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.

 

 

Featured Writer Les Wicks: Four Poems

Emily Takes Off

The surgeons wanted to cut them out
but she had other ideas, albeit
half-formed like those lumps on her shoulder blades.

Scans were inconclusive
but the medical profession poked-prodded
to a point where bruises blossomed across her back.

There were suggestions surgery
could leave a tattoo of pain across her adult life…
all within acceptable boundaries
drawn by those without affliction.

As the skin began to split around
the urgencies on her scapulae
doctors sought orders from the court.

Her parents took the family on an extended holiday.
Process servers fretted about the vacated home but
all the neighbours refused to answer questions –
common good, common purpose.

Emily’s wings required some adaptation
but she thrived above the clods of debate, that
aggregate of rules, those
endless line markers at their bitumen.

Her party-dress of clouds now skims the globe.

 

The Love-It-Till-You-Don’t Club, Kingscliff

Terry. Vietnam.
That word is enough, they
cured the cancer. Big deal.
With his Seniors Card rode the bus to pick up Nembutal.
For years he felt there was magic yet in his world, plus
he lived near the beach.

Friends will be there
but by obligation “not there” –
this loving called death must legally be done in solitude.
Booked into the Sunshine Motel.

He belongs to a group that helps their members live & die.
Never too much pain, nor much joy
he remembers the boy he was
& apologises at the air.

Medicine can be tougher than the patient.
Lost his way at Falldown Bay.
Never too much pain.
Those who cared flapped about him pesky precious,
orbited his damage for years.

There were pinnacles in his life.
Marlene & her hippy dresses,
she could tea away apocalypse.
Cowboyhat Hannah just got to scootin’
as Daisy went & flowered straight out of the garden.
It’s not that it matters, small tears
in an old t-shirt. They were all so piss-weak
& twice as strong as him.

Not a dole bludger,
that pride above disability.
Mate/employer Davo reckons
he can’t cope without him
(should never have been a builder anyway).
Davo whinges a lot, reckons he’s just a man
fighting depression, custody, bankruptcy but
he  never served.

Terry served, knew a few miracles.
Still shrugs, thinks big deal.

Slipping away, this day
people will drop by around 7pm, check there’s no pulse.
The road to well is sometimes a dead end.
Call box notification to police, because those
hard-pressed cleaning staff aren’t paid enough for bodies.
Terry will be honoured, a forward scout again, trailblazing
in the territories beyond hurt.

 

The Last Trick –  Colloquium Perspectives on the Arts
in Post-literary, Poly-liminal Aggregations

With the Australian Empire on its knees
(& unable to afford the arthroscopy)
I was invited to address a modest gathering of minds
to discuss the Twenty Doctrinal Errors.

Parliamentarians promised to save our misspelt solds.
My position in the Temple was dependent
on the continued satiation of grandees.
This involved  robust video presentations of puppies plus
the adornment of statues featuring
that reified, reassuring, retooled Roman god Quotidian.

Not for lack of effort
though as the years drag on my pretention
has become more prefab.
Authorities became concerned & a
clerical constabulary questioned my
grammatical life choices.

I fell.
Not in a graceful mort d’un cygne way more
abattoir chute.
I zeroed.

So with nothing left, retreated to my reservation
(1970’s working class apartment)
& there await developments.

Swapping meals with my friend in #8
(Mustafa’s a bit heavy on the meat –
me on the dairy –
we both believe in garlic & mushrooms)
I defend the right to die
alongside discouraging my ex-lover’s suicide.
Yesterday rode my bike by the bay,
this irrelevance is a sanctity.

 

Grand Mal

He knew her when they were seeds.
Now they flash their Seniors Cards & call it dance
He wasn’t ready, ever.
This life is birdcall across scree…
deep & meaningless as any deity.
Thoughts proclaim territory
as that territory shrugs.

A table with a view.
Meeting her again, both
are fat on good intentions. The nests are brimming
with dependents. This anthem of glut
has clogged the world

& isn’t enough.
Not by a long shot.

So later they rut mindful of
backs & knees.
So unexpected: she had worn just comfort underwear,
he hadn’t shaved his back.

