Poets Who are Hurt into Poetry: Geoffrey Lehmann launches ‘Rupture’ by Susan Varga

Rupture by Susan Varga, UWAP 2016 was launched by Geoffrey Lehmann on 20 AUgust at Berkelouw Books in Paddington NSW

ruptureIt is my pleasure and honour to launch Susan Varga’s remarkable first book of poetry Rupture which is being published by one of Australia’s outstanding academic publishers, UWA Publishing. UWA Publishing is a division of the University of Western Australia and is led by the wonderful Terri-ann White. Before talking about Susan’s book and Susan herself I declare the book launched, as this is something that is easy to forget when you are making a launch speech.

Susan is the author of a classic memoir Heddy and Me which has rightly received international acclaim. Heddy and Me tells the story of Susan and her mother who was born in Budapest in 1916. This memoir has a trajectory from the closing days of the Austro-Hungarian empire through the Depression and World War II, during which Susan was born, and the Holocaust and on to the difficult adjustment of Heddy, her new husband and children as migrants in post-war Australia, that strange place where we all live, which is strange because it is not strange at all – or so it seems to us who live here. Susan has also written two novels, and with her partner Anne Coombs co-authored Broomtime, a book in which the two authors alternate in writing about their experience of living in Broome.

Rupture – the title may be an implicit word play, as subliminally you expect poetry to be about rapture not rupture – is remarkable in two ways: first for the quality of the poems themselves; and secondly the circumstances in which the poems have been written. I’ll deal with that now.

The standard way in which poets develop is to start writing poetry in their late childhood or early teens and write hundreds of poems, most of them very bad. In this way they learn their craft, rather like the way people learn to swim. We flounder about at first, and then if we are natural swimmers, which I’m not, acquire a stroke that’s neat and economical and gets us through the water at a brisk rate. The huge number of poems, much of it not very readable, in a Collected Poems of Shelley and Keats, both of whom died in their twenties, is evidence of the industrious nature of young poets.

The recent emergence of many not-so-good poems by Philip Larkin, whose published output was a modest number of perfect or near perfect poems, is evidence of how many poets go about writing. Start young, write like mad and learn from your mistakes. As you grow older, you will discover you have a personal style and have joined a particular religious order of poets. There are competing religious orders. Stay out of their quarrels if you can.

Susan is an exception to this rule. She began as a prose writer and received considerable acclaim and only quite late in life has come around to writing poetry. Why?
Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” wrote of how “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry”. I doubt whether Yeats needed anything to hurt him into poetry and this may be one of Auden’s many memorable exaggerations, but it is true that some poets are “hurt” into writing poetry. The great World War I poets, Wilfred Owen in particular, and Siegfried Sassoon are examples. The Australian Leon Gellert wrote some very fine short poems as the result of his experiences in that war, and Harley Matthews wrote two long rhymed narrative poems about his time in Gallipoli that are simply extraordinary.

War has hurt many into writing poetry. It is less common that a major illness is a wellspring for poetry, although in the case of Gwen Harwood the experience of cancer turned a very good poet into a great poet.

Susan and the American poet Mark O’Brien who spent almost an entire life in an iron lung (except, as he described in a poem, the minutes each day when he had to be cleaned up) are the only poets I know of hurt into poetry by a great life crisis or disability.

Human beings are moved to poetic language in extreme situations. In a crisis we turn to metaphors – the phrase “dire straits” is an example. This may be why when Susan had a stroke and struggled to get back to herself, she chose poetry and wrote the moving and extraordinarily frank poems in this book. Some of them are deeply confronting such as the title poem “Rupture” which I’ll now read. Written with a bare simplicity, you will notice each of the short lines is weighted with emotion.The poem deals with the shock of apparent rejection by a partner and trying to come to terms with that.


Inasmuch as anyone
knows anyone
I thought I knew you –
my love
true friend.

Not this she-devil
spitting hate.
Murderous contempt
in your turning back.

I can’t help what I have become,
a ruined woman
turned ruinous.
Can’t you see that?

Underneath this rubble,
it’s still me calling.
Can’t you hear that?

But maybe I’m
the spitting devil
furious beyond fury.
I see it in your
mirroring eyes.

