A Need to Examine the Life of the Nation: Kit Kelen reflects on ‘To End All Wars’

Kit Kelen, who was one of the editors of To End All Wars, edited by  Dael Allison, Anna Couani, Kit Kelen and Les Wicks,  Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, gave the following speech at the launch of the anthology at the Shop Gallery Glebe on 27 October 2018

Greetings all. Just a few words and a few more words about this anthology and how it came about. The idea for the collection came from a discussion, in Istanbul, between myself and Les Wicks at the International Poetry Festival there, a few years ago. It was a discussion involving some Turkish poets and translators as well.

Some background. We were annoyed because the Department of Foriegn Affairs and Trade (DFAT) had just pulled the plug on funding for a reading that we were scheduled to be doing at Gallipoli. No explanation of course. Who can comment on operational matters involving the conscience all at sea? But we quickly came to the conclusion it might have something to do with our credentials as peace-nik poets, so to speak.

Being in Turkey and contemplating Gallipoli and the centenary that had just happened, we thought it would be a good thing to bring together a bilingual parallel text collection of Australian/New Zealand and Turkish poets (everything translated both ways), reflecting on, not the first ANZAC day per se, but rather the centenary of it. Reflecting on what it means to Turks and to Australians, and what there might be of this, in either culture, deeper than the official account and general solemn ra-ra – for in our case, the sacred national icon of this particular biscuit (the ANZAC communion wafer). We were interested in reflecting on the reflection you could say. We were interested in setting up a two-way poetry mirror, a particular one not seen before.

There are traces of that original idea in this collection you’re holding in your hand today, thanks to the generous assistance of David Musgrave and Puncher and Wattmann.

As you’ll know, things have become progressively more difficult politically in Turkey over the past few years since Les and I were last there, and especially for progressive intellectuals or anyone wishing to critique the received wisdom of, for instance, national origins. This WWI period which marks the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Attaturk’s modern Turkish state – is particularly sensitive. This is precisely what had made the original idea of the bilingual anthology very attractive to us – that this conflict a hundred years ago, and its beginnings and endings had so much to do, in Australia’s and in Turkey’s case, with our originary myths of nationhood – ‘baptism of fire’ myths, of the kind that were very prevalent in Australia at the time of Federation and from that time up until the beginning of the First World War.

The advent of Federation in Australia was replete with a prospective bellicosity, very relevant for us here today – because, before the event, the popular poetry proclaiming Australia as such – Dorothea Mackellar aside – was largely a poetry of war (pretentiously prophetic often). Some of it was humorously so. Take for instance C.J. Dennis’s 1908 mock anthem, the ‘Australaise’, an impressive celebration of the Australian infix:

Fellers of Australier,
Blokes an’ coves an’ coots
Shift yer (bloody) carcasses,
Move yer (bloody) boots,
Gird yer (bloody) loins up,
Get yer (bloody) gun,
Set the (bloody) enermy,
An’ watch the (bastards) run.

Chorus:
Get a (bloody) move on,
Have some (bloody) sense,
Learn the (bloody) art of
Self de-(bloody)-fence.

(You’ll forgive my having inserted some words missing in the original, or you might choose to amplify there yourself.)

Closer to the moment of Federation, one Australian Boer War correspondent by the name of A.B.Paterson was encouraged by the events he witnessed to express the sentiment that the world-wide Empire of the British proved that ‘kinship conquers space’. And from this assertion he was able to throw out a challenge (or threat), more characteristic of his time than his oeuvre: ‘those who fight the British Isles must fight the British race!’ Paterson kept up the race rhetoric for the Great War too. In his 1915 ‘Open letter to the troops: we’re all Australians now’ the Banjo wrote:

The mettle that a race can show
Is proved with shot and steel,
And now we know what nations know
And feel what nations feel.

Probably the best known lyrics of the time relating specifically to Australia’s participation in the First World War are those of W.W. Francis’ ‘Australia will be there!’. It was adopted by the AIF from the war’s beginning and remained popular throughout.

Rally round the banner of your country
Take the field with brothers o’er the foam;
On land or sea, wherever you be,
Keep your eye on Germany!
For England Home and Beauty
Have no cause to fear!
Should auld acquaintance be forgot?
No! No! No! No! No! Australia will be there!
Australia will be there!

Let’s note that ‘the banner of your country’ referred to here was unlikely to have been the Australian flag. Though it had been invented for a competition in 1901, and had some official status by 1908, this wasn’t clarified until Menzies’ Flags Act of 1953. Though many Australians today, in love with the eternal quality of their national devotions find it hard to believe, it was the Union Jack that mainly draped the coffins of the WWI Australian war dead. There was no Australian passport till 1949 either.

Now while Australian and New Zealand losses in the Gallipoli campaign and throughout WWI were devastatingly high (witness the WWI wall at the War Memorial in Canberra), the Turkish losses at Gallipoli may have been ten times as high as the ANZACs’. We Australians and New Zealanders lost that battle but we won the war. The Turks paid the higher price.

But were they Turkish losses or ANZAC losses? They were the losses of respective empires – the Ottoman and the British. The senseless and useless pain and suffering Turks and Australians experienced in the Gallipoli event, and for generations after, was at the command and in the service of world empires. Between then and now, Australians have indeed once defended this continent from foreign invasion, but one hundred years and more later, Australians are dying on foreign battlefields, still in the service of world empire – still in the service of a white man’s world empire.

***

Kit Kelen launching To End All Wars at the Shop Gallery Glebe on 27 October 2018

No Australian with feeling for the idea of being Australian could have watched ABC TV over the last two months without having the Aussie heartstrings tugged in two impressively concerted directions. On the one hand there’s the anthem quality in ‘I am, You are, We are Australian’

(vision messaged for multiculturalism) – ‘from all the lands of Earth we come’. (And let me add I believe this campaign is a brilliant first shot over the closet dogwhistling racist bows for the upcoming federal election. This is a campaign for the ABC [and its continued public ownership], for public ownership in general, and for a multicultural Australia. Three for the price of one!)

The other heartstring tugger has been the (relentlessly advertised) Invictus games. Let’s think about what they are. A moving celebration of the determination, the courage, the resilience of those otherwise broken by war. Yes. Can anyone doubt the value of this exercise for the sportsmen and women involved? Can anyone doubt the debt these people are owed by the nation states for whom they have given their all?

But how do these games and the powerful emotion they generate make us feel about war and about the causes of war? And about our responsibility for war, in our case, as voters in a parliamentary democracy? Royal patronage takes things out of the political domain and helps us to not ask questions. Questions for instance about corporate sponsorship for the games from entities that profit by making weapons and weapons systems.

Is anyone brave enough to criticise INVICTUS? Invictus? And who is undefeated?. These brave broken warriors of ours of course! Who have they – who have we – fought? And why? Who have they – have we – defeated? And how just was our cause? How proud of our participation in these conflict should we – should they – be?

Is it sacrilege to ask such questions?

The wars in which Australia, and most of the other Invictus participating nations, have engaged in the last two decades have been under the general umbrella of a global war on terror, or what could be considered a long term reprisal for 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC (attacks resulting in roughly 3000 deaths in 2001). Let us consider these numbers for a sense of proportion and in order especially – self-interestedly – to ask whether the wars on terror have made us safer.

Richard Clarke, a counter-terrorism expert who worked in the US National Security Council between 1992 and 2003 was highly critical of the Bush Administration’s counter terrorism strategy and decision to invade Iraq (on trumped up ‘weapons of mass destruction’ intelligence). Clark has written, ‘far from addressing the popular appeal of the enemy that attacked us, Bush handed that enemy precisely what it wanted and needed, proof that America was at war with Islam, that we were the new Crusaders come to occupy Muslim land’.

There has been too much taken for granted of what terror is and where it comes from. We need to ask now – in a global way – what terror is and who produces it. We’ve needed to ask this for a long time. We need to ask what it is that drives persons of conviction to kill themselves and others for a cause they feel to be just, for a cause they feel to be ignored. Is terror just about foreign looking types blowing themselves up and taking others, perhaps us, with them? Or is terror also something that could fall from the sky, directed by remote control, with the best – if still often flawed – technology in the world. Is terror something only worth reporting at any length when it happens to people who happen to look like us?

Here are some old figures to help. Because of the difficulty and vagueness of record keeping, it is difficult to find accurate figures for (especially civilian) death tolls for Afghanistan and Iraq, due to Western-involved hostilities in these countries since 2001. Estimates as of a few years ago for Afghanistan have been of over 31,000 civilian deaths due to war-related violence. Estimates as high as 360,000 additional fatalities have been made, based on a ratio of indirect to direct deaths in contemporary conflicts. Iraq War casualties had been estimated at 461,000 total deaths as of June 2011. I cannot see how the deaths of unarmed civilians, random or targeted, does not amount to terror. I cannot see how those who live beyond, and having witnessed, such events have not been terrorized.