Age will give you everything, don’t struggle.
Turn down the lights
& remember your medication.

 

– Les Wicks


 

Les Wicks

Les Wicks. photograph by Susan Adams (2014).

Les Wicks’ 13th book of poetry is Getting By Not Fitting In (Island, 2016). For 40 years Les has been a figure of substance in the Australian literary community. He has been a guest at most of his nation’s literary festivals alongside a substantial list of international ones, including Festival de Poesia Medellin, World Poetry Festival (Delhi), Beyond Baroque (L.A.), Austin International Poetry Festival, FI PTR (Can), Vilenica Festival, Struga Poetry Evenings (Mac), Festival Poesia de Granada (Nicaragua), and International Poetry Festival Istanbul. His poetry has been published in over 350 different newspapers, anthologies and magazines across 28 countries and in 13 different languages. Les is seen as both a “stage” and “page” poet. His work is a mixture of accessibility and dense use of language. He is a master of capturing the vernacular. His poems are both humorous and fierce, often in the same poem. Les is equally well known is his work as a publisher and editor. Most people will remember Artransit which put poetry and art into Sydney and Newcastle buses. However, that is just one of dozens of similar roles: some predictable, like literary magazines, while others range as far afield as publishing a poem on the surface of a river. The most recent poetry anthologies he has co- edited and published are Guide to Sydney Rivers and AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia. He has coordinated workshops across the country. website: http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Getting By Not Fitting In is available from Island Press

 

Featured Writer Les Wicks: Biographical Note

Les Wicks

Les Wicks. photograph by Susan Adams (2014).

 

Les Wicks’ 13th book of poetry is Getting By Not Fitting In (Island, 2016). For 40 years, Les has been a figure of substance in the Australian literary community. He has been a guest at most of his nation’s literary festivals alongside a substantial list of international ones, including Festival de Poesia Medellin, World Poetry Festival (Delhi), Beyond Baroque (L.A.), Austin International Poetry Festival, FI PTR (Can), Vilenica Festival, Struga Poetry Evenings (Mac), Festival Poesia de Granada (Nicaragua), and International Poetry Festival Istanbul. His poetry has been published in over 350 different newspapers, anthologies and magazines across 28 countries and in 13 different languages. Les is seen as both a “stage” and “page” poet. His work is a mixture of accessibility and dense use of language. He is a master of capturing the vernacular. His poems are both humorous and fierce, often in the same poem. Les is equally well known is his work as a publisher and editor. Most people will remember Artransit which put poetry and art into Sydney and Newcastle buses. However, that is just one of dozens of similar roles: some predictable, like literary magazines, while others range as far afield as publishing a poem on the surface of a river. The most recent poetry anthologies he has co-edited and published are Guide to Sydney Rivers and AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia. He has coordinated workshops across the country. website: http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Getting By Not Fitting In is available from Island Press

Featured Writer Les Wicks: Four Poems

 

A taste of the international poetry festivals: Featured Writers’ introduction by Les Wicks

The Rovers

An international poetry festival is a life changing event for the poets and more than a few of the audience. Let me paint a picture – somewhere between thirty and one hundred and forty writers trickle in from the four corners of the globe. There’s a strange combination of jet lag and inspiration as veterans meet again while newbies try to get a handle on what the hell is happening.

Sometimes, later that same day you give your first performance. There can be up to five thousand people in the audience – there’s popcorn, audio visuals and even autograph hunters. They are there for poetry. Poetry matters.

One of the things that perpetually frustrates me is that Australia is unlikely to host a true international poetry festival anytime soon. There are several reasons – travel is so expensive, the governments here have really cut back on literature support, and while we are quite culturally diverse, poetry is highly marginalised here. But we can and must do it someday.

I want to bring you a taste via Rochford Street Review. Across the globe, there are poets who regularly appear at these incredible forums. I have selected sixteen from the festival circuit. They vary in age, voice and career stage but all bring something unique to the world poetry movement. I specifically chose not to include any from the United States, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand or the United Kingdom as they are disproportionately represented in the meagre list of international writers that have been brought to Australia.

