Surreal Inventiveness: Peter Kirkpatrick launches ‘brush’ by joanne burns

brush by joanne burns (Giramondo 2014) was launched by Peter Kirkpatrick at Gleebooks on 11 November 2014

brushWhen Giramondo asked me to launch joanne’s latest collection, I felt an immediate and very real frisson of excitement. Here was a brush with fame! joanne is one of this country’s finest poets, and I’ve immensely enjoyed reading her work over the years. For me, as I expect for many of us, the reading of poetry is an experience of the senses – especially that of sound – before, and even after, it’s an activity of the mind and of thought. Or perhaps that’s just me. Working at a university makes me suspicious of intellectuals.

But what I mean is that – like many if not most of us here – I like to feel a poem’s textures and music before trying to form any more reasoned insights, let alone any conclusions about its meaning. In that way the reading of poetry – like the consumption of any art – simply offers a more intense way of being in the world. But it’s my role today to launch this book, so it’s not enough for me merely to brush up against it, like a cat against an ankle. I can’t brush off the expectation of having to make a coherent public statement about it, or brush aside its considerable virtues, however broad brush my comments will be.

God knows that, as a teaching academic, I spend enough time wondering what kinds if reasonable things to say about a particular poem or poet, when my first impulse is often to just to point and say, Whacko-the-chook, isn’t that entirely fucking lovely! – and so collect my salary and leave for the pub. With that particular critical methodology in mind, then, here is ‘sibylance’ – spelt s-i-b-y-l-a-n-c-e – the first poem in the sequence ‘road’, which appropriately joins the beginning and end of joanne’s book::

sun sings through the dust of the window
and the silver sink what a birdshine, lime
rind glows through the jam jar, epiphany
way above the trench of garbage bins down
below, you could be fishing on any old river
right now this could be one of your last finer split
second moments, meet me on the golden green;
there is movement in the grimy courtyard someone
shifting apartments dumping decor, a framed photo
of marilyn maybe madonna maybe not, more likely
a poster of a georgia o’keefe bloom, jaded floral art
a little crinkled where a vodkatini or an orgasm hit the wall:
moma moma where art thou; past the front door packs
of paris hilton wannabes looking likely in sunfrocks
skim along the streets towards skinny lattes, all eyes
preying for someone to snap them inside a slow
myth at the crossroads

This isn’t a lecture, I hope (old habits die hard), but I’d draw your attention to the way the poem moves through three zones: the kitchen, with its shiny sink and lime marmalade; then down to the garbage bins and the detritus of the courtyard in which someone moving flats has left a damaged framed print, maybe of a female star, maybe of a Georgia O’Keefe flower painting; and then into the outside world in which ‘paris hilton wannabes… skim along the streets towards skinny lattes’. The references are all emphatically female, but not uncritically so. The jump from the singing domestic space with its ‘birdshine’ to ersatz Paris Hiltons seems enormous, but is it? The poem in a way descends from a bright, even epiphanic kitchen, to images of the commodification of women artists (Monroe, Madonna, O’Keefe): a process that leaves the wannabe models ‘preying [p-r-e-y-i-n-g] for someone to snap them inside a slow/myth at the crossroads’. Modern myth is now the mass media which creates and, through mechanical reproduction, endlessly reconsecrates corporate versions of the ideal woman as goddesses of fashion. ‘Moma moma where art thou’, indeed. (And surely there are moments when we all want our MoMA.)

I said that the ‘road’ sequence linked the beginning and the end of brush, and I think it’s possible to read this book somewhat against the grain of its conspicuous, surreal anti-linearity as something of a livre composé. We begin with the sequence ‘bluff’, a terrific series of satirical riffs on the discourses of capitalism, and in particular those of the stock market, and end with ‘wooing the owl (or the great sleep forward)’. Loosely speaking, then, we journey from a patriarchal world along a sibylline road towards the realm of night and sleep, long associated with the moon and thus the female principle, and here too with the owl: the owl of Minerva, perhaps, symbol of wisdom, though one that has still to be wooed and won over. I dare say writing poetry can sometimes feel like herding owls.

