The Silences by Amanda Anastasi and Robbie Coburn Eaglemont Press 2016, Scar to Scar by Robbie Coburn and Michele Seminara Press Press 2016.
I have been thinking a lot about poets working together on projects recently. I suspect that this has grown from reading translations and feeling, at times, slightly frustrated by the idea that there is an extra layer between my reading and the original poem. I noticed this particularly a few months back when reading the translations by Stephen Kessler of the Spanish poet Luis Cernuda. The translations were presented next to the original Spanish and, while I couldn’t read the poems in the Spanish, it was clear that Kessler had taken some major liberties with the structure of the poems, moving words from line to line and even from stanza to stanza. Armed with a Spanish English dictionary and a good online translator I began to create literal translations from the Spanish which I then reworked myself into versions I preferred. This, I realised, was a great example of how a good translator must do more than simply translate between languages – give the same poem to three different translators and chances are you will come up with three different poems.
The collaborative nature of translations became clear to me many years ago when I first came across Moscow Trefoil: Poems from the Russian of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam (ANU Press 1975). This collection contained a number of ‘translations’ or ‘interpretations’ of poems by Akhmatova and Mandelstam by translator Natalie Staples and poets Rosemary Dobson and David Campbell. Staples would first undertake a literal translation from Russian to English, then Dobson and Campbell would write their own versions based on the literal translations. The result was a two stage collaboration, from the original Russian poem to a rough English copy and then a reworking of the concepts and images into a more polished English poem.
This process was in the back of my mind as I approached two recent poetical collaborations, The Silences by Amanda Anastasi and Robbie Coburn and Scar to Scar by Robbie Coburn and Michelle Seminara. While Coburn is the common element in each collection they are very different books and highlight different ways poets can collaborate on major projects.
The Silences is a thematic collaboration. We are given no guidance or instruction on how the poems were written or how the poets worked together beyond the title of the book, the cover image and the poems themselves.
Coburn’s opening poem, however, leaves little doubt about the central concern of this collection:
there are words that are never said.
we have no use of them
the arrow lodged at the centre of time,
……………………………….‘Fervour’ / Coburn
These are images of absence, of loss. The unspoken words and the emptiness that lies at the centre. It is interesting that these images are juxtaposed against the ‘fervour’ of the title – is this a passion for emptiness, silence?
Anastasi’s opening poem is as equally evocative. It takes as its subject matter an orthodox baptism, so at once we have the implied background silence of a church. But there are sounds here even if, at first,at first they are the accepted sounds of worship:
…….. A constant male rhythmic murmur.
A recurring melody over sustained organ chords.
But then comes the dissent cry of the child and the first attempts to control or silence that dissent:
……..The cooing and rocking in response
to a persistent ostinato cry. A protective
stroke of the head, and the hushing.
the endless hushing.
……………………………….‘The Initiation’ / Anastasi
The last line extends the poem well beyond the moment of baptism. The hushing, the attempts at silencing will continue long after the baby has ceased its “persistent ostinato cry”.
These images of silence, absence and hushing continue through the collection and provide the thread that Anastasi and Coburn use to weave their poems into the collection. We have phases like “make your clamour mute” and “your silence like a bullfighter’s stare” (Denial/Anasrasi), “ the coming of only a longer silence/death as absence’ (Autumn Proverb/Coburn), “voiceless breath” (The Afterlife/Coburn) and “The lead in a film for a decade unwatched” (Unexiled/Anastasi).
The collaboration here is often subtle and reveals itself only after multiple readings. There are, for example, a sequence of poems half way through the collection where you start sensing a pattern: ‘Unexiled’/ Anastasi, ‘How I feel About Living Here’ /Coburn, ‘The First Moments of His Absence’ /Anatasi, ‘Sacrificial’ /Coburn, ‘Night Walks’ / Coburn and ‘Night Arrows’ /Anastasi. Images and themes are also passed between the poets, so that the arrows that Coburn finds lodged in the centre of time later appear in Anastasi’s poem ‘Night Arrows’:
The arrows point uphill,
away from the dull prophecy
of familiar halls.
