publishing in Australia and beyond since the 60s. He holds a PhD from Edith Cowan University, and his current titles from Walleah Press are Undercover of Lightness (2012) and One Hour Seeds Another (2014) Burke blogs at http://hispirits.blogspot.com/

Scavenger’s Season is available at  https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/scavengers-season

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Playful and Pensive Poems: Andrew Burke Reviews ‘a pocket Kit’ by Christopher Kelen and ‘Seem’ by Alan Jefferies

a pocket Kit – Christopher Kelen (Flying Island Books, 2011) & Seem – Alan Jefferies (Flying Island Books, 2011) with Chinese translations by Iris Fan.

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‘This poetry is a graph of a mind moving …’ Philip Whalen.  He was a great US poet with a vibrant living interest in the East, so vibrant in fact that he became a Zen monk, albeit in San Francisco. Who cares where when the spirit is involved? Christopher ‘Kit’ Kelen and Alan Jefferies have had their spirits revitalised by living and working many years in Asia – Hong Kong and Macau specifically. I also have lived in Asia, China specifically, but I had the shutters up and didn’t benefit from the ancient culture and contemporary wisdom which surrounded me. They have had a more positive experience. I see it in their writings, two gentle men with lyrical minds and wise tongues.

I will look at Kelen’s a pocket kit first:

this world a poem

ink never set

and as we know it

already spoken

breeze makes its mantra

sea is forever at words with itself

we hermits are many/but mountains are slow’ (Kit Kelen)

With this philosophy, it is no wonder Kit Kelen has published more than twenty poetry collections. The content is never a problem; the communication of it comes smoothly and lyrically from his mind and body.

He has sharpened his pencil over the years, and sharpened his perception with a lifestyle finely attuned to the world around him.

the old Tibetan man washing his new corn

from the revered tap

tourists washing hands over his corn

the girl with a camera who catches it all

monk unconcerned brushing by

the foreign devil with the pen

who gets it down

mind before that

?

all second guessing

perpetual motion

‘which thou least holy?’ (Kit Kelen)

The FOG Index would mark him low (the index estimates the years of formal education needed to understand the text on a first reading), but the Parnassus gods would value this highly. Why the disparity? Kit Kelen holds two doctorates, he is a professor at the University of Macau, he is – in a nutshell – highly educated and smart. Yet he writes in the simplest of English, in everyday diction with a thoughtful cadence. Occasionally the syntax is quirky and spun at just that little angle to give the thought portrayed energy, but it is never so quirky as to be murky.

7

pack-up but where you come from’s

……………as gone as what was here

so we among all animals are party to the bush

.

take down each sky

…………..make out in ribs

.

a cross hangs bright above

This is a short verse from a meditative poem in ten short sections about the bush and titled as such.  This poem was placed second in the Gwen Harwood Prize for 1999 and is, undoubtedly, about the Aussie bush – but filtered through an Eastern-influenced sensibility.  Kelen now lives in Macau and a small town in New South Wales – the best of both worlds, perhaps.

I own a number of Kelen’s collections, going back to his first The Naming of the Harbour and the Trees, published in 1992. This little pocketful of poems presents 39 ‘essential poetical works’ (as the book says) from his voluminous output. How he chose them only Kit knows, but I miss a couple of my favourites, and I have found some gems I hadn’t read before, so this collection has certainly focussed my interest again on Kit Kelen’s work. And that’s precisely what it is for, in marketing terms.

Among the poems are some lively monochromatic sketches done in Kelen’s inimitable free-line style. His style always reminds of Paul Klee’s ‘taking the line for a walk’. One of Klee’s other statements is true of Kelen’s poetry, too:  Making a drawing is first about communicating with yourself. But, hell, with that as a thesis, I could go on for pages!

One last point: there is a ‘fortieth poem’ in this book – it is the collection itself. A poet’s work isn’t finished when the ink dries on the pages. Structuring a collection is a creative act in itself. Here Kelen’s experience in publishing and editing other collections – academic, thematic, geographical or personal – and often bilingual – comes to the fore and he presents a collection readers can read with pleasure from front to back and enjoy a cohesive bonus subtext.

Here is Kelen’s Last word – last poem in a pocket kit, page 102:

as the sun

claws its way up

hoping for one more horizon

so I too

call it a day

These two titles are truly pocket size books. I won’t get out the measuring tape, but take it from me I have carried each in the pocket of my jeans as I have caught the train or gone shopping. Compact they are, as small as pocket size notebooks. Alan Jefferies’s Seem packs 47 poems into 147 pages in two languages.

These two poets have much in common – many years living in Hong and Machau, a predilection for Eastern literature, lifestyles and ethos influenced by their multi-cultural experiences and much ado about language. When you live where your language is the second tongue, a mirror is held up to your expression. Think Lacan: your tongue being individualised from the Mother; your tongue being brought home to you, often syllable by syllable.

I have been slow to write this because I foolishly had both poets cast in the same mould. For all their similarities they are poetically markedly different. Where Kit Kelen invites you in and takes you with him, Alan Jefferies is more objective in expression, more consciously artful in his presentation of the quotidian:

for one day the truth will come out

and it will be frightening

Here, in the last lines of the book, the fear is private and prophecy is public. The subjective / objective stance varies and remains volatile through narratives, quirky wordplay and astounding images. In theory terms, the subject is de-centred. From the poem ‘Today’:

to remove the giant hands

from the clockface over Central Railway

to take it

like an eyelash

from the eye of the sleeping populace.

Jefferies’ diction is easy, colloquial – but then I didn’t translate it into Chinese as Iris Fan did. No doubt our two worlds collide in lines like these in ‘The Middle Man’:

standing like sheep in the midday sun

waiting for the medium-paced bowler

to turn and begin his long run.

Or here where the reverse is true – the ‘ordinary’ noticed as ‘out of the ordinary’ and, therefore, worth comment.

I invite you to enjoythese pocket packets of playful and pensive poems, one a selected poems, the other a bilingual collection, both by flying island books (Macau) in conjunction with Cerberus Press (Australia).

– Andrew Burke

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Andrew Burke is a leading Australian poet.His two latest nooks are Undercover of Lightness: New & Selected Poems (Walleah Press, Hobart) and Shikibu Shuffle in collaboration with Phil Hall,(above/ground press, Ontario). He blogs at hi spirits.

For information on the availability of a pocket Kit and Seem contact ASM macaustories@yahoo.com. or Kit Kelen at KitKelen@gmail.com.