 

-Les Wicks

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Les Wicks

Les Wicks. photograph by Susan Adams (2014).

Les Wicks has toured widely and been published in 28 countries and 13 languages. His 13th book of poetry is Getting By Not Fitting In (Island, 2016). His 12th, El Asombrado, is a selection of poems from the previous fifteen years in Spanish and English translated by G. Leogena and published by Rochford Street Press in 2015. He can be found at http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

 

Les Wicks: Biographical Note

Les Wicks

Les Wicks. photograph by Susan Adams (2014).

 

Les Wicks has toured widely and been published in 28 countries and 13 languages. His 13th book of poetry is Getting By Not Fitting In (Island, 2016). His 12th, El Asombrado, is a selection of poems from the previous fifteen years in Spanish and English translated by G. Leogena and published by Rochford Street Press in 2015. He can be found at http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Island Press: the Story Continues

island logo

After we republished Phil Robert’s memoir of the origins of Island Press (https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/10/01/ten-year-on-an-island-by-philip-roberts-the-beginnings-of-island-press/), in conjunction with the celebration of Island’s 45th Birthday Party, we received a number of inquiries from readers wanting to know the history of the press post Phil Roberts. The following is a brief note on the story since then: 

Martin Langford, Les Wicks and Phil Hammial with MC xxxx at the microphone during Island Press' 45 birthday celebrations.Picture ....

Martin Langford, Les Wicks and Phil Hammial with MC Roberta Lowing at the microphone during Island Press’ 45 birthday celebrations. Photograph by Michele Seminara.

Fortunately, the actual physical production of the book has become a lot easier since the first days. The problems around poetry receiving an audience remotely commensurate with the skill and vision that go into it, however, remain as intractable as ever.

After Phil Roberts returned to Canada, leaving his work as a lecturer at Sydney University to freelance, as poet, and writer about poetry, in Nova Scotiaproducing many more poetry collections, and achieving renown as the author of How Poetry Works (Penguin, 1986) – Phil Hammial continued the work of the press, overseeing the publication of titles such as John Tranter’s Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979) and J.S. Harry’s A Dandelion for Van Gogh (1985). Hammial consolidated the press’s original policy of being prepared to take risks with younger poets, publishing titles such as Adam Aitken’s Letter to Marco Polo (1985), and, if anything, increased the extent to which it was prepared to publish work which would not be acceptable to mainstream presses. Examples of the latter include Anthony Mannix’s Erotomania (1984), and Hammial’s own Vehicles (1985).

Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, John Tranter 1979

Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, John Tranter 1979

Running a press by oneself is a big responsibility, and there was a hiatus in Island activities between 1985 and 1992; when Hammial decided to get things moving again by inviting a small group of fellow poets Jutta Sieverding, Les Wicks and Martin Langford to join him in turning Island into a co-operative. In this, Island was fortunate to have access to the skills of Phil’s partner, Anne, whose expertise in the newly-legislated format was ideal for the press. Anne has been an essential element in the success of Island: each year she has reviewed the accounts and prepared the annual returns. Having someone who has been willing to offer us her knowledge about co-operative accounting pro bono has been a huge asset, and the press is extremely grateful to her for her generosity. Island’s aim had always been to provide an outlet for new poetry, to make a contribution to the artistic world first and foremost. So the new structure, which minimised business and governance costs, and which allowed it to get on with the job of providing an outlet for its poets with as little distraction as possible, was just what was needed.

Blonde and French by Ken Bolton was published by P. Hammial & P. Roberts in 1978 before Phil Roberts left Australia

Blonde and French by Ken Bolton was published by P. Hammial & P. Roberts in 1978 before Phil Roberts left Australia

The period since Island was incorporated as a co-operative has turned out be its most productive time – 37 books in 22 years: a little less than two a year (readers interested in the complete list should consult the Island website). It hasn’t published every year: it has not always been possible to obtain funding, and sometimes the directors have been caught up in other activities.