Perspective! Saddam Hussein was undoubtedly a nasty and bloodthirsty tyrant; he was though very much less lethal to his people than we of the coalition of the willing have been.

And what about the terrorist threat at home?

Australians have died in numbers in overseas terror attacks (especially Bali – 92 deaths in 2002 and 2004), but since 1972 there have been 15 deaths in Australia from terrorist attacks (5 of those 15 deaths were of perpetrators). Since 9/11 there have been 5 deaths of Australian (non-perpetrators) on Australian soil due to terror attacks.

Have we got things in perspective here? Think of the road toll since that time. Think of deaths from cigarettes, deaths from sugary drinks. Think of the 373 deaths by suicide of former Australian military personnel between 2002 and 2016. For 2014–2016, ex-serving men aged under 30 had a suicide rate 2.2 times that of Australian men the same age. Think of black deaths in custody. Think of the number of Australian women who have died as result of violence from their partners so far this year.

***

Sarah St Vincent Welch reading at the launch of To End All Wars

The figure of the digger looms large for Australians in history’s mythic page. It suggests long continuities in the Australian story – from the Goldfields (conjuring the spirit of Eureka) to the trenches in France, and till today.

I want to focus on Gallipoli, not just because it was the original topos for this book, but because it has been made the time and the place most sacred to Australia’s sense of itself as a nation among nations. A time and a place of defeat for us. A moment and a place of terrible loss foretold. The making sacred of Gallipoli for Australians has been intensified and massively funded during and since the Howard years

What were we doing at Gallipoli?

We know now that Gallipoli was stupid and unfair in the way imperialism and racism and greed are wrong and stupid. It was the wrong place for Australians and New Zealanders to be; it was the wrong reason for them to be there. But having been there still makes us who we are. And that’s why we shouldn’t forget. Here’s the key point: a continuity masks a discontinuity. The reason we should continue to say lest we forget in the twenty first century is the opposite of the reason why this was the right thing for white British people in Australia to say eighty years ago. The sacrifice of Australians who lost their lives at Galipoli wasn’t noble or worthwhile. It was just idiotic. They were being used and used stupidly. It was the sacrifice of sub-imperial entities, ‘The Commonwealth of Australia’ and ‘The Dominion of New Zealand’, on behalf of the British Empire. These are some of the things we shouldn’t forget. It’s not immediately clear what role ‘national’ identity played in this sacrifice, but in memory of the senseless credulity of Australia and Australians, in memory of their mindless obedience to people who declared themselves their betters, we should never forget Galipoli, the Anzacs. The lesson the whole world should not forget in the case of the Great War, as in the case of many other conflicts, was neatly expressed by Noam Chomsky in his book 9-11: ‘We need not stride resolutely towards catastrophe, merely because those are the marching orders’.

***

I am, you are, we are …

The memory of Gallipoli has been the perfect counterbalance to the forgetting of the great (and shameful) British victory that Australia has been since the invasion began in 1788. The memory of Gallipoli has been the perfect counterbalance to the forgetting of Aboriginal Australia which white Australia needed to do in order to justify itself. One war far away in which we were the victims, the heroes, the martyrs. One war over there to forgive and forget the unmentionable war which gave us our land and made us who we are and can be.

The unleashing of Australian fury at the Turk on Turkish soil involved multiple displacements in the emerging psyche of Australian and New Zealand, these British nations-coming-into-being. Well into the centenary of this tragic rhetorical train it is still our losses we mourn. Australian guilt for the fate of the nearly 100,000 Turks who died in the Galipoli campaign has never been seriously entertained. Today the Turks celebrate their victory at Canakkale as having enabled the consciousness of nation through which Ataturk would achieve the modern Turkish state. The paradox for them is that the successful defense of the Ottoman Empire enabled what is still today called an Independence War.

White Australians on an individual basis don’t think of themselves as having dispossessed anyone. If no one is responsible for dispossessing Aboriginal people, then what was it supplanted Aboriginal rights in Australia? Note the anachronism – for the purposes of the question – of all of the abstractions involved: Australia, Aborigines, rights, possession, prior ownership. These are all western names for things with a western history. Ideas. These are all British triumphs – of understanding and of classification. They put the place in the box

After Galipoli, any ethical problem, which might have been associated with Australians having been there, faded naturally into the distance. How much guilt can one attach to martyrdom? Along with actual distance, the Treaties had consigned everything of the Great War and before to another world ‘over there’ & ‘back then’. But by then Galipoli had already served the function of displacing from popular consciousness the ethical problems associated with Australians being here and now in Australia.

***

Sailing back to Byzantium for a bit. Me and Les on the Bosphorus! By the time it became clear that we would not have enough Turkish participation (despite the great numbers of brilliant Turkish poets) we already had a lot of interest from Australian poets who wanted to be part of the project. So this is how our Plan B came to be; the concept now simply being to have Australian and New Zealand poets reflect on the centenary of the Armistice ending the First World War.

On the back of the book, we posit a ‘barely veiled triumphalism’ in the countries that were victorious. Having already been taken to task for this, I think it’s appropriate now to answer the question – just what does that mean? ‘A barely veiled triumphalism’. And aren’t we mean to be raining on this parade on behalf of all those who – like Jesus on the cross – died for us? Do we mock their suffering and sacrifice if we ask a few questions about it; for instance if we ask – was it worthwhile? And was it really actually for us?

In fact I believe we honour the fallen when we make the effort to understand the meaning of their sacrifice, to understand the meaning of what happened to them. We honour the fallen when we try to understand, rather than making rote gestures of devotion, before the altar of nation or of empire. We honour the victims of rote gesture in this way by asking always ‘why’ (?).

Lest we forget? Absolutely. But for a certain kind of worshipper at the shrine of nation, that ‘lest we forget’ is a lightly coded message – really it means ‘lest we regret’. Patriotism is, as Oscar Wilde told us, the last refuge of the scoundrel, and chauvinists fear the weakness that comes of having their unreasoned faith examined. There is a need to examine the life of the nation. There is need to challenge, and more than ever at this particular moment, those people who believe that all the becoming nation did in the way of war on the way to getting us here was right and good and proper. Much of it was and much of it wasn’t, and we grow as a people when we make the effort to discuss which was which. We grow through that kind of conversation

***

Linda Adair reading at the launch of To End All Wars

The Australian War Memorial cannot be claimed to be a celebration or a glorification or a justification for war, but it is a place of worship for nation. It makes war sacred and makes it an unchallengeable fact of our past and who we are. It is a demand for respect for the fallen – whom it is true age does not weary. Although the years may well, in some cases, condemn what they have done in our name, in the names of those they could never know.

The War Memorial should be a place for reflection, for putting things in perspective. But perspective is precisely what we have lost in Australia when it comes to thinking about war, about our wars.

The revival and the extraordinary amplification of the Gallipoli myth – what I would call the Gallipolisation of Australian self-recognition – is largely down to John Howard, and to those on both sides of parliament who have slavishly followed him into those trenches where we glory in our goodness and forget the harm we’ve done.

I’d like to refer you to Ben Brooker’s excellent recent article, in Overland, about recent Australian spending on war commemorations. Just a snippet – $700 million on the ANZAC centenary commemoration spend– around 3 ½ times more than is being spent by every other country that took part in the War combined. Then there’s the fact that the Australian government is spending $1.1 billion on war memorials between 2014 and 2028. Consider the other things on which this money might be spent.

Not a penny of that commemorative money in this book though. We found the last shilling ourselves!

***

When we think so much about the Invictus Games we are not thinking about why these young men and women, now needing repair, were sent to war in the first place. There can be no doubt that the Invictus Games is a good thing for them. But is the spectacle of the Invictus Games a good thing for us? For our collective conscience?

What the anthem quality of national sentiment (I am, you are…) , what the war on terror, what the Invictus Games and the Australian War Memorial all have in common is that they promote a mythology of who we are and how good we are, at the expense of an understanding of and an acknowledgement of some questions that are very simple, very fundamental – for instance – how it is we are here; for instance – who is responsible for the crimes against humanity – crimes of undeclared war – by means of which we are here.

For better and for worse Australia has been becoming a white man’s country for several hundred years; becoming other things as well of course; becoming better in many many ways.

Yes it’s good we Australians defeated fascism and didn’t become a Japanese colony, and this victory could not have been achieved without our armed forces and without the loss of Australian lives. And we should rightly mourn such loss and celebrate such a victory. The way the world is looking today, we should gird up the loins for possible further struggles to come – further struggles for democracy and against fascism.