But I’ll leave you to form your own connective tissues between the individual sequences as you read them. Before I say more about the poems, let me draw your attention to the terrific cover illustration, a 1946 watercolour by Joy Hester. It’s like Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly has become the evil robot he always wanted to be, turned into the face of Luna Park, and now eats women alive. As an example of multi-layered imagery that turns on a dime, as the Americans say, it’s not unlike what happens in brush.

What strikes me most forcefully about joanne’s work, in this volume as in her earlier collections, is its witty discontinuities, its surreal inventiveness, and its satirical mashups of other discourses: qualities that I would principally characterise as playful – and I don’t necessarily mean ‘playful’ in a lighthearted sense, for one can play quite seriously. Ask any hardcore computer gamer. Irony and satire are both playful modes, in the sense that they play upon their objects. The word – and I’m not the first to make this observation regarding joanne’s craft – is ludic, from the Latin to play. Indeed, the word ludicrous didn’t originally come into the language as meaning absurd or preposterous, but rather, as the OED has it, ‘Pertaining to play or sport; sportive; intended in jest, jocular, derisive’. Thus Doctor Johnson wrote of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, by way of high praise, that ‘it was universally allowed to be the most attractive of all ludicrous compositions’. In its original sense, then, I might tentatively suggest that joanne is possibly the most ludicrous poet in Australia. Here’s an example of what I mean, from the title poem ‘bluff’ in the book’s first sequence. This is ‘fancy’:

iv. fancy

bankers danced the zumba junta
in the constitutional ballroom just
a bit of festive fancy dress like a
tv mockumentary on a bitter winter’s
night the pink batt cocktails kept them
warm enough; some escorted current
spouses others escorted escorts there was
a mix up when pecuniary interests were
introduced to love investments, just by chance;
certain guests rang promptly for their drivers, others
rang up potential losses; there was a moment when
the floorboards shifted like a listing, like a tower of
mini pizzas whose anchovies shone like bullets; then
the dollar suddenly shot up reaching the peak of the
continental drapes

‘Bankers danced the zumba junta/in the constitutional ballroom’ suggests the links between capitalism and political power, particularly in the South American context. Notice the copulative assonances in the first line; ‘zumba junta’ is in fact an internal near-rhyme. ‘The constitutional ballroom’ sounds like it could be a function centre in Canberra. Well might the anchovies on the mini pizzas shine ‘like bullets’. Well might the drink de jour be ‘pink batt cocktails’, maybe served with asbestos canapés, courtesy of Mr Fluffy. But money and power also mean money and sex: ‘some escorted current/spouses others escorted escorts there was/a mix up when pecuniary interests were/introduced to love investments’. This is a kind of chiasmus: we may want to say ‘pecuniary investments and love interests’, but joanne splendidly swaps the adjectives. Then there’s the clever punning of ‘certain guests rang promptly for their drivers, others/rang up potential losses’: a rhetorical device called antanaclasis. I could go on (unless plied with alcohol I generally do). But the point is that the continual play on words here is perfectly serious while also remaining perfectly playful.

If I can use an old-fashioned term before going on to update it, what’s happening in joanne’s word-play here is a kind of poetic vaudeville, or what Henry Jenkins in a different context calls a ‘vaudeville aesthetic’. Vaudeville: that form of entertainment that now goes under the name ‘variety’ and which is based on rapid sequences of acts that offer constant sensation and surprise. Variety may have moved to the club circuit, but it was once a potent mode of popular entertainment that challenged straight theatre, with its emphasis on verisimilitude and the subordination of all elements of a production to its dramatic unity. To that extent you might say that joanne is the poetic antidote to David Williamson. But once upon a time variety offered a powerful model for the modernist avant-garde. Thus in 1913 the Italian futurist Filippo Marinetti could write of ‘The Variety Theatre’ as generating ‘the Futurist marvellous’, whose elements include:
(a) powerful caricatures; (b) abysses of the ridiculous; (c) delicious, impalpable ironies; (d) all-embracing, definitive symbols; (e) cascades of uncontrollable hilarity; (f) profound analogies between humanity, the animal, vegetable and mechanical worlds; (g) flashes of revealing cynicism; (h) plots full of wit, repartee, and conundrums that aerate the intelligence; (i) the whole gamut of laughter and smiles, to flay the nerves…
Etcetera. I reckon that’s a pretty fair description of what takes place in joanne’s poetry.