This outstanding poem deals bravely with some difficult emotions. With its almost witty reversal of expectations in the last verse, the poet is able to stand outside her own pain – what she calls “this rubble” – and see herself and her partner with a piercing and sympathetic objectivity.

Poetry about suffering remains just that unless it can give us catharsis and some hope of redemption. The poem “Rupture” gives us that.

Susan is also able to give us a more tangible redemption in one of the other outstanding poems in this book. This poem is from a sequence of four poems about four beds in a hospital ward, “The Ward Quartet”. You will notice how each word is carefully chosen as the poem tells its story.

The Third Bed

She has the worst bed in the ward,
jammed against the only toilet.
So we lie closer together,
behind the curtains, she and I.

She is magnificent,
dark eyes black with suffering.
A hoarse whisper
produced with effort.

Showy flowers from friends
crowd her small space.
She is too sick to see visitors.

We hardly talk. No need.

She doesn’t complain,
even when her handsome daughters
bicker across her inert body.
But her shame sears the thin
curtain between us.

In the evenings her husband
comes to brush her teeth.
He does it gently, taking care.

In that moment
I feel their contentment –
as if this is the best thing
he has ever done for her.

The mood of the poem suddenly darkens:

Suddenly she’s worse.
Doctors, nurses, ward men,
wheel her in and out.

She endures, silent.
Yet behind the curtain
I almost touch her pain,
her fear.

The final verse, like the final bars of a piece of music, gives the reader a resolution, which is also Susan’s resolution. It also comes as a surprise. Good art should always try to surprise.

Months later I see her in Outpatients.
We smile deeply into each other’s eyes.
Bonded in life, she and I.

There are many other good poems which I shall leave you to discover in this book. Susan’s poetry is able to tell us something memorable, that we are all bonded with each other in life, and words are one of the ways in which we are bonded.

 – Geoffrey Lehmann

Rupture is available from http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/collections/susan-varga/products/rupture

Geoffrey Lehmann isone of Australia’s leading poets. His selected poems Poems 1957- 2013 was published by UWAP in 2015 and was reviewed in Rochford Street Review by Patrick McCauley https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/11/24/seeking-the-romantic-amongst-the-horror-of-the-civilized-patrick-mccauley-reviews-poems-1957-2013-by-geoffrey-lehmann/

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Seeking the Romantic Amongst the Horror of the Civilized: Patrick McCauley Reviews ‘Poems 1957- 2013’ by Geoffrey Lehmann

Poems 1957- 2013 by Geoffrey Lehmann UWA Publishing, 2015.

LehmannGeoffrey Lehmann has published twelve books of poetry, one novel, two children’s books, and five non fiction books (including two anthologies of Australian poetry as an editor) during the last fifty years. This volume, Poems 1957-2013, Lehmann says ‘contains all the poetry written by me that I think is worthwhile including in a book’. It is divided into five sections, ‘Simple Sonnets’, ‘Earlier Poems’, ‘Nero’s Poems’, ‘Spring Forest’ and ‘Later Poems’. Apart from some of the Later Poems – all the poems have been published before, but many have been re-worked, and the organization of the work has been re-imagined. For example, ‘Simple Sonnets’, is presented first and separately, as fourteen sonnets – as if the titles of the section itself were a further sonnet ( and indeed a reading of the titles produces a syntax of Ern Malley proportions) The reader is drawn into a strange dream like world where the travelers never seem to arrive. The sonnets all have seven rhyming couplets without a volta. Sonnet XIV, for example draws the reader into a timelessness :-

These song birds flocking in the citron sky
have always been here” said the passerby.
“Time has no end and time does not begin.
Child, no one made the world that we are in.

These are indeed strange sonnets set in a European, perhaps seventeenth century world of horses and dragons and unrequited love. They are completely different from any of the other sections within this volume (or any other Australian poetry ) , and I agree with Geoff Page that they are ‘unique’. They seem to seek a Blakean romanticism that has been otherwise absent in Australian poetry. However, unlike Page, I enjoyed the relaxed patrician air of the patriarch which has largely been banished from poetry, even if it is a simulated vision as Nero or Ross McInerney. In fact Ross reminded me of Voss and I was surprised to be reminded on more than one occasion of Patrick White.