This polemic is not about singling Australia out as bad country, not at all. I firmly believe that, despite the current leadership and its lack of moral fibre, we’re one of the best nations, but I wonder if nations are such a good idea.

Does poetry – do the arts – need to be in the service of nations?

I think a book like this – full of diverse forms of witnessing and reflection – is about how we can be better, how we can find better ways to be in the world. Poetry is a means of world bettering.

Today, nation is the world’s deadliest abstraction. It is military force that makes nations deadly.

Christopher ‘Poodle’ Pine wants Australia to be one of the world’s ten top weapons exporting nations. Is that a good aspiration for him to have on our behalf ?

Is it sacrilege to ask such a question when we are remembering our war dead? Might we be glorifying in war at times without meaning to do so? Blood sacrifice… baptism of fire – these were – these are – words gloried in. Are empires good to die for, good to kill for? Do we need to have nations? Would the world be better off, be safer, if there were no nations or empires?

I think it’s very pertinent today to ask these questions that were on so many lips one hundred years ago when that Armistice was signed.

***

Bringing this book together has been a truly collective effort. In this book are many of the usual suspects of Australian poetry along with many unexpected voices. I’ve decided for this speech to mention none of them in particular, for fear of favouring any over others. Their words are here for you, and though dipping in and out is the more conventional method, I recommend you read the collection cover to cover if you can find the time to do that.

This is less an anthology of anti-war poems per se than we the editors might, from the outset, have imagined. It is more a collection of witnessings, mainly civilian witnessings, of events and impacts of war. This war and the next one and the ones that have followed since – these wars have shaped so much of who-we-all-are gathered in this room today.

So thanks to DFAT and the government of Tony Abbott for motivating a bunch of peacenik poets to get off their spotty behinds and encourage some serious thinking about what 11/11/1918 has meant for Australians and for New Zealanders.

Les and I were joined by Anna Couani and Dael Allison, which among other things, made us a gender-equitable team for the task. Anna has provided the wonderful etching for our cover. Dael and Les have been our logistical powerhouse in getting this job done. I thank them all. An honour and a privilege to work with them on this book.

It’s been a very interesting editorial collaboration – largely conducted at a distance, by e-mail …

I think each of the four of us combined very different but compatible skills. There were repeated moments each of us felt groaningly overwhelmed by this project, and someone always – one of we four – stepped into whatever breach there was to fill.

The project had its own momentum and found its publisher and here we are today.

Conscience with its own rudder! That’s what poetry can be! And it’s what I hope you can all grab hold of somewhere between these covers.

 – Kit Kelen


Volumes of Kit Kelen’s poetry have been published in Chinese, Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Indonesian and Filipino. His most recent English-language collection, Poor Man’s Coat – Hardanger Poems was published by University of Western Australia Press in 2018. Kit Kelen is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Macau, where he taught Literature and Creative Writing for many years.

To End All Wars is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/to-end-all-wars

Featured Writers from To End All Wars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher (Kit) Kelen,

Emeritus Professor of English

(University of Macau)

Conjoint Professor in the School of Humanities & Social Science

(University of Newcastle)

Series Editor, Flying Islands Pocket Poets

 

 

 

Volumes of Kit Kelen’s poetry have been published in Chinese, Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Indonesian and Filipino. His most recent English-language collection, Poor Man’s Coat – Hardanger Poems was published by University of Western Australia Press in 2018. Kit Kelen is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Macau, where he taught Literature and Creative Writing for many years.

 

 

A Delectable Smorgasbord of Poetry: Peter Boyle launches ‘A Patch of Sun’

A Patch of Sun, edited by Philip Porter, Luke Fischer and Kit Kelen, was launched by Peter Boyle on August 7 at Rubino’s Café, Willoughby NSW.

A patch of SunMy thanks to Philip for inviting me to launch such a beautiful, magnificently produced book as A Patch of Sun. Anyone holding this book, flipping through its pages, can see the care and the thoughtful crafting that lies behind it. What’s inside is likewise a treat, an astute mix of the new and the familiar, of truth telling and comedy, of delightfully inventive word magic and of direct honesty about life’s tough things, of delight in the beauty of our world and bafflement before human stupidity. Before I say a little about the poetry itself I’d like to say something about what made it possible. First to congratulate those who worked at the book’s production – Philip Porter, Luke Fischer and Kit Kelen. And then to reflect on the broader background that made it possible – on poetry and community, on all that a community does for poetry and also, where a community embraces poetry, what poetry can do for a community.

It’s easy to think of poetry as something scribbled in an attic, a solitary activity, needing no one beyond the suffering poet. But that isn’t even a half-ways-realistic picture of nine tenths of what is poetry. In Homer’s Greece the aoidoi, the poet-reciters of the epics, needed their prince who supplied them with good food, good drink and an audience. A coterie of fifteen regulars at a small informal poetry gathering may be an audience, or the audience may be produced by journals, anthologies and poetry websites. But it’s also important that there be small enthusiastic communities, a community that writes and tests their poetry with each other, that provides a context for the solitary poet to go on writing, helping poets make the transition from diary jottings to fully crafted, fully alive poems. Seriously, it is hard to imagine most poets continuing for long if there truly was no audience, no community of at least half a dozen appreciative readers and listeners. A community is the life blood of poetry and poetry, in turn, adds to community. It offers the joy of creating, the ripple of excitement that a sudden apprehension of beauty can give us, or the jolt when we hear a truth we had never heard put that way before.

I especially want to celebrate and give thanks to, two communities we in Sydney have been blessed with. First the poetry nights at Willoughby organised by Philip Porter and currently held at Rubino’s Restaurant – what a treat, for poetry, good food and good drink to come together, exactly as in the banquet halls where the aoidos would sing the stories of Troy, of Achilles and Odysseus, with the odd bawdy ballad snuck in as well I’m sure. And I also want to give special thanks to Luke Fischer and Dalia Nassar whose poetry and music salon in Bondi has become a legend of generosity, of the elegance that makes for a truly civilised life, with all the valuing of beauty and creativity that is at the core of such a life. Philip here at Willoughby and Luke and Dalia at Bondi show that a respectful, generous flourishing of the arts doesn’t have to be relegated to Paris or New York or Berlin, but is alive and real here if we choose to make it so.

But enough generalities. I’d also like to respond briefly to the delectable smorgasbord of poetry Philip, Luke and Kit have prepared. What I thought I would do, by way of launching the book, is to read some extracts from poems, especially poets and poems I hadn’t encountered before reading the anthology or, at least, before hearing the poets at Luke and Dalia’s salon. I’ve organised these excerpts under a few headings: comedy, inventive word magic, direct honesty about life’s tough things, capturing the world’s beauty, and bafflement before human stupidity. (My apologies in advance for all the fine poems that could go under these headings that I don’t quote – there is far more than I could possibly fit into a few minutes.)

For comedy, there’s the dry laconic just-rightness of John Carey in a poem like ”The Aunt’s Story – a Pinewood classic” or these lines from ”on empty”:

On a hot day the North-west plain is so flat it isn’t.
The horizon curves and stirs like a wisp of moustache.
Animals burrow that aren’t meant to burrow.
Prey walks past their predator under a white flag.
The eyes of roadkill are left to boil in their sockets.
The can of beer is dry when you open it.
A cigarette is rolling another swagman.

Delight in the inventive magic of words, their sounds, echoes and shivers, runs through so many of the poems. One sample, the closing lines of Carol Jenkins’ “Pollen”:

metronome of hay-fever, wind-strategist,
register of decomposition, pack rat fossil,
paisley print meniscus pond patterner
lying as taxonomic code
in bog, fern, marsh and microscope

I love the float, the sink,
the grit of you.

Direct honesty about life’s tough things can look like an easy thing – until you try to do it. Here’s an ending to a poem that, in its simplicity and precision, says a lot. The poem “Marginal light” is by Pam Morris,:

We lost touch, and marked it as other losses,
eating into time, yours and ours until
my brother died, and there you were,
come to say goodbye. So we meet,
and sitting beside you yesterday led me
to that parcel of time, lost and returned,
worn like the books we used,
annotations and heartbeats in the margins.

Poetry can also look deeply into people who at first seem remote from us but whom we come to recognise as our brothers, as in Jakob Ziguras’ “Tramp”:

His body is a grey communal flat
(the smell of cabbage soup in the air)
where vodka fills the radiator coils,
and strangers keep replacing strangers
at the table, chewing their stale bread.