But don’t get me wrong. For all that Federal Parliament might suggest otherwise, I know that vaudeville is dead. Searching for a funkier term to describe the aesthetic mode of joanne’s verse, might I suggest channel surfing or, better still, zapping? The famous lack of capital letters in joanne’s poetry certainly implies that each element has a kind of equivalence in the linguistic structure. No word looks over the shoulders of another, you might say. But even zapping isn’t quite the right term, because it’s not as if you’re moving moment to moment from a news broadcast to a sitcom to an animal documentary as you might when channel surfing on TV. Joanne’s poems don’t normally jump entirely out of their channels every couple of lines; each poem stays within its special groove. Rather, what she achieves is a kind of crosstalk or co-channel interference in which one ‘signal’ is, as it were, superimposed on another. We live in an overcrowded media spectrum and, in a complex, layered way, joanne’s work echoes the ludic, ironic and, at times, serendipitous collisions in communication that occur within it. In that way she becomes our poet of the multi-media vernacular.

Which brings me to my final point. As joanne writes, ‘falling is a kind of vernacular’. That’s the last line of the poem called ‘easy’ from ‘in the mood’, the second sequence of brush: ‘falling is a kind of vernacular’. The vernacular is what we do artlessly, what we speak without having to think about our words. All of us fall into language as children and, speaking for myself at least, I continue to fall around within it, stumbling over it, and getting it twisted around my tongue. But joanne refers to literal falling, those brushes with death: tripping over and losing your glasses; a child running into a wall during play; and, poignantly, a boy who has fallen from ‘the top of a city tower’, who had earlier impressed the speaker by asking her the meaning of that word ‘vernacular’. Everybody falls, has physically fallen: we do it without thinking. It’s as everyday, as vernacular as sleeping and eating, but never rehearsed, never regulated like those activities. Instead it’s surprising, shocking, dangerous. For that reason just about everybody does falling very badly. But not the practitioner of vaudeville. Not Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Roy Rene. They knew how to fall so that they didn’t get hurt; they made it into an art form; they made it playful. They brushed themselves off and prepared themselves for the next sensation.

Joanne burns is a poet who shows us how to fall craftily and elegantly with words – to surprise, to shock, to take risks, and to play – and her work zaps the sensational vernacular world we all inhabit as crosstalking, late modern citizens of language.

– Peter Kirkpatrick


brush is available from

Peter Kirkpatrick teaches Australian Literature in the Department of English at Sydney University. He has published two collections of verse, Wish You Were Here (Five Islands, 1996) and Westering (Puncher & Wattmann, 2006), as well as the chapbook Australian Gothic and Other Poems (Picaro Press, 2012).


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

Spineless Wonder announces the The joanne burns Award

joanne burns - Photo by Juno Gemes

joanne burns – Photo by Juno Gemes

It is pleasing to note that  short/micro/nano/flash fiction publisher Spineless Wonder has named a new award in honour of renowned experimental poet/writer joanne burns. Spineless Wonder has described the award int the following terms:

The precise form that The joanne burns Award will take each year may change. For the past two years, for instance, the Spineless Wonders prose poem/microfiction competition has called for submissions with a maximum of 800 word limit. In future years, The joanne burns Award may be for other brief forms, such as nanofiction or for blended, genre-bending prose poem or poetic prose forms yet to be developed.