Two poems, however, stayed with me after I read and reread this collection. The Audenesque opening of Anastasi’s ‘The Prodigal Ones’ highlights her confidence in constructing near perfect lines and the setting up of unexpected rhythms:
Let us navigate this disfigured paradise,
collecting remnants of a landscape before
tar grounds, before the concrete islands
closed in, before fields became flanked
with unconcerned fences…
Coburn’s longish poem for Charles Buckmaster ‘Searching for the Lost Forest’ was also one that I kept returning to. Buckmaster, like Coburn, grew up on the rural fringe of Melbourne and was acutely of landscape and the way it has and is changing. He also used the imagery of landscape to represent the body, something Coburn also does. Coburn opens his poem with an image of the landscape where he grew up in Woodstock Victoria:
to wake again
gaze across the yellowed paddocks
the grasses have unearthed
leaving the soil bare
these lines seem to recall Buckmaster’s own memory of the landscape where his parents lived:
Gruyere – is being cleared of its forest – the mountains
become pastures – and carved wastes
and the sub-divisions come – within five miles
……………………………….‘an end to myth’ – Charles Buckmaster
There is another large silence which this collection actually breaks. Eaglemont Press, which was founded by the legendary Melbourne based poetry Shelton Lea, has been relatively quiet since his death in 2005, The Silences represents their first title in more than 4 years and it is hoped that there will be many more books from this important independent poetry publisher.
The second collaboration I will look at in this review, Scar to Scar, also features Robbie Coburn and is also from a poetry publisher (PressPress) which has recently reemerged after a break from publishing. This time Coburn is collaborating with Sydney based poet Michele Seminara and it is a very different collaboration to the one with Anastasi. Where the two poets in The Silences were working with a theme which drove their shared work, in Scar to Scar Coburn and Seminara are working directly off each other poems in a more direct collaboration.
Interestingly, Seminara’s opening poem in Scar to Scar does echo the theme in the earlier collaboration:
Listen. Silence now,
an empty bed, the sweep
of frantic embrace
But it is not the silence that lies at the heart of this collection, rather it is the pulse of blood, the flow of water and of time and the connection between the poems. The blurb on the back cover refers to Seminara responding to Coburn work and it is becomes clear from the third poem that Coburn has taken the lead in this poetical dance. Much like a translator Seminara takes Coburn’s images and ideas and reworks them, responding and exploring the ideas and creating new poems.
For me the success of this collection lies in Coburn’s use of landscape to signify the body, something that was hinted at in The Silences. The scars that run through the rural landscape, that defines the young poet, are also the physical and mental scars that he takes with him into his art.
not the barren boneline of the property
the suns eye blinkers, but the repetitive
…………plot of humid air
the body pitching prayer against the silo’s shell
the connection between land and body here is almost religious:
(blood running through the property,
born into it)
……………………………….‘Boneyard’ / Coburn
This is a landscape inhabited by the poet, if only temporarily, but the strength of these poems makes a statement far stronger than any map or deed of sale:
this familiar anatomy of disconnect
where the seasons gather and enter,
should not be troubling.
as you turn, you recognise
the revolving pulse of your breath,
once again inhabiting this space.
……………………………….‘Depression’ / Coburn
For Coburn these poems are the poems of place, of where the blood runs through soil and vien. Seminara’s response then becomes once removed, like the translator, using the emotion and imagery to carve what could almost be called a ‘child’ poem:
the reason for your silence
does not matter.
body and breath in disconnect
as wind gathers in corridors – screaming
……………………………….‘Siren’ / Seminara (in response to ‘Depression’)
At the centre of this collection is the jointly written (composed?) poem ‘Scars and Counter Scars’. Like the best collaborations it can be read in multiple ways, I started reading it as a conventional poem reading from top left, down the page, then starting at the top of the next. But then my eyes wanted to read it all at once, as if it was a piece of music for two voices. The boundaries of the individual poets begin to blur and images from other poems find their way into this combined text.
These two strong collaborations show that, while writing is often a solitary process, there is always scope for conversations and collaboration between writers. Indeed it reminds us that most writing is in response to ideas, themes and images that other writers and artists have also worked with and, in many cases, each new poem is adding another layer to an existing conversation. The Silences and Scar to Scar have joined Moscow Trefoil on my bookshelf as examples of how great poetry can be produced when poets work closely together.
– Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his latest collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in 2016. He occasionally blogs at https://printedshadows.wordpress.com/
The Silences is available from http://www.eaglemontpress.bigcartel.com/product/the-silences-by-amanda-anastasi-and-robbie-coburn
Scar to Scar is available from http://presspress.com.au/Coburn-Seminara.html