Jakob’s poem builds towards this extraordinarily powerful ending:

He wants to be a padlock, scribed with names,
and fastened to the world as to a bridge
affirming indiscriminate fidelity;
and slowly climbs the non-existent hill
a naïve Jesus, hacked from knotted wood,
who has not yet embraced the world’s
indifference. It all seems
so crystal-clear, that what resists him
is invisible.

Poetry as the utmost attention to the world’s beauty is present in so many of these poems. From haiku to Japanese-inspired brief observations, there are so many examples I could choose, but one particularly beautiful poem that captured me for its richness was Dimitra Harvey”s “Calyptorhynchus funereus (Yellow-tailed black cockatoo)”. I’ll read the opening lines:

Your plumes are as black as the dresses and jackets
we wear at the edges of burial plots. I’ve read stories\
of the storms you portend: how you are a cipher
to an inch of rain. For weeks, I’ve watched you plane
the sky’s bayberry vellum, seen falling light transpose your silhouettes
into a straight-cut script I’ve tried to sound out –
a susurrus of fricatives spattered
with quick cool vowels.

Finally, holding the mirror up to human folly and pretention has long been an important task of poetry and it’s hard to think of a poem that does this better, anywhere, than Mark O’Flynn’s “The allotropes of tin”. Again, for reasons of time, I’m quoting excerpts from the poem:

Napoleon’s men march towards the cold,
not knowing the compound elements
of French tin will crystalise at less than five degrees.
By the time they reach the Russian winter
the smart, tin buttons, yes, have crystalised,
corroded and crumbled from the uniforms
of Napoleon’s sublime advance.
His men fight to hold their trousers up,
clutch their uniforms together,
let alone aim a shivering musket
at an enemy laughing in the distance.
Their defeat creeps upon them like a mould.
Coal to diamond; love to hate; loyalty to despair;
flesh and the rot within the flesh.
The allotropes of tin slowly vanquish
an emperor, leaving their clues,
stripped of all ambition now,
naked arses fleeing,
cooling quickly under the warm snow.

These are no more than a small sample of the many fine poems and poets gathered in A Patch of Sun. My congratulations to all the poets included in the book and especially to Philip, Luke and Kit for their work in producing such a splendid anthology.

 – Peter Boyle

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Peter Boyle is a Sydney-based poet and translator of Spanish and French poetry. He has published seven collections of poetry, most recently Ghost Speaking (2016) with Vagabond Press. Among other awards, he received the Queensland Premier’s Prize for poetry in 2010 for his book Apocrypha and in 2013 was awarded the NSW Premier’s Award for Literary Translation. His translations from Spanish, Anima by José Kozer and The Trees: selected poems by Eugenio Montejo, were published in the UK.

A Patch of Sun is available from Gleebooks  http://www.gleebooks.com.au/CatalogueRetrieve.aspx?ProductID=10598434&A=SearchResult&SearchID=78468407&ObjectID=10598434&ObjectType=27 or by emailing Philip Porter philippi@optusnet.com.au

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Judith Beveridge comments on the launch of ‘A Patch of Sun’

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A section of the crowd at the launch of the A Patch of Sun anthology

We know that often in times of need we reach for poetry – it seems that the music of poetry helps to mark an occasion – to acknowledge its importance, even help set it apart. Poetry powerfully explores and addresses deep questions about experience and the human spirit. Because poetry is so intimately connected with the breath, it can act as an interpreting spirit, something which will help move, uplift and carry lived experience into rhythms and tones which allow both writer and reader to feel as if they are in communion and intense dialogue with the world around them. The poet gives us a language for our experiences that is perhaps more intense, more concrete and imagistic, and more musical than any other utterance or articulation about the human condition. Poetry is a great tool through which human relations can be called to account, as well as exalted.

In the past, poetry was more community-centred. It functioned to draw people together. Poetry was a vehicle for transmitting the stories, beliefs and values of a people. While the communal function of poetry may have diminished in modern times, poetry has never lost its role, which Wallace Stevens has described as, ‘a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right’.

Poetry uses language as a form of revelation, in a poem language is substance, a means of generating realities and of extending and shaping consciousness.” The poem quickens our sense of language to the point where we participate most fully in meaning-making. The poetic imagination makes the world sensible, both literally and figuratively.

Poetry does not necessarily offer solutions. A great deal of poetry does not directly engage with political issues, but what it does deal with is inwardness, or the inner life. And this ability of poetry to go inwards and to touch the psyche both at an individual and a communal level is one of poetry’s most potent and insistent forces.

I’d like to thank Philip Porter for his wonderful contribution to poetry, especially at the communal level, through the readings that he has organized over the years here at Robinos and previously at Kalay’s Kitchen. Because of Philip, a strong and committed group has come into existence to share and to promote poetry – Philip’s sense and vision of poetry as a communal activity has given us something worthwhile and extremely valuable. And now it has resulted in this delightful anthology which is a tribute to all the poets who have read and shared their love of poetry over the past few years. Both Philip and Luke have produced a book to be treasured – and I’d like to thank them for their efforts and commitment in bringing this anthology and event together – and to acknowledge Philip for his enormous generosity and tireless work in making this wonderful venture of the monthly readings happen. 

 – Judith Beveridge


Judith Beveridge is the author of The Domesticity of Giraffes, Accidental Grace, Wolf Notes and Storm and Honey all of which have won major prizes. Her latest collection, Devadatta’s Poems, was published by Giramondo Publishing in 2014 and Hook and Eye, a selected of her poems, was published by Brazilier Publishers in the USA. Judith currently teaches poetry writing at postgraduate level at the University of Sydney.

A Patch of Sun is available from Gleebooks  http://www.gleebooks.com.au/CatalogueRetrieve.aspx?ProductID=10598434&A=SearchResult&SearchID=78468407&ObjectID=10598434&ObjectType=27 or by emailing Philip Porter philippi@optusnet.com.au

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Go to the Makers, Not the Mockers: Beth Spencer launches ‘A Pocket Kit 2’ by Kit Kelen

Beth Spencer launched A Pocket Kit 2 by Kit Kelen, Flying Islands, 2016 at Poetry at the Pub, Wickham Hotel, Newcastle, Monday 30th May 2016.

pocket kit2I am honoured to be here to launch Kit Kelen’s twentieth book, and thirteenth collection of poetry, A Pocket Kit 2  — a little treasure house of poems from 25 years of writing and publishing.

I first met Kit back in the early ‘90s when I had a small job choosing a ‘new writer’ each week for a five min segment on Radio National. In a folder I inherited was this astonishing poem called ‘Republics’ — a visual and auditory feast of images and ideas and Australian vernacular mixed in with concepts from Plato. (Actually I’m guessing that last part, because I’ve never actually read Plato. But Kit is nodding, so that must be right.). So I rang the poet and got him to record part of it at the Newcastle ABC studio. And then sometime after that when he was in Sydney we got together for a very very long chat about poetry and poets and Australia, ostensibly for research for his PhD thesis.

A few years later I was at a literary conference and Kit was there so we sat together during a session that — as these things often do — put me in a semi-sleep state. I do love theory but my brain often objects to being forced to focus on it. Next to me, Kit was doodling away on an art notepad, now and then bringing out some pastels to add some colour. It was one of his marvellous line and colour works that you may have seen. I watched him doodle and the words of the speakers floated over me. (I was a little jealous that I hadn’t brought something to occupy my time too.) Then as they finished Kit immediately put up his hand, stood up and delivered an incisive and word-perfect comment and question directly relating to what they’d been talking about. It was very impressive, and says a lot to me about Kit, and about this wonderful little book.

I love the way he has forged such a dynamic continuity between his academic, creative and personal life — or between and within these states of being. This is a mind constantly engaged in play with everything around him.  Creativity, connection, ecology, politics, generosity, life, music, rhythm… Across worlds and across forms.

Indeed while writing this speech I was listening to a CD of his guitar tunes that he gave me about ten years ago.

Each poem is wild and playful, but also intricately honed: shaped and presented as an instrument for feeling and thinking and awareness. As perfectly resonant as the craftsman-made ukulele he might play for us later.

There is a line in one of the poems in this book that kept coming back to me as I thought about what I might say tonight:

go to the makers
not to the mockers

Undoubtedly Kit is a stirrer — in the very best tradition of that lovely Australian expression. But he is not a mocker. There is nothing mean or unkind in these poems even when they are biting and unflinching in their observations. From ‘Views from Pinchgut’, for instance:

Roll that gaze out onto a coin
poisoned with flour and blankets.
(The sun smiles over my gumboots and I
driven on by greed and luck. For the sake
of a good feed we murder our way across borders
unseen.)

Flog some sense
into the trees and ringbarking’s a miracle
of endurance but we go at it like there’s
no tomorrow.

Go to the makers, not the mockers.