The theme of each year’s joanne burns Award will also vary. Some years the theme may be open whilst in others, such as in the 2012 Australian icons competition, the theme will be specified.

As in previous years, the competition will be blind judged according to the criteria set out in the Terms and Conditions. The joanne burns Award judge for each year, along with the competition parameters, will be announced in the first half of each year.

The joanne burns Award will carry a monetary reward as well as an offer of publication for those pieces judged to be the highest quality entries in our annual competitive cull.

The 2013 award is will be judged by Shady Cosgrove and opens on 1 June. It is un-themed, which I think means that you don’t have to worry about incorporating a particular topic in your writing, and the word length is limited to 800 words. Micro fiction and prose poems submissions are invited.

More information about the award can be found here: and submission guidelines at

It is fitting that Spineless Wonder have chosen to name this award after joanne burns. As I wrote in a review of burn’s last collection, amphora, “Burns has been writing and publishing for almost four decades, her first collection Snatch being published in 1972. Over the years she has established a reputation for pushing poetic boundaries and for blurring the distinction between poetry and prose with her published work consisting of a combination of poetry, prose poems and prose sequences”. Her work has been, perhaps, the most consistently experimental  poetry/prose produced in Australia over the last 3 to 4 decades and she shows no sign of compromise now. I hope that those submitting work to this award are inspired by burns’ work and are prepared to push and crash through the barriers that guide so much creative writing in Australia today.

– Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review. He is currently working a collection of poetry.

The review of amphora can be found at

Spineless Wonder can be found at

A selection of joanne burns’ work can be found at

Pushing Boundaries: Mark Roberts reviews amphora by joanne burns

amphora by joanne burns. Giramondo 2011.

burns-cover-final-215x300Burns has been writing and publishing for almost four decades, her first collection Snatch being published in 1972. Over the years she has established a reputation for pushing poetic boundaries and for blurring the distinction between poetry and prose with her published work consisting of a combination of poetry,  prose poems and prose sequences.

Much of burns’ earliest work from the 1970’s was, in fact, poetry – though it was very much the experimental poetry that the ‘new poets’ were working with at the time. ‘carve her name with pride’, from her second collection Ratz, is perhaps sounding a warning to those of us who attempt to categorise and label her work:

the critics are coming
they’re here, they’re here

perception ‘n logic, linguistic deception
the cutlery’s laid, the dishes prepared

metaphors marinate, mashed metaphysics
roasted rhetoric phonetically fried
coffee dichotomy, Jane Austen cheese

…..sing a song of critics
…..bellies growing high
…..first class honours theses
…..hang the bones to dry

There is a playfulness in this poem, though very much tongue in check. It is interesting to consider that these days, particular after the publication of amphora, the critics have indeed been coming – in most cases to praise!

Burns very quickly, however, moved towards the short prose, or prose poem sequence and, in collections such as Correspondences (with Pam Brown, Red Press 1979) and Ventriloquy (Sea Crusie Books 1981), we find her at ease with the short prose genre – what might be called today ‘micro fiction’, but which was then very much prose poetry. In some ways the prose poem, and particularly the way burns approached them in the late 70’s and 80’s, could be seen as a political statement, something Moya Costello alludes to when she refers to the rise of the prose poem/micro fiction among Australian feminist writers during this period:  “I was trained in the art of short fiction in the early 1980s by being a member of the Sydney Women Writers Workshop who, to put it crudely, favoured experimental short prose over the novel, which was seen as colonised by patriarchy”.(

In part It is this background that makes burns such a fascinating writer. Boundaries have indeed been pushed (and in some cases broken completely), but her work has continued to developed and to suprise. Her latest collection, amphora, is further evidence of this development. It is a major work, complex and at times dense, but burns has remained true to her roots – amphora is also surprising and unexpected and difficult to tie down, just like much of her work stretching back to the 1970’s.