The nineties were to prove a busy little period, with publications from Lizz Murphy (Pearls and Bullets), Marcel Freiman (Monkey’s Wedding), Jutta Seiverding (Uneasy Weather) and Leith Morton (The Flower Ornament), amongst others. And then, as has sometimes happened, there was a break for a couple of years, while the press struggled to obtain funding.
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The 21st Century

Island poet Carolyn Gerrish reading at the 45th Birthday/Book launch celebrations. Photograph Michele Seminara

Island poet Carolyn Gerrish reading at the 45th Birthday/Book launch celebrations. Photograph Michele Seminara

Be Straight with Me from Langford saw the millennium in; this was a departure from our normal audience and focus as it sought to address and speak to the often neglected teenage male. Lizz Murphy, Leith Morton and Carolyn Gerrish rejoined the Island tribe with dynamic new titles and Philip Hammial’s exploration of the more lawless boundaries of language continued with several titles including In the Year of Our Lord Slaughter’s Children and Voodoo Realities.

Australian poetry occupies a tiny niche market. The secret to longevity in the editors’ minds was to retain a tight focus, to keep our output manageable. Australia Council support was fundamental to our decision each year to commit to the next one. The process of obtaining that support was never simple and had some substantial on-costs related to our corporate structure etc. But support did come most years and it was frankly this input that was the deciding factor in the press’ ability to continue.

Adam Aitken’s first collection, Letter to Marco Polo, was published by Island Press in 1985.

Adam Aitken’s first collection, Letter to Marco Polo, was published by Island Press in 1985.

The editors have had the honour of performing in countries where our artform is somewhere near the core of those nation’s culture, even self-identity. Poetry in Australia is not a “popular” public entertainment; it needs support. One supposes one can make the choice that we will be a society without poetry and withdraw that infrastructure. But this will have long-term implications on what we are as a people. In New South Wales there will be billions spent in the years ahead on stadium upgrades. Poetry asks for just a trickle of tightly focused help.

With small presses, every corner that can be cut is cut. Working collaboratively with the chosen poets each year we reduce the burden at “head office”. Copies of the books are kept with the individual poets thereby circumventing the need for warehousing. We work closely with printers to obtain not just the best quality product but also a reasonably priced one. Often, book design is done in-house.

Uneasy Weather by Jutta Sieverding. Island Press 1993

Uneasy Weather by Jutta Sieverding. Island Press 1993. Her final book, A Dangerous Place, was published by Island in 2005.

In 2005, we were proud to publish the final book from Jutta Sieverding, one of the original four in our incorporated entity stage. The loss of her editorial and production expertise was felt deeply both by her fellow Island editors and the literary community generally. Her A Dangerous Place was a moving reflection on life lived and losing. A pinnacle of the first years of the 21st century was the publication of David Brooks’ Urban Elegies. David went on to provide strategic assistance for a number of years. There was somewhat of a history of Island publishing revered poets coming back to their practice after a hiatus, we jumped at the chance to put out Rae Desmond Jones’ Blow Out. David Musgrave, after spending so much effort publishing others, was a welcome addition to the Island stable with Concrete Tuesday. Roberta Lowing’s The Searchers is an important step in her development as a poet as well as a real contribution to the community generally.

ticket to ride

Ticket to Ride by Philip Hammial. Island Press 2015

Whilst tending to have Sydney focus for purely practical reasons of organisation, we felt it was important to have a regional or non-capital city component in our lists. Barbara Petrie, John Watson, Barbara de Franceschi and Rob Reil were invaluable additions to our catalogue from that grouping.

Publishing someone’s first book of poetry is a unique honour. Some of those we published in the 70s and 80s have gone on to be major figures in the canon. More recently, we were proud to be midwives to some fine titles in this category – Barbara de Franceschi’s Strands was a superb book. Christine Townend’s Walking with Elephants has had critical acclaim in the months since its launch and Susan Adams’ Beside Rivers was commended in the Anne Elder prize. We plan to continue with this as part of our selection criteria.

The Future?

Walking with Elephants by Christine Townend was launched at Island's 45th Birthday party

Walking with Elephants by Christine Townend was launched at Island’s 45th Birthday party

More recently, we have sought to include books from interstate poets both to better reflect the community’s output as a whole and to expand the Island Press footprint. Jeltje Fanoy’s Princes by Night is a glorious postcolonial exploration.