This book is a pocket version of a much wider project of writing, creating, publishing, painting, doodling, building, critiquing, editing, curating, exploring and loving.  A book about how to live both lightly and deeply in the world, by someone who has made his whole life into a creative connective project.

This is a discipline — writing, painting, yoga in the mornings, and putting it out into the world at every opportunity.

And there is both a discipline and wildness in the writing that I love. From the opening poem:

embrace the poem
squander the soul

sleep to dream and wake to play
let everything go wild today

This is also a making and remaking of the self — within the canvas of history, memory, ancestors, imagining children, blokes, sheds, bears…

canvas is linen really
like a tent clouds abide in
there are rats have your pants
vultures all sorts
one lies down in it all
till the rags make ladders
next beanstalk’s got your name on it
next stop the stars

‘the priming of a painter’s canvas’

I love the back cover photo too —  Kit playing his uke under a tree full of children with a glorious smile on his face.

Kit back cover

There is a wonderful poem called ‘Imagining Children’ and I was reminded of a line I quoted in one of my own stories, from a woman who said that sometimes when you don’t have children of your own, your love is more free flowing: ‘all the children are your children’.

Kit, as many of you know, is currently Professor of English at Macao University in China. He has also taught in Japan and created and connected in an amazing range of places around the world. And this is a poetry and a life where ‘all the world is your world’ — all the world matters.

But while sailing around the world there is also a fine thread anchor that — fortunately for us — pulls him home. So it’s a cosmopolitan book that is also deeply Australian. A complex love song.

In ‘ping pong’ for instance, a moving poem to his Hungarian refugee father:

I remember your remembering
snow from Great War winters

ten years and you’re more than a hundred —
good innings even when you’re out —
we’ve still got the ashes

‘drongo’ ‘buckley’s’ — I learnt
Australia from you — and that there’s nothing like
the love of a country you’ve chosen for yourself..

In Paul Carter’s seminal book, The Road to Botany Bay, he talks about the way Cook named places according to what they reminded him of from his vantage point in that moment (‘Pigeon Mountain’ and so on) and contrasted this to the more territorial naming of the invaders and settlers who came after him. Those seeking out definitive names rather than playful ones. Carter refers to Cook’s as the ‘light glance’ as compared to the ‘possessive gaze’.

And I think there is much of that in Kit’s poetry. A light sharp joyful glance. Never definitive. Constantly stirring and shifting and remaking and shuffling  — even with his own poems.
And I think this is one of the strengths of poetry as a discursive practice. It allows room for others to bring themselves to the page. It creates connection. It creates space. It undoes itself even as it makes itself.

where was I

when the tree became me
mid-flight, like an arrow’s twang

where was the instant
green became me
danger was outrun

because I took
the tide to heart
and made a moon
my mood
and meant

where no word would
ashen I bent to turn the man
where?   where was I just then?

To me this also speaks to the importance of poetry, in all its forms — writing, art, music, nurturing life with a sense of lightness rather than possessiveness — for a healthy community; for a republic of souls.

What is a book? . This seems an appropriate question to ask when launching someone who has written and produced and published so many of them.

I was listening to an interview with the writer and filmmaker Sebastian Junger the other day and he talked about how we evolved to live in small groups. Nowadays there are too many of us to sit around campfires to figure out who we are, how we want to live, what are our values. We can’t do that anymore, but we need to; and in some ways, more than ever, as we have so many changes happening and so many ways to destroy ourselves and the world and each other.

And he suggested that perhaps the only way we can now have these kind of conversations —  which are vital — is through books. Only books can contain enough thought and information and ideas in an accessible and a cheap enough way to be shared throughout large groups of people.

He said, ‘Books are kind of sacred objects — sacred in the sense that I don’t think our society will survive without them.’

I’ve also been thinking about the play on words in the title here — A Pocket Kit.
A kit is a set of articles or equipment needed for a specific purpose… To kit someone out is to provide them with what they need for a journey.

Go to the makers, not the mockers.

In every book there is an entire universe. Cheap at the price. And these beautiful little pocket books are a bargain at ten dollars each.

Pocket books to suit your pocket. So you can grab a bundle, and explore. Or give them away as wonderful pressies. In these days where a card that gets thrown away costs $5, why not pay a bit extra, write your message inside one of these, and pop it in an envelope instead. Send something that contains a whole world, and that the receiver can carry with them — in their pocket, in their soul. Something never finished but that each reading tinkers with. Something alive as we bring to it our own moments and life.

Or as Kit has it:

in a book
are certain heavens

more than gods count
as in the pages of a tree
which tells its years in standing

And in the poem,

keep this book


walk with it
sleep with it
read it out loud

then when it
falls apart
you’re the glue

And finally, from his ‘Advice to Poets’:

worship the earth
the all we have

with the heart give
with each breath be given
do this with each word

Poetry, the breath of life.

I highly commend this book to you,  I thank Kit for writing and producing it, and for being such an extraordinary ‘maker’. And I hereby declare A Pocket Kit2 — in all its wildness and joy — alive and launched.

Beth Spencer and Kit Kelen at the launch of A Pocket Kit 2

Beth Spencer and Kit Kelen at the launch of A Pocket Kit 2

 – Beth Spencer

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For more information about A Pocket Kit 2 and Cerebrus Press and Flying Islands books see https://flyingislands.org/. To purchase a copy of A Pocket Kit 2, email directly to Kit at KitKelen@gmail.com. Pocket books are $10 each plus $2 postage for within Australia.

Christopher (Kit) Kelen is a well known Australian poet, scholar and visual artist, and Professor of English at the University of Macau, where he has taught Creative Writing and Literature for the last sixteen years. Volumes of his poetry have been published in Chinese, Portuguese, French, Italian, Swedish, Indonesian and Filipino languages. Japanese and Spanish collections are currently in preparation.

Beth Spencer’s most recent books are the verse memoir, Vagabondage, from UWAPublishing, and The Party of Life, a bilingual collection from Flying Islands/ASM. She has a website at http://www.bethspencer.com

For more information about Cerebrus Press and Flying Islands books see https://flyingislands.org/

A Sensibility Tuned to the Wonders of the World: Jean Kent launches ‘Scavenger’s Season’ by Kit Kelen

Scavenger’s Season by Kit Kelen, published by Puncher & Wattmann, was launched by Jean Kent at The Press Book Club, Newcastle on 18th December 2014.

scavengers_season_310_459_sIt is a very special pleasure tonight to introduce you to Kit Kelen’s new collection of poems, Scavenger’s Season, published by Puncher & Wattmann.

Over the last year, one of Kit’s projects was the production of an anthology of poetry from Newcastle and the Hunter region, which he invited me to co-edit.

The book we assembled, A Slow Combusting Hymn, is an abundant celebration of both the best current poetry in this region and the region itself.  It is, as Kit describes it in the cover flap, a ‘book of words for and from a place’.  It is a book of ‘experience of somewhere’ – and that somewhere is the place  ‘most of the poets in its pages call home’.

The idea for A Slow Combusting Hymn began at Kit’s home, a small paradise in the bush at Markwell, near Bulahdelah. We saw a glimpse of his place in his poems in the anthology, in descriptions like this from ‘Time with the Sky’

of stray clouds
and of skies untethered
all gone floating

It is a place where there is

no blue like the blue after rain
then everything has its true smell
like childhood returned
then the sun learns its yellow
and thick socks keep you

the house sinks in its sandstone roots
a year deeper fenceposts …

Now, in Scavenger’s Season, we have another celebration: an abundant twenty-five years worth of poems, and at the heart of all this writing, Kit’s love of the place he calls home.

In Kit’s poems, we are treated to a sensibility tuned to the wonders of the world.  He celebrates so many ‘small things’ in the landscape – wings and grasses, fences and creeks – and even the way a human might need to ‘puzzle a way in my limbs / as roos do’ in order to follow, or pause, on a track … There is a sense of not only the words but the whole human being behind the words being immersed within beautifully lived-in moments.

The world in this book is full of potential and good things. Some of them are very simple, and sensual. In ‘mulberry hill of plantings’, I love the utter charm of his description as a stick is planted and thoughts seep through the poem of purple fruit for tarts and birds drunk on the fermenting fruit.  So few words are used, but all the stained mulberry fingers and lips of childhood seem to be there, along with the adult uncertainty of what will come from these cuttings.

The poem ‘fantasy here at home’ refers to “a tiny stone cottage / where the bush cosies up”, and suggests that this might be

big enough for a virtual age
where all there’s to know
crowds the head of a pin
so a pinhead like me
may still hear the birds …

 We, too, can hear the birds in these poems – kookaburras, a frog mouth, white cockatoos, black cockies … even the voices of flies and ants and the speech of “hoof and snout and paw”.