The second section, titled ‘Earlier Poems’, includes the poem ‘An Image which was first published in the London Magazine in 1958, when Lehmann was only seventeen. This poem together with the poem ‘Emperor Mao and the Sparrows’ (which explains, remarkably, that it was Mao’s dream of sparrows stealing his harvest, and the subsequent sparrow massacre, that led to the Great Chinese Famine) helped establish Lehmann as somewhat of a prodigy in NSW in the late sixties and early seventies. Throughout the ‘Earlier Poems’ Lehmann shows us the development of what Peter Goldsworthy calls ‘compressed ventriloquism’ and Geoff Page refers to as, his use of ‘masks’. Lehmann develops a deep empathy for the magisterial animals that were slaughtered during the Roman Empire in the name of progressive civilization. He inhabits the mind of Marcus Furius Camillus, Governor of Africa, as he traps and transports lions and dolphins to Rome for their slaughter and entertainment.

A Voyage of of Lions
Sea water stained with lion’s blood,
Our arrows caught a lion
Escaping in the foam.
The crowds edged cautiously back to the quay,
And so our convoy of lions set out
For Rome and arenas foul with blood

The reader can see the emerging of Lehmann’s ability to inhabit the past. He can enter the mind of Nero or Pope Alexander VI with ease and integrity. Every poem is worth reading and every poem rewards the reader.

InThe Trip to Bunyah: A Letter for Les Murray he notes

Your father has the gift, he hears the voices –
Memories licked into shape like cigarette papers

and in ‘Elegy for Sonnets he manages a vast understatement about the demise of the family (or chivalry or romance or love).

The sonnet is a house that’s been destroyed.
And more than sonnets: marriages, real houses

Lehmann maintains a strong contact with visual art and particularly painters, as can be seen by the stunning (and revealing) Charles Blackman drawing on the cover ( and also his dedication of Nero’s poems to Salvatore Zofrea). In the poem Roses we are given an idea of his aesthetics:

What matters is a rose grew in wild places
And that all space is immanent with roses.

Lehmann continually seeks the romantic amongst the horror of the civilized. He assumes the persona of the patriarch, the father, the tyrant and the Emperor (and later in ‘Spring Forest’, the outback farmer) We see him as father and single father, we seem him as a lover and as rejected and alone with his children. He seeks the Renaissance man (Homo Universale) and his vision is powerful, profound, male (unapologetically) and extraordinarily beautiful. He may be one of the last rural male poets to dare to use the word ‘cunt‘ – just once. InSpring Forest’ we are introduced to Mr Long who pops in and out of several poems.

Mr Long sometimes humped his swag for far off places
drinking metholated spirits, shadow boxing
and trying to kiss people.
I’ve tasted his johnny cakes

We hear the voice of Ross McInerney (1918-2010), Lehmann’s late father in law and inspiration, in many poems, and perhaps, the alter egos and dreams and fears of that part of the outback male, or the mad Emperor (in ‘Nero’s Poems) or Charon sweeping up the carcasses of slaughtered animals, that is simple, vulnerable and intelligent. Throughout the whole five sections of this work Lehmann remains vulnerable.For example, in the poem ‘Heat, Ross exclaims:

It’s night – heat without light

and in the poem ‘Witnesses, he notes:

we are witnesses of the conflagration
the fires are happening already all around us
Our possessions and protests are useless/
our despair is useless

There is the repeated image of a kerosine lantern, and many other literary devices throughout this life’s work of poems. Each piece is crafted and the book reads easily drawing the reader into strange other worlds and spaces. You could read this book for a very long time. It is accessible, lyrical, crafted and profound.