All three of the current editors “get around a lot” and are always on the lookout for potential additions to our list. Invitations are extended on the basis of obvious literary strength, a diversity of voice, mix of regional/capital city, gender balance, at least one first book and a proven track record of professional activism in the art form (i.e. giving something back). Our tentative 2016 program reflects this. Michele Seminara is a relative newcomer to poetry but already has an impressive following due to her energetic work within the community. Mark Roberts has been an engine for the dissemination of poetry for decades and is long overdue a book of his own. David Gilbey is of incalculable benefit to literature, particularly in regional Australia. Lauren Williams continues to be a loved voice over four decades and she also comes from regional Victoria. Les Wicks makes up the fifth title.

The Searchers by Roberta Lowing was also launched at Island's 45th birthday celebrations

The Searchers by Roberta Lowing was also launched at Island’s 45th birthday celebrations

We cannot say with certainty whether any or all of these titles will emerge. Like so much of the literature community, cuts to government funding have made the future profoundly uncertain. At a time in this press’ life when we would ordinarily be discussing expansion and bringing in younger blood to the editorial process we can’t with any certainty plan towards our 50th year of operation. As the oldest still functioning poetry press in Australia this is not an enviable position. After all these decades of Quixotic optimism, strategic promotion, pennypinching, thankless pursuit of funding et cetera will Island be nearing its end?

 – Martin Langford & Les Wicks

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Martin Langford’s recent publications are The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (P&W, 2009) and Ground (P&W, 2015). He is the editor of Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1788-2008 (ed., P&W 2009). He is the poetry reviewer at Meanjin.

Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication across 23 countries in 11 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013), his 12th (a Spanish selection) El Asombrado (Rochford Street Press, 2015). http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

For the full list of books from Island and to order titles see  http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

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A Hummingbird Mind: Les Wicks reviews ‘Porch Light’ by Ivy Ireland

Porch Light by Ivy Ireland Puncher & Wattmann, 2015

porch light.
I was keen to receive this title, Ireland has a hummingbird mind, the reader is led into places they had not previously experienced to then find themselves pinned into that place by richly original language. Mercurial.

These are rarely simple journeys, you have to concentrate to stay on board as she flits from foam pits of human love to the Throne of the Most High (‘Porch Light’). Like planes slowing, edging in towards landing, the pieces tend to find focus as they finish:

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constantly switched on to reveal
meat, guts and skin twisting
another idea back on itself

 – ‘What we do for Survival’

I did, however, found some parts of this (comparatively short) book to be meandering – ‘LAX’ for example seemed to me be a big so what until we get to the sparkling last line clutching this airport lounge margarita as if it were magnetic pole.

Against this, Ireland can pick up subjects that didn’t promise much of interest (for me at least) and turn them into a linguistic delight. Take for instance ‘Velocity’ which concerns a carrier pigeon, with a line she grabs us –

his own mass the only anchor:
Hooked into sky.

Repeatedly the reader comes across the richest linguistic nectar. There is a great clarity in this woman’s vision:

while we live altogether alone out here
against the secrets of our bodies

 – ‘Venus Transits’

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The soul must be wedded to the flesh. There is only this. You leapt.

 – ‘Angel of the Neo-Burlesque’

‘Glass Eater’ is just fabulous.

This is one of those books that works so well on many levels as it stands while simultaneously holding out the promise of what the poet’s next book will achieve.

 – Les Wicks

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LES WICKS has toured widely and seen publication across 23 countries in 11 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013), his 12th (a Spanish selection) El Asombrado (Rochford Street Press, 2015). He can be found at http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Porch Light is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/porch-light

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martin h launch

For the Words…. Les Wicks experiences the International Poetry Festival of Granada (Nicaragua)

Les Wicks has just returned from attending the Festival Internacional de Poesía, Granada in Nicaragua. Here he shares his experiences of the Festival.

Poetry at the Plaza

Poetry at the Plaza de la Independencia

We do what we do. Mostly it’s like some sort of psychiatric itch, satisfied safely in dark corners well away from any hint of public gaze. Oh yes, to be a poet sounds dashing, even romantic… to anyone who knows nothing of the realities of our invisible art. I think the general consensus is that the world needs poetry just so long as nobody ever has to read it.