But if the writer of those lines has a ‘pinhead’, it is also a very crowded and buzzingly learned one. There are poetic echoes here of Gerard Many Hopkins and Les Murray, the rhetoric of Dylan Thomas and the almost under-silence strangeness of e.e. cummings … 

There is much plundering of poetry through the ages, but in a good way – with reverence in the references.  You don’t need to know all the poems that hum in Kit’s brain to appreciate his own writing, but it does add another layer of delight to recognize the little riffs here and there, from centuries of literature from around the world, which have obviously pleased him.

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Most importantly, though, what comes through in this book is a voice that is distinctive and original. Kit’s style is very much his own. Reading these poems, you may have to stop and learn a new way of letting the English language surprise you.  But the surprise will be worth the pause, because this book offers us the chance to hear words as if they’ve become new again, as if they can be mysterious, as they make what they’re describing fresh and wondrous.

One of my favourite poems, ‘Time with the Sky’, contains this line:

oh how I love the way words make off with day itself

 This is what happens in Scavenger’s Season, over and over again … Words are Kit’s work and his play, and he plays and works with them with an uncanny blend of skill, intuition and serendipity.

Sometimes the result is a multi-layered tour de force like ‘for the bears, a leg-up’ or ‘The Shed’, where page after page carries on in a mesmerising engagement with humour and lyricism, rhetoric and laconic throwaways.

Sometimes, the poems are small snapshots, often homages to something in nature – a frog, for instance, brings the lines

no one’s as loud as you
no one’s as green

‘A caravan rots’ ‘on holiday / from humans’, but humans in these poems are mostly trying to live kindly on the earth. There is a marvelous generosity of spirit in Scavenger’s Season, an acceptance of the way the world is  — whimsically, in lines like ‘my skin should come in handy / for night’s sweet-toothed mosquitoes’ — but also wisely, as the inhabitants try to be at home on their land whilst acknowledging

that nothing was meant
for us or otherwise
we make the meaning

 There are puzzles in this book as well as sensory delights. There are marvels and meditations.  There are ‘blokes’ and ‘yokels’, cows and wrens; there is a poet who is both a meditator in his hideaway and a tender of land who needs to keep an eye out for the young snake in a boot and the threat of bush fires, as well as wondrous images for his writing.

Kit has a gift for memorable, apt phrases. Here is one of his little gems

go to the makers
never the mockers

tend to the habits of homage
you’ve found

 In Scavenger’s Season, he has followed his own advice and made us a book brimming with homage and celebration. I found it intensely rewarding and moving and I feel honoured to be recommending it to you.

 – Jean Kent

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Jean Kent has published four full-length collections of poetry. A new collection, The Hour of Silvered Mullet, is forthcoming from Pitt Street Poetry in March 2015.

Scavenger’s Season is available from http://www.puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/scavengers-season

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Sydney and Newcastle Launches for ‘Notes For The Translators’

Notes For The Translators from 142 New Zealand and Australian Poets (ASM, Macau), edited by Christopher Kit Kelen, 2013. Sydney and Newcastle launches. SYDNEY – Monday 8th July, 7pm. Upstairs Friend in Hand Hotel, 58 Cowper St Glebe. NEWCASTLE – Monday 15th July, 7.30pm. Theatre Lane Hotel 189 Hunter Street Newcastle.

notesOn one level every reading of a poem is an act of translation. Using the written word to convey often complex and difficult meanings, imagery and emotions involves an act of ‘encoding’ by the poet and one of ‘decoding’ by the reader. A simple poem may suggest a single decoding while a more complex poem can suggest many. Of course when we refer to translation we are normally referring to the act of translating a poem from one language to another – an act which, of course, adds numerous levels of complexity to the act of ‘decoding’ the poem.

One of my favourite books poetry in translation is Moscow Trefoil: poems from the Russian of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam by David Campbell and Rosemary Dobson (Australian National University Press, 1975). In this volume each Russian poem has three different English interpretations/translations – a version that is as close to a literal translation as possible and a version each by Dobson and Campbell which attempt to ‘rewrite’ the poem in an English version. Such an approach highlights the issues for those of use who read poetry in translation, we must always be aware that we, in fact reading a collaborative work between the writer and translator.

Kit Kelen, in his introduction to Notes For The Translators, highlights some of these issues. Notes is, he says, a practical book – it is an anthology which consists of a single poem by 142 poets from Australia and New Zealand, together with notes by the poet designed to assist a translator in translating the poem.

Poets appearing in the anthology include: Adam Aitken, Ali Alizadeh,Richard James Allen Steve Armstrong, Peter Bakowski, John Bennett, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, Margaret Bradstock, Michael Brennan, David Brooks, Kevin Brophy, Hamish Danks Brown, Lachlan Brown,Pam Brown, Andrew Burke, Joanne Burns Michelle Cahill, Grant Caldwell, Coral Carter, Julie Chevalier, Eileen Chong, Jennifer Compton, Anna Couani, Alison Croggon, Jan Dean, Tricia Dearborn, Dan Disney, Lucy Dougan, Laurie Duggan,Stephen Edgar, David Eggleton, Marietta Elliott, Brook Emery, Diane Fahey, Rangi Faith, Michael Farrell, Liam Ferney, Barbara Fisher, Toby Fitch, Angela Gardner Carolyn Gerrish, Jane Gibian, David Gilbey, Vivienne Glance, Marewa Glover, Pip Griffin, Philip Hammial, Jennifer Harrison, Libby Hart, Dennis Haskell, Brian Hawkins, Susan Hawthorne, Dominique Hecq, Matt Hetherington, Paul Hetherington, Mark William Jackson, Andy Jackson, Alan Jefferies, Carol Jenkins, Murray Jennings, Judy Johnson, Jill Jones, Rae Desmond Jones, Antigone Kefala, Claine Keily Christopher (Kit) Kelen, S.K. Kelen, Jean Kent, Anna Kerdijk, John Kinsella, Peter Kirkpatrick, Andy Kissane, Yota Krili, Martin Langford, Andrew Lansdown, Rebecca Kylie, John Leonard, Miriel Lenore, Debbie Lim, Roberta Lowing, Myron Lysenko, Mark Macleod, Chris Mansell,Shane McCauley, David McCooey, Greg McLaren, Rhyll McMaster, Philip Mead, Sara Moss, Lizz Murphy, Les Murray, David Musgrave, Rosemary Nissen, James Norcliffe, Mark O’Flynn, Michael O’Leary, Ouyang Yu, Jan Owen, Geoff Page, Glen Phillips, Mark Pirie, Brian Purcell, Vaughan Rapatahana, Harry Ricketts, Reihana Robinson, Bronwyn Rodden, Mark Roberts, Gig Ryan, Tracy Ryan, Philip Salom, Andrew Sant, Jaya Savige, Michael Sharkey, Thomas Shapcott, Laura, Jan Shore, Alex Skovron, Peter Skrzynecki, Vivian Smith, Beth Spencer, Nicolette Stasko, Amanda Stewart, Billy Marshall Stoneking, James Stuart,Patricia Sykes, Niobe Syme Maria Takolander, Andrew Taylor, Sandra Thibodeaux, Richard Tipping, Barbara Temperton, Mark Tredinnick, Carolyn Van Langenberg, Corey Wakeling, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, John Watson, Alan Wearne, Mags Webster, Cecilia White,Les Wicks, Irene Wilkie, Niel Wright.

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For inquiries about this anthology contact KitKelen@umac.mo or KitKelen@gmail.com

Six at Once: Pam Brown launches the latest Vagabond Press Rare Object Series

Beheld by Niobe Syme, Chooks by Adrian Wiggins, Don Juan Variations by S.K. Kelen, Green Thought – Green Shade by Kit Kelen, Imitation Era by James Stuart, Under Rats by Nicolette Stasko. Vagabond Press, Rare Object Series 2012.

This is a slightly edited version of Pam Brown’s launch speech for the six chapbooks at Gleebooks, Glebe, Sydney on 29 July 2012.

Pam Brown launching beheld by Niobe Syme, Chooks by Adrian Wiggins, Don Juan Variations by S.K. Kelen, Green Thought – Green Shade by Kit Kelen, Imitation Era by James Stuart, Under Rats by Nicolette Stasko at Gleebooks. (Photo Adrian Wiggins).