Lehmann attended the Shore School in North Sydney and graduated in Arts and Law from the University of Sydney in 1963. He worked as a lawyer, an international tax advisor, an academic, a writer/journalist, and a farmer. Lehmann is a straight shooter, unusual amongst a generation of psychadelic minded NSW poets with dark pasts, and American dreams. In the poem ‘Menindee’ – Ross tells us:

This planet which tries to house
half the men who have ever lived
Wants no one in particular
It does not want you either

Ross McInerney .. sleeps on an open verandah outside the house. I’d bet that Lehmann actually does sleep on an open verandah, just outside the house and his family … ready and vigilant against the great outback of the Australian diaspora and Australian poetry … to protect his family against the anti humanism of a post modern obscurity. An Emperor, farmer and a father… somehow solitary with his gift. In his poem ‘Advice to Young Poets he indicates the level of commitment required :

Murder your mother
Go live in a flat
And forget who you were

Along with Les Murray, Bruce Dawe, Robert Gray, Robert Hughes, Clive James and a number of others, Geoffrey Lehmann continues to explore the Australian male outsider into its numinous laterals and outbacks. There seems to be a romanticism of sorts amongst this genre of Australian writing, which now resides mainly in rural NSW and which can perhaps trace its origins back to Kenneth Slessor (Judith Wright, Patrick White). Eventually, the poets that matter do seem to find their voices, Geoffrey Lehmann found his when he was seventeen and seems to have spent the rest of his life trying keeping up with them. I read this book in a week because most of the time, I couldn’t put it down… and I have never before been able to say that about a book of poetry. Ideally it should be read over some time – there is plenty to ponder and meditate, and certainly it is a book I will go back to again and again.

 – Patrick McCauley


Patrick McCauley writes poems and essays, grows tomatoes and goes fishing around Clunes Victoria.

Poems 1957- 2013 is available from http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/poems-1957-2013


Issue 2: January – February 2012 Contents.

Rochford Street Press

A new front opens in the ‘Poetry Wars’ – John Tranter, David McCooey and Peter Minter on ‘that anthology’ (Australian Poetry Since 1788)

Back in the first issue of Rochford Street Review I commented on Mike Ladd’s  review of  Australian Poetry Since 1788, edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray. At the time I stated that I had not read the anthology and did not intend to do so – “… it is unlikely that I will end up spending close to $70 for another anthology of Australian poetry (and given the size of this collection – 1,108 pages – I doubt my aging bookcases could support another large anthology”.  Nothing has happened in the intervening months to change my view.

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), however, must be really interested in this anthology. The Ladd review was published in Spectrum (in the Saturday SMH) on 12/13 November 2011. Earlier David McCooey had published a review in the Entertainment section of the SMH on 1 October. Now we have a third, an embarrassingly gushy review by John Clare published again in the Entertainment section on 29 January this year. While I appreciate that this is a thick anthology, does it really warrant 3 reviews in a major Sydney newspaper? Surely there are other newly released books of poetry that should have been reviewed but haven’t because of the space taken up by these multiple reviews.

Of the SMH reviews only the McCooey one takes up the obvious issue of the title – in particular the use of 1778. McCooey takes 1778 as a departure point for the fist part of his review. He points what he sees as the “neo-colonial” aspects of the opening sections of the anthology.

McCooey also refers to the “ethnographical” approach the editors take to indigenous poetry.  He points out that only 2 of the poets are Aboriginal (Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Elizabeth Hodgson) and he quotes the extraordinary description of Hodgson as a Aboriginal poet who  “’has not moved towards a Creole for her poetry” – excuse me!. McCooey also notes the exclusion of Lionel Fogarty and the inclusion of other indigenous poetry in the context of their non-indigenous “collectors and editors”.

While both the Ladd and McCooey reviews in the SMH have been a carefully measured critique of this lumbering anthology (I am dismissing the Clare review), John Tranter, in his new online journal, does not feel the need to hold back. From the start we know exactly where he stands – he has titled his piece on the anthology as “The Gray and Lehmann Death Star”. One has an image of Tranter as Luke Skywalker firing a series of explosive words down the spine to the core of massive anthology.

Interesting enough Tranter opens in the same way as McCooey, by attacking the way Gray and Lehmann approach the issue of Aboriginal poetry in the anthology. Tranter starts by quoting from the publicity for Peter Minter’s address at the 2011 Poetry Symposium held in Newcastle NSW on 1 October 2011(interestingly the same day that the Mccooey review appeared in the SMH):

Peter Minter will speak on the exclusion of modern Aboriginal poetry from “Australian Poetry Since 1788″, the new poetry anthology edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray. He will examine how Lehmann and Gray’s marooned neo-colonialism (circa 1988) whitewashes the rich tapestry of Aboriginal poetry from its so-called “landmark” vision. As such, and alongside the editorial sanitisation of many other non-Anglo poetries from its pages, the anthology will undoubtedly be viewed historically as one of the last gasps of white-Australian conservatism.