The first indication that something was different in Nicaragua was when two of us were plucked from the “huddled masses” at immigration in Managua airport to be spirited away to the diplomatic suite while our passports and luggage were processed by energetic others. We are not used to special treatment.

So to be launched into a tardy, spectacular maelstrom that was the Festival  Internacional de Poesía, Granada. This beautiful lakeside town has a vast central public area called the Plaza de la Independencia. An extraordinary expanse – this was to be the heart of the Festival. Each night there was an audience ranging between 500 and 2000 – engaged, animated and happily munching on popcorn. I had experienced something similar in Medellín, widely acknowledged as the world’s biggest poetry Festival, but this extraordinary outpouring of that rarest commodity in poetry – interest – is deeply humbling. I know people use this phrase all the time but when you experience the real thing there simply isn’t another word for it.

This isn’t about star power. There were around 100 poets from 50 countries performing across the seven days. Each poet was probably only known to few of their compatriots, let alone this vast audience. With the exception of those like Ernesto Cardenal, to the audience we must’ve seemed like a collection of disparate oddities, a freak show of words. But we were part of something called poetry and that was what they showed up for… a conscious choice in a town where there was plenty else going on. They listened patiently to the, say, Friesian version of one poem waiting for the Spanish translation that would follow.

Throughout each day there were a series of smaller, but well attended readings. There was an exciting range of work available at the book fair. But just as we had settled in to this enriching pattern of engagement there was the biggest surprise of all – the carnival. This year themed around the proposition of celebrating a death of violence against women through poetry (this loses something in the translation) we were in a street parade lasting several hours (with thermometers hitting the mid 30s) – an array of musicians, dozens of dancers and thousands of onlookers. At each streetcorner the carnival stopped and poets were called to the stage to read their work. Earlier I talked about humility, in the carnival I cried at times. This was just so much.

Everything ran late. There were some interesting failures of organisation. But this was set against a planning incomprehensible anywhere else in the world. The scale was mind-boggling. We just shook our heads as we watched organisers going publicly mad juggling so many balls at once.

More than once we had to ask ourselves whether all this could be justified in a country facing so many economic challenges. Nicaragua is poor, the 2nd poorest in the western hemisphere. Nicaragua has vast inequalities. The newly restored Sandinista government faces an economy in many ways at a standstill. The endemic corruption throughout the region has allegedly breached the barriers and a proposal for a Chinese built canal to rival Panama cutting through the country’s gigantic freshwater lake sees the country deeply divided. Why would a fortune be wasted on words?

Granada3 071 (2)

The Carnival!

On the first night there were a few of us in the audience chattering quietly through the long blocks of indecipherable (for us) Spanish. The homeless guy in front of us tapped our knees and begged us to be quiet so he could hear. Over the week teenagers pulled us aside asking for autographs, but more importantly wanting to clarify points in our work that they wrestled with in their hard fought English. We engaged with the people at each point of this extraordinary week – some clearly from the social elite engaging in “high culture”, some penny-poor revelling in the roars from angry wordsmiths. The simple reality is that poetry rests close to the core of Latin America’s DNA. This didn’t happen over the course of a few decades, it didn’t happen by accident and it has been maintained through prodigious efforts by countless practitioners and volunteers. It is an amazing sacrament that those of us from other cultures can only marvel at. Is this the justification?

For me, the assessment of the Festival from a critical standpoint is a process that will take some months yet as I read through the array of books I took home to follow through from the live experience. Of course, one could revel in the lyric clarity of US poets like Richard Blanco and Jessica Hellen Lopez. I ran across the work of Campbell McGrath the first time and was fascinated. Sweden’s Bengt Berg had a canny anarchism that disrupted the easy assumptions of poetry. New Zealand’s Doc Drumheller had the crowd eating out of his hand. Peter Waugh, Immanuel Mifsud, Monica Aasprong, Aurelia Lassaque, Dylan Brennan, Claudio Pozzani, Alexander Hutchison, Hanane Aad, Gasper Malej and Johanna Veno all brought unique voices to play. After some rum fuelled insights into poetry shared with Maarja Kangro I looked up some of her translated work and thought yes, she gets it. I loved Luis H Francia’s work and attending the launch of Sudeep Sen’s Spanish book enabled me to immerse myself in a full hour’s worth of his words helpfully also read in English. It was a frustration that I was unable to understand the full richness of so many of the Latin American poets, but having previously read a superb anthology called The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry I kinda knew what I was missing. I recommend it to readers.