Six poetry books to launch together! John Ashbery called a review of a number of poets at once the ‘club sandwich review’ but that’s so New York New York.  In Sydney we’d probably find, at the breakfast-all-day cafe, various versions of a triple-tier vege burger. Let’s order one and check out the fillings –

Between the ancient-grain bun, this one is, of course, spelt. Starting at the bottom, resting on radicchio and romaine lettuce there’s an orange yolked egg that reminds us of Adrian Wiggins’ Chooks – this isn’t a vegan-burger – it’s a vege burger. James Stuart is occupying the organic gherkin and caper layer. Above that we behold Niobe Syme  sharing a Spanish vegetarian ground sausage – a soy protein soyrizo – with Nicolette Stasko. Next we come to the Kelen Brothers – Kit Kelen mixing in some Asian greens and beetroot and S K Kelen,  a.k.a  Zen Kelen, lathers the lot with sweet chilli sauce.

Because it’s not that great, it’s corny even, I don’t want to labour this allusion so I’ll stop –  but I do want to say that the beautiful design of Vagabond chapbooks transform each title into what looks like a delicious light crispbread with a nougat paper fly leaf.

Small presses have been in my published-poetry life since it began. (That’s quite a while ago now). ‘Independent or small poet-run press initiatives have had an enduring influence on the social histories of poetry communities: in part reflecting the relationships, ideals and shared spaces and chance meetings that underpin poetic activity'(1). In the last few decades of the 20th century, many poets were using roneo, gestetner or mimeograph to produce magazines, pamphlets, broadsheets and small books of poetry – and silk screen, potato stamps, rubber stamps, lino cuts and so on to make the cover art. Gradually, with the progression of technology, roneo, gestetner and mimeo have become antique, if not obsolete. And offset printing or lithography has become a luxury, a costly (for most poets) quality printing method, and luscious silk screen printing is now more of a fine art process. Xerox-digital innovation has become the means of extending this rich tradition. And Vagabond in that context is exemplary. Praise is due to Liz Allen, Kay Orchison, Chris Edwards and Mike Brennan, the main players who keep this lively publishing venture going.

Some of the poets whose work we’re celebrating today have done and still do participate in independent publishing. Steve Kelen had Glandular Press and a one-off magazine Final Taxi Review, Adrian Wiggins hosted Final Friday readings until recently and produced limited editions of poems by each guest reader. Kit Kelen currently edits Flying Island books and Association of Stories in Macau and used to have Cerberus Press, James Stuart had ‘non-generic productions’ – an electronic publishing outfit – and he edited an inventive collection of conceptual writing – ‘The Material Poem’ – which, because it was in portable document format, or pdf, can still be downloaded. Even though poetry in print usually has a lengthy shelf life the internet has given us an even longer one.

Now to the booklets – and I’ll have to be brief because you’ll want to hear the poets and then get on with drinking and further palaver.  I’d  like to note that Vagabond Rare Objects are refreshingly bio-note-and-blurb-free, and  although I did see the precis of each booklet in the gleebooks publicity, I wrote this little panegyric before that – so what I’m going to say shouldn’t echo any stale recommendations.

Adrian Wiggins reading from Chooks.

Adrian Wiggins has been writing poems for some years now. He co-founded, with Peter Minter, Cordite Poetry Review and published his first collection The Beggar’s Codex back in 1994. He also founded the online network ‘Sydney Poetry. Adrian’s poetry has a deft, complicated and original touch.

In this booklet, called Chooks, Adrian writes a number of sonnets, a deceptively difficult form to write and he does it superbly. These sonnets are filled with dilemma, often  relationship dilemma.  There is a reminder of Ted Berrigan in ‘Sonnet No 1’ –

  Dear Siobhan, hello. Is it 5:15am where you are?

at the end of the fourth sonnet, the mood is positively redemptive :

up on stage with yr bluegrass tunes & tight banjo-rich
hick panegyrics (oh the yips, licks & lyrics)
are so cool in an acceptably indecent & benign

Gen Y way – I heart yr 80s pants suit & yr Bali Writers
Retreat keepsake flashcards: See. Feel. Touch. Write.

There are also some noir poems here. One is ‘Cordeaux Dam’ – a dam that’s part of the Sydney catchment area, where over a decade ago now two teenagers murdered a friend, kicking him and bludgeoning him with a log, and then went to a party. A few years later his body was found when one of the murderers confessed to the police.

The murderer in Adrian’s poem has not confessed and still wears the victim’s chain. It’s a powerful poem written concisely and directly. There’s really no other literary method of managing this kind of topic.

and then there’s ‘The Astronaut’s Lovesong’  –

     …honestly, love, I want you totally
like a heatshield, an antidote, a splashdown.

From my home in Magnolia I’ve driven
in my transit nappies, in my husband’s wagon
with duct tape, cord and gear sacks
a steel mallet, a knife and rubber tubing
in the back.

Yes, it’s about the wildly jealous astronaut Lisa Nowack who tried to kidnap a female airforce captain who was involved with an astronaut on whom Lisa had a big crush.

But, not to dwell mainly on the darker side of Adrian’s beguilingly titled booklet s, the poems are diverse, often clever, sometimes contemplative and lyrical.  Contemplating ‘fate’ as in ‘destiny’ and playing on the word – the poem’s title is the French ‘fête‘ which translates as celebration – he sets an impossible task –  to weigh a mountain,

any mountain, Eyjatjallajokull say,
(go on say it)

There are also plenty of ‘up’ moments, poems that embrace a kind of Australian-ness, alongside some jokes and fun lampooning old poetry codgers (my generation) –  current dress fashions – sock-free men and fruit-print frocks. And, for me, Adrian’s tone is occasionally reminiscent of work by S.K. Kelen –

*

S.K. Kelen reading from Don Juan Variations. (Photo by Adrian Wiggins).

Steve Kelen has been writing preeminent poems for several decades, publishing early poems in Poetry Australia when he was only17. He is one of OzPo’s luminaries. Here, he takes on the legend of Don Juan, the fictional 17th century wealthy libertine who devoted his life to seducing women and who’s been portrayed through the centuries in various iterations – famously in opera by Mozart, in poetry by Lord Byron and even by Guillaume Apollinaire, and in myriad plays, songs and films.

In Steve’s version, in the two epic poems here, we begin in the traffic daze of Parramatta Road that is depicted so powerfully that it’s rendered a grotesque enargia – ‘roadside even/ A dead dog can be sexy’ . Through a choking throng of machinery, noise and fumes Don Juan gets his chariot to the shopping mall – where

Flamenco muzak is ecstasy, escalators
Are heaven’s path. You ride a dragon’s spine
Upward upward rise through the shiniest place of all time
Shining the way paradise should shine

This is a veritable arcadia of pleasures –

Juan was home, felt the mall satisfying.

A witty commentary on the poem’s artifice ensues and does my work for me in introducing the poems to you – so I’ll quote –

Of course they still ennoble the soul but today’s
Best loved poems are the ones that can be enjoyed
During the ads on TV, while playing air guitar
Downloading a game or sitting in an RSL drinking.
Thus this poem will leave much to the imagination –
What is given are some illuminations and bursts of story
Something extra for resonance maybe some startling imagery
Maybe not; as far as plot and meaning go
Like Byron’s Don Juan, this baby is an open field
A map with a lot of terra incognito.
A quick-epic or verse miniseries that approaches
the lyric in brevity and leaves time for other play activity.

And it goes on to critique Byron’s poem as old-fashioned in the face of the soft-core porn of today’s glossy celebrity magazines and tv soapies. And there’s much much more – we are even given the traditional epic’s shipwreck, a resume of multiculturalism  too, as we follow Don Juan’s numerous encountersin his efforts to work out where he’s landed – in 21st century Aussie culture.

These poems are a narrative-driven tour de force. Here is a worldliness grown weary of consumerism, yet still able to see the comical. It’s an absurd knowledge that the material world is, finally, preposterous. In the second poem Don Juan joins a queue of unhappy souls, in various states of anomie, waiting toenter The Underworld. After further disconcerting disintegration there are some marsupials at the end of the road who seem to have figured things out –

Possums laugh, their bushy tails point to the sky.
‘Lost Paradise?’ they ask. ‘Regrets?’

*

James Stuart reading from Imitation Era. (Photo by Adrian Wiggins).

James Stuart’s Imitation Era begins with poems displaying a genial relational cognizance.

In a beautiful poem to his infant daughter the lyricism is consummate. ‘Postcard for Marilla’ encompasses the classic occasion when a father considers his projections into the future –

                                                  Whole empires
could balance upon your first tooth but this life
we have prepared for you will close more quickly
than it opens, no matter how much we love each other.

and

One day when you are ready I’ll tell you
about great migrations we have destroyed & marsupials

you’ll never meet, even as they ghost
across scrubland on the television screen.