For example, while there are some very fine prose poems in amphora, I was also pleasantly surprised by the strength of the work that falls, for the most part, under the more traditional ‘poetry’ tag, especially those in the first section of the collection ‘ichoria’.

Even here, however, burns can’t help slipping back into the prose poem from time to time. In the opening poem, for example, we see her moving easily from a conversational poetic form:

i know an angel poem can be a cliché
but every poet’s got an angel somewhere
cruising through their work even if they don’t
admit it; ruffle the leaves of any old anthology
and you’ll hear angels speaking through the dust

to a lines that start leaning towards a more prose like structure:

my kind of angel comes like a flash of light a silver
wink  in the  dark a stroke  of  thought  behind the
brow down the  nape of the neck so slow it’s really could remind you that you’re about to die if
you don’t move your arse


In some respects this change from the ragged line breaks of the first section to the prose like justification of the second is almost like a gear change. It forces the reader to read in a slightly different way, by breaking up both the rhythm of the poem and the way the lines form across the page. In this poem, however, it also allows burns to insert a personal experience into a more general discussion. In the prose/poem section we read of how the poet narrowly avoided death when a speeding car heads straight towards her:

……………………………………..i felt too vague. in that
slow step to the right the prod of an instant angel
surely reached across to save my life

In reality the entire poem revolves around this central prose section. The personal experience in the centre lends weight to the more poetic discussion around dusty angels speaking from old anthologies or the fallen angel “who descended from a star then lost its light.” that take place at the beginning and end of the poem.

Burns uses the same combination of poetry and prose in ‘rung’ which is one of the most impressive pieces in this collection. The first section of this piece uses poetry, the second section starts using poetry and then slowly changes into prose. The rest of this piece then moves between poetry and prose. This actually works very well and creates a structure which allows burns to explore some complex notions of memory.

The ‘rung’ of the poem refers to the rungs of a ladder and it is the dusty of rung of her father’s ladder which opens the poem. This simple domestic object:

covered in dust, draped in
an ancient sarong, its rungs
to hang disoriented clothes,

Becomes a symbol  of the martyrdom of St Perpetua, an early Christian female saint who, in a vision while in prison, saw a narrow golden ladder reaching up to heaven.

But if the opening section of the collection is full to overflowing with catholic icons, burns’ angels aren’t the angels of spiritual belief, rather they are the angels of childhood memories – the result of a traditional Catholic upbringing.  In ‘Rung’ burns highlights the conflicting symbolic uses of the ladder. While for St Perpetua the ladder is the golden ladder stretching to heaven which the faithful must climb, for burns:

this ladder has no fine points sticking up towards
heaven.  i feel no drowse. No golden dream….

Rather burns questions the need to go up ladders, rejecting the

…………..…medieval images of sinners falling down
the ladder to hell and the lascivious instruments of
satan’s torturers…

for burns the ladder represents a chance to “…climb down the ladder / of memory”. The strength of this poem lies in the conflict between the images (relics) of a Catholic childhood, the stories of the martyrdom of the saints, their ‘visions’ of the climb into heaven and burns’ desire to move beyond these images to the recollections and memories which has driven much of her work over years:

……………………..…………………….not the tongue stretching
Up for the dry sticky host of a first communion gravitas
But arms reaching out for that first swim in deep water

While there is plethora of angels and saints in the first few sections of amphora, it is the consistency of the work through the entire collection which is its major strength. At 135 pages it is almost as long as some Selected or Collected poems going around and, indeed I have read selected works with a greater variation of ‘quality’ – the poems in amphora retain their intensity throughout the collection. After the ‘surprise’ of the intense catholic iconography in the early section of her book, it was the more conventional   work in the middle and later sections of amphora suggest that this will one of burn’s major collections. All in all amphora deserves to become one the ‘must read’ collections of Australian poetry. In it joanne burns has drawn on her work over the last 30 years or so to create a work that threatens to become a classic.

– Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.

amphora is available from Giramondo