The final question is both difficult and tedious. What is the biggest poetry Festival in the world, Medellín or Granada? I’m not sure I’m ready to take that call as they have quite significant points of differentiation. But to have been a guest at either changes a poet’s perception of self and their art fundamentally. Both richer and poorer we sit before our computer screens knowing each word must count, somewhere.

– Les Wicks

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A review of The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry can be found on Jacket 2 http://jacket2.org/reviews/multilingual-latin-american-poetries

Les Wicks’ 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013), his 12th (a Spanish selection) El Asombrado (Rochford St Press, 2015) is available on-line http://elasombrado.com/. He attended the 2015 festival with assistance from Copyright Agency for part of the transit costs.
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New from Rochford Street Press – El Asombrado by Les Wicks

cover 2Rochford Street Press is excited to announce the publication of Les Wicks’ 12th title.  El Asombrado is available as a free e-book from Rochford Street Press. Just visit http://elasombrado.com/.

The title loosely translates to “He Who Watches and is Amazed”- it is a selection of work from over the past 15 years presented in both Spanish & English. The translator, Colombian G. Leogena is a master of the art.

Two fabulous graphics front and back from Australian-born, long-time Mexico resident, artist Elizabeth Skelsey.

PDF copies can also be obtained for just $1 from http://elasombrado.com/rochford-street-press/purchase-el-asombrado/ or by clicking here

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Once purchased the PDF will be emailed to you within 24 hours – please ensure you enter the correct email address for delivery.

Don’t forget to check out the other Rochford Street Press titles at https://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/rochford-street-press-titles/

Disclaimer: To state the obvious Rochford Street Press is the Publisher of Rochford Street Review.

With Pretty Air and Marginal Grace: Rebecca Kylie Law review’s ‘The Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience)’ by Les Wicks

The Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) by Les Wicks.Puncher & Wattman 2013.

sea_heartbreak_310_438_sOne of the quirks of Performance Poetry is to speak from the heart; and if a word or phrase brings to mind an image then such matters need to be voiced. It seems this spontaneous combustion of language happened to Les Wick’s in his composition The Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience), as, I can only suppose, he wants to paint a familiar metaphor but at the word ‘heart’ falters and sees a bird’s beak instead of the more painful realisation inherent in ‘break’. In this sea inside Wick’s, the waters are rough but expertly thwart by denial. Wicks has come up with a strategy it seems, in overcoming disappointment. ‘Love hurts but it can be cured’, he says, ‘divine then dive’. It’s not apathy but a gung-ho battle of wits to demystify romantic demonstrations. ‘Seems even harmony is a habit’ writes Wicks, the trick being, it seems, to believe in something besides the obvious, to ‘riot in the empty’.

With six sections dividing the poems in The Sea of Heartbeak, the labour of love is an odyssey buoyed by hope and reckless humour. ‘Lament ruthlessly’ suggests Wicks and the ‘new lyricism’ will be a ‘walk in wonder’ with ‘the heart in there somewhere/ but hardly worth the mess’. From a cemetery to a forest of trees, past a ruler of three winds to a bay disassociated from others, the journey is a ride in strange lands where matters of the flesh are the only reminders of life as a heart-beat or ‘a silenced chick’. ‘Got nothing this year/ just what I wanted’ remarks Wicks in “On the Nature of Wickedness and Plums” and it’s not humour this time but a cunning to outfox hope’s opposition, despair. With history directly behind us, there’s ‘barely a cloud says the weatherman’ and ‘christmas is dead, /right on schedule’. This poem, wedged midway on our journey from cemetery to ‘yawning daffodils’ purports a selfhood wounded by the past, uncertain of a future but glad of company. ‘Cats snigger in the shade/ But I’m smiling and silly is my key’. This, it seems, is the unexpected resilience finding its way through the stodge of misfortune, the wickedness and plums.