Tranter then moves on to the rejected poets, noting, as many others have, the “pointed exclusion” of Dransfield, but also the absence of Kenneth Mackenzie “a neglected, intensely lyrical poet rather like Dransfield, who died in the 1950s”. On the flip side of course are the poets that have been included who probably shouldn’t have been . Tranter cites the case of Jemal Sharah who published one slim volume “decades ago” together with a handful of poems in Quadrant (a journal, Tranter points, out was partially funded by the CIA during the Cold War). While Tranter doesn’t deny that she did show signs of “distinct talent”, she abandoned poetry at an early age to pursue another career. Tranter implies that she is included due to a friendship with Gray, while poets like Dransfield, Mackenzie and Fogarty miss out: “When does friendship get in the way of dispassionate literary judgment?”.

Tranter also raises questions about how the book was funded, hinting that the private subsidy that supported the publication of this anthology perhaps borders on “vanity publishing”. Tranter does not, however, drill too deeply into the details of this “subsidy” so, at least for me, the question of subsidy and influence remains a little unclear.

So has Tranter fired a missile into the spine of the “Death Star Anthology”? Maybe not quite – but along with reviewers, critics and writers such as Peter Minter, David McCooey and others – he has raised some serious questions around the objectivity and intention of this anthology. I’m sure, however, the ‘saga’ isn’t quite finished yet

As for me…one of my favourite anthologies of Australian poetry is Applestealers……so Gray and Lehmann aren’t quite my cup of tea.

– Mark Roberts

Comments on Mike Ladd’s review of Australian Poetry Since 1788, edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray, UNSW Press, in The Sydney Morning Herald ‘Spectrum’ November 12-13 2011.

From time to time we will make some brief comments on reviews which have appeared in other publications which we feel are interesting or which, in our opinion, deserves to be revisited for whatever reason. The first review we would like to draw to your attention to is Mike Ladd’s review of Australian Poetry Since 1788, edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray which appeared in the SMH of November 12-13.

While it is unlikely that I will end up spending close to $70 for another anthology of Australian poetry (and given the size of this collection – 1,108 pages – I doubt my aging bookcases could support another large anthology), Ladd did make a number of interesting points about this new addition to the pantheon of Australian Poetry  Anthologies.

One of the interesting points Ladd makes is in relation to the reasons behind the anthology, quoting the editors saying that the anthology is not meant to be “representational” but based on “literary quality, accessibility and enjoyment”. Ladd also makes the comment that some may view this anthology as “conservative collection, selected as it is on the pleasure principle and favouring poems that show control and craft.” Ladd then goes on to say that the conservative tag is somewhat unfair as the collection includes Jas H Duke, Alan Riddell, Alex Selenitsch and π.0.

Later in the review Ladd returns to this issue when he makes his major criticism of the anthology for leaving out Michael Dransfield “I must say the decision not to include anything by Michael Dransfield seems cavalier, almost an attempt to rewrite our literary history.” For Ladd the omission of Dransfield appears to be the anthology’s major fault. Of course without seeing a complete list of who’s in it is difficult to determine the exact seriousness of Dransfiled’s omission but it is interesting Ladd spends so much time on it – even suggesting in his conclusion that if you do buy this anthology you should also seek out a copy of Voyage into Solitude just to ensure you have the last 223 year of Australian poetry covered.

One other point worth noting is that in a number of comments on various discussion sites the point has been made that if you start Australian poetry from 1788 you exclude all Aboriginal song cycles etc that pre-date European Australia. Ladd does make the point that the collection does include Aboriginal Song Cycles that pre-date 1788, but they are placed in the chronology under the date they were translated – which is, I guess, an interesting way of getting around the title.

All in all an interesting review by Ladd of an anthology which I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to chase down. Given some of the contradictions and issues Ladd has raised, however, I may check it out when and if it arrives in my local library.

 Mark Roberts November 2011

While I couldn’t find a copy of Ladd’s review on line here are some other reviews of Australian Poetry Since 1788 (if anyone can find Ladd’ review online please let me know):