James’ poems are diffused with exacting and mostly scarce description and nimble philosophical reflection as they shift through diverse locations. The Sydney Harbour Bridge looks like the handle of an old suitcase found in a second-hand shop in Enmore, there’s a business banquet in Hong Kong, a Venison Weekend at the Austrian Club near Bulli Pass, a decaying Doric Europe, bamboo forests, tropical storms and a quick and greedy street puppy. A few years ago James spent time in Chengdu in China on an Asialink residency.  In ‘Images, the outside world’ – he encounters and animates a dragon –

                                 A mangy dragon
pokes his head out from between Heaven’s West Gate
& sneezes, scratching lazily at lice between his scales.

Elsewhere, in the east near a well-worn ancient gingko tree, the poet experiences the ephemerality of his vocation –

The most unbelievable ideas spout up here
& are swept like plastic bags towards the ocean.

And in a cogent poem, ‘The White Horse’,  he learns what every self-conscious foreign-devil-poet learns at some point in any country, when his wise teacher’s advice and ancient romantic Eastern imagery fails him –

But the white stallion with its cloud-draped hooves
& silk-thread mane never turned up for collection.
Nor did my Vietnamese mother who had forsaken me on this,
the eve of the lunar new year. Only thus did I learn
that I am from Australia, that I am an Australian

The next poem, ‘Sudden Rain, Tilba Tilba’, incorporates the lesson naturally. The landscape of spotted gums and blackbutts and tin shed-and-flyscreen bric-a-brac are fleetingly imagined as a Chinese painting –

the grass as negative space upon which float
the black-ink strokes of eucalypts?

and the final poem ends in a photo of a mist, not the misty mountains mist, but, (I’ve imagined at any rate), the mists of the escarpment just north of Wollongong –

                                                              …even the swans,
who barely register our shapes from so high above, as we move
into & out of focus, signposting this inexplicable mist.

*

Niobe Syme reads from Beheld. (Photo by Adrian Wiggins).

For me, the title of Niobe Syme’s booklet, Beheld, sounds kind of biblical. You know, as if we’ve suddenly looked and beheld some heralding angels or the king of kings or one of his friends or relatives!

Niobe is a photographer who has shown her work publicly in various competitions and group exhibitions. This practice gives her poems a visual aesthetic and an occasional obliquity. She says on her web site that she has ‘a fascination with perception surrounding sense, meaning and time’ and that contextualises aspects of the poems in Beheld.

The opening lines in a poem set in a place called ‘Raglan Road’, ‘Late light bleeds/into the sitting room’ establish a photographic perception right from the beginning. And later these minimalist couplets continue with  ‘Now with cloudy eyes/she stands mute/in a haze of olive tones. Dust advances like an army/leaching highlights’ This poem engages with pastness, past time.

There is a poem in an urban hotel or bar that is busy with images of a signature Happy Hour, and  a couple of travel poems – at the Mississipi River where the American dream is subsumed to the mortgage crisis, and, then there’s a totally different place –  ‘Leaving Jodhpur’, a famously dusty Indian city –

Dust clouds around a ball
pursued by long-limbed children.
Rajasthan, Sofala or Mars?

Every moment and form is rusting
substance yielding to air
and carried away to settle

as desert-varnish, elsewhere.

Most of Niobe’s poems connect somehow with a photographer’s way of seeing – and there are traces throughout of tungsten, filament, colour definition, ‘sun and matter/hum out of shadow’ in a dark room, framed reproductions of painting masters, and photographs in a family house, a window has a ‘ferrous tint’, the sky (in Jodhpur again) is ‘in mineralised brooding’, there are ‘faded psycho-snapshots’, ‘the mind must have its frame’, ‘she gently roamed/from highlight to shadow’.

The poem ‘The Art of Peeling Skin’ is oblique, private, coded and ends with a line that gives the clue to the booklet’s title ‘as though in peril you might find it,
 a luminous core/or at least the suggestion that you were beheld.’

*

Nicolette Stasko reads from Under Rats. (Photo by Adrian Wiggins).

Nicolette Stasko, originally from Pennsylvania in the U.S., started publishing her writing in the 1990’s. She has edited, in the late ’80s, for a magazine called Phoenix,  written four poetry books, a novel and a book about a bivalve mollusc, the oyster. She has also taught creative writing.

Every poem in Nicolette’s Under Rats includes an animal, a bird or an insect so this chapbook is a series of natural world or fauna poems and, mostly, the context is the everyday.  Her neighbours, in the first poem and wasps flying around a line of washing, a pouncing marmalade cat, mouse spiders, (not that mouse spiders are very ‘everyday’) and sea shells. Hummingbirds, similar to Australian honey eaters, are found in north America and bring a sense of nostalgia for the poet. Even in a poem depicting three different moons there’s an animal reference – a reflection of one of the moons smiles like a Cheshire cat. Another poem, in a scene that’s familiar in Sydney, the poet is waiting for the bats to make their early evening crossing and, oddly, they fail to appear.

The title poem, ‘under rats’, is at a tangent to the others here It’s a complex, sometimes startling, sometimes darkly humorous kind of European poem. To me it suggests an historical figure, a writer, a playwright, a communist, a Jew, a Russian, or perhaps these are scenes from Nicolette’s Polish/Hungarian background?  I don’t know – it’s quite oneiric, coded and distanced and perhaps I’ve got it wrong ..? The structure is twelve stanzas that in pairs are of fourteen lines – like sonnets and the narrative shaping is engaging and very effective –

we began to be afraid of our shoes
they seemed to become more
aggressive   taking us places
we didn’t want to go
someone said to leave
them for a while
that  always fixed things
but they only became

more demanding
we had heard of a case like this
somewhere in chechnya

finally they had no choice
but to line them up and shoot
blindfolds were unnecessary

I’ll leave it there. Under Rats is an intriguing collection of poems.

*

Kit Kelen reads from Green Thought – Green Shade. (Photo by Adrian Wiggins).

Kit Kelen is currently on sabbatical from his job in Macau, where he teaches and publishes translations and original work at a prolific rate – both his own work and others. And on this sabbatical he has written Green Thought – Green Shade – a suite of pastoral poems about re-entering or re-engaging with the Australian countryside. Where, as he says in the first poem, he will ‘go bush’. He reflects on the return and the changes that have occurred during his absence from Bulahdelah in the poem ‘coming home’

where a tent was first pitched
the garden went

the oak from the acorn
come in the post

the reach of the branches
adventures in bark

heights of trees
now I am taller

Although Kit Kelen’s use of language in the poems is direct, and is in fact pretty much plain speech, he idealises the place where he has a great sense of belonging. The property is called ‘Iona’, an island in the Scottish Hebrides, but also , in the sububan tradition of using homynyms for house names like Dunromin – ‘done roaming’, ‘Iona’ is also ‘I owner’.

Here, he writes –

I sink in like fenceposts
this is the spot
where I’ll rot

In the poem ‘the morning’s headlines’ this particular idyllic arcadia is where the anxieties of daily news reports are soothed and parodied by the contrast of the Australian landscape –

local economy in overnight flatline

mist lifted
neighbour’s cows emerge unscathed

vine in gumboot tangle
hooves press on

haze fails to dampen sun

hoe flies off handle

kookaburras sit out last laugh scandal

These poems are written from an affection for a landscape and its details in a particular part of the country in which Kit Kelen has made his own sense of belonging. Readers can guage, from what he calls a ‘sabbatical set’ of poems, that he misses this place when he is away in Asia.

Kit Kelen’s reflective philosophy turns up in the final poem ‘art of passing’ –

and under distraction
victim of our own whim
I’m becoming past master
of the imperfect

and making this
my art

*

So – that’s a brief tour of these collections. My apologies for the length of time I’ve taken here and for the brevity of attention to each title but I’m sure the poets will amplify my notes by reading for you. I take great pleasure in announcing these six chapbooks launched and ready to read!

NOTES

1. A line I read somewhere, perhaps in Keri Glastonbury’s 2010 JASAL article – The New ‘Coterie’, or perhaps elsewhere. I copied it into my book of extensive notes on independent publishing but didn’t add the source.

– Pam Brown

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Pam Brown recently edited Fifty-one contemporary poets from Australia for ‘Jacket2’ where she is an associate editor. She has published many books including Dear Deliria (Salt, 2002), True Thoughts (Salt, 2008), Authentic Local (SOI3 Modern Poets, 2010) and, more recently, a pocket book of ten poems, Anyworld (Flying Island, 2012) and a booklet, More than a feuilleton (Little Esther Books, 2012). A longer collection of poems, Home by Dark, will be published by Shearsman Books in the U.K. in 2013. Pam lives in Alexandria, Sydney and blogs intermittently at http://thedeletions.blogspot.com/

For information on how to buy any Vagabond Press Book email them at contact@vagabondpress.net

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.