The poetry in this collection is aptly both surface and depth at once, both performance verse and poetic literature. If, as Les Wicks tells us, he is the ‘afterthought of birds’ then the voice, for its sing-song quietude is authentic. There is an irony to Wick’s poetry for though he is rioting about his own life, caring less for this, sparing thoughts to regard that, his poems are peaceful musings close to scores for a whistle. Towards the end of the collection he suggests we are blundering in our dialogues and need to go ‘back into the wood’. That this is the perpetual cycle of life, a back and forth movement like the tides is, for Wicks, the consolation that keeps his spirit joyous, albeit a fence-sitter. There is a lot of ‘flapping’, ‘smiling’, ‘tinkling’ and physicality in the poems that succeeds in achieving a sense of their immanence. They are restless, balletic and seemingly wanting lift off though authored by a smiling hopeful, know better than to leave. There is a ‘silence beyond glance’ says Wicks and in spite of the frivolous tumbling, walkabouts and fleeing from love, the poems have not forgotten the gravity of the very substance they choose to shut out: love through a window pane than behind a closed door. Of course, lest we forget, this is poetry.

They call Les Wicks a “stage” and “page” poet and for the purposes of this review, considering the latter, I can attest to this being an actual fact. Although there is nothing stylistically outlandish or radical about the poetry in The Sea of Heartbeak (which one would suppose a “page” poet would strive to accomplish) there is the expected attendance to rhythm, syntax and grammar for all their respective traditions and creative potentials. The poems are all left to right on the far left of the page, which I hasten to add, is not, these days, stating the obvious. Aside from this however, they are unique compositions that capitalise letters when required, italicise accordingly and arrange stanzas in the usual fashion. I am pointing this out by way of emphasising just how much of a “page” poet Wicks is…though the honesty of the language, the stop, starting you see best explained by ‘heart’ (stop) ‘beak’, is where the stage is envisioned comfortably. Wick’s poetry has a beat, a steady, unrelenting beat that pauses only when acknowledging another presence- a dog or woman, cloud nine or a’ holy man’s chant’. Phrases such as ‘Love you as the stars cave in’, cram the collection with playfulness and childlike innocence (‘that suddenly purposeful possum’) and appear as welcome antidotes to more despairing realities such as death or a heat-wave leaving ‘eucalypts inflamed, mangy’.

The unexpected resilience assisting the journey’s end or perpetual return as Wick’s would have it in The Sea of Heartbeak backs up a poet who ‘knows less each year/ & cannot rise to judge’ but considers ‘another day of life’ as marvel enough not to restlessly walk around with ‘grey abandon’. For Wick’s love comes in smoothly and goes away like rough rain, at times ‘placed in blossom’ and others as bleak as ‘the bogong moth…fooled by trashy suns humans make’. Culture these days is casual and hippie, Wick’s is wearing Indian shirts, backpackers are aimless in Coogee and the water skiers have found the river. There’s new road works taking place on the pathways to Hell, someone’s noticed the potholes,; and the stars belie a higher paradise, best to keep an eye on that or more delightfully find promise in a sun. Cerulean blues on white spell out the cover of The Sea of Heartbeak, Unexpected Resilience like the night and tides that accompany bed linen, fingers that ”ferry’ and a tinkling mind.

– Rebecca Kylie Law

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Rebecca Kylie Law is a Sydney based poet, essayist and reviewer. Published by Picaro Press, her poetry collections include Offset, Lilies and Stars and The Arrow & The Lyre. Other publications include The Wonderbook of Poetry (http://wonderbookofpoetry.org/?s=Rebecca+Kylie+Law), Notes for The Translators, Best Poem Journal, Virgogray Press, Australian Love Poems 2013, Southerly and Westerly. She was short-listed for the Judith Wright Prize in 2012 and holds a Masters Degree in Poetry from Melbourne University.

The Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) is available from  http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/sea-of-heartbeak/

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