Collaborations! Mark Roberts reviews ‘The Silences’ by Amanda Anastasi and Robbie Coburn & ‘Scar to Scar’ by Robbie Coburn and Michele Seminara

The Silences by Amanda Anastasi and Robbie Coburn Eaglemont Press 2016, Scar to Scar by Robbie Coburn and Michele Seminara Press Press 2016.

the-silencesI 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,
finding nothing
……………………………….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.

scar-scarThe 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

……………………………….‘Pulse’/ Seminara

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

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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

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The Perpetual See-saw of Life and Death: Justin Lowe reviews ‘Before Bone and Viscera’ by Robbie Coburn

Before Bone and Viscera by Robbie Coburn. Rochford Street Press, 2014

Blood & Viscera.

The young poet, Robbie Coburn was, for this reviewer, the great find of last year with his first full-length collection, Rain Season (Picaro Press, 2013). The precision and deftness of touch, the staggering emotional range in one so young left a strong impression. The poet in that collection was able to acheive that most celebrated and all-too-rarely mastered trick in the post-war Australian tradition, a seamless fusion of the interior and exterior, of the poet-as-subject and the tortured landscape of rural Victoria

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rain comes too late like a disorderly, drunken God,
mistimed wires driving days of burning to a close.
sheets and miles of fall, dark shades of rain
align the twilight.

‘Rain Season vi.’

In Rain Season, Coburn employed the landscape less as a backdrop than as a canvas where he could lay bare his inner turmoil, placing him in a long and proud tradition of Australian poets. Think Les Murray at his self-lacerating best, or Charles Buckmaster in his Gruyere poems

red splattered on an orchard path. Thats all.
I saw nothing.
Perhaps they kicked dust over the blood
allowed you to double
back through the soil.

‘seed’, Charles Buckmaster

Indeed, the similarities in tone and subject between the better Buckmaster (a very uneven poet, to say the least) and an always excellent Coburn is at times striking. But where Buckmaster too often descended (as was his generation’s wont) into histrionics and adolescent self-loathing, Coburn manages for the most part to keep these impulses in check, although as with Buckmaster, some form of self-immolation is the unmistakable elephant in the room.

In his latest chapbook, Before Bone and Viscera (Rochford Street Press, 2014), Coburn confronts this issue head on. It makes for an impressive but troubling read. I am not given to quoting blurbs, particularly those on the backs of Australian poetry collections, but Les Wicks sums it up perfectly when he says: “This is not an easy book…its ruthless eviscerated clarity & honesty scar the eye.” Poems such as ‘Death Games’ made this reviewer want to reach out to the poet (I admit to having done so in the past), but instead I read the book through again and then again until I had discovered the redemptive courage and wisdom of the poems

I can see myself walking across the charred
plank again
quickly into the inferno,
cheating death and towards life.

‘Death Games’

This is the poetry of someone who has lived with the perpetual see-saw of life and death all his life and who knows there is no clear demarcation between the two. “She is Starving”, one of the most heart-rending poems I have read in a long long time, is a perfect example of this, with the subject “suiciding for years”

sleep now inside your skin of silent ghosts.
your voice will still trace my throat, your absence will starve me
like a famine of memory.

“She is Starving’

Before Bone and Viscera is an extremely short collection, only running to 11 poems, but so powerful is the writing, so dense the language, that the reader feels they are taken on quite a journey. In a lesser light, opening such a short collection with a Prologue would seem the height of presumption, but so vast is the territory covered in the ensuing 10 poems that it works precisely as a Prologue should, preparing the reader for the journey to come. It helps, of course, that it is also a very good poem

the dry end of the trees unearth
here, in a brittle manifestation

of husk and bone
endless ruin of dirt

hard stone and the distortion inside lingers,
the backbone of consciousness

‘Prologue’

Rochford Street Press make no pretence of producing books-as-objects. Their emphasis is on the quality and power of the words on the page, and no greater testament could there be to the instrinsic value of this approach than this unassuming chapbook by a poet who, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, has already booked himself a place at the vanguard of a new and exciting generation of Australian poets.

– Justin Lowe

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Justin Lowe was born in Sydney but spent significant portions of his childhood on the Spanish island of Minorca with his younger sister and artist mother. He developed a penchant for writing poetry while penning lyrics for a succession of failed bands and has since been published all over the world. Justin currently resides in a house called “Doug” in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney where he edits poetry blog Bluepepper. His latest collection, Nightswim was released in early 2015 and can be found at the Bluepepper Bookstore, http://www.thecarnivalbookstore.blogspot.com.au

Before Bone and Viscera is available from https://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/rochford-street-press-titles/

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

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Rochford Street Review relies on donations to cover costs. Any funds left over are used to pay reviewers.

Rochford St Press is proud to announce the publication of ‘Before Bone and Viscera’ by Robbie Coburn

Blood & VisceraRochford Street Press is proud to announce the release of a new chapbook by young Victorian poet Robbie Coburn. Before Bone and Viscera is is Coburn’s second chapbook and features a cover illustration by Kit Kelen. Robbie Coburn was born in June 1994 in Melbourne and lives in the rural district of Woodstock, Victoria. His first book-length collection of poetry Rain Season (Picaro Press) was published in 2013 and he is well into a second book titled the other flesh. Before Bone and Viscera is his eagerly awaited second chapbook. He has also recently finished writing an autobiographical novella, A Day without Me.

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“Coburn’s new book disturbs & enriches. There is a grace as it sculpts language & meaning… a flensing poignancy underlines these superb poems. This is not an easy book… its ruthless eviscerated clarity & honesty scar the eye.” – Les Wicks

 

Before Bone and Viscera lifts the voice of Australian poetry into new territory. Robbie Coburn tears away all you think you know to reveal these poems; naked in their lyrical and surreal simplicity they unearth the anatomy and geography of poetic imagination. To read these poems is to get your hands into the blood and guts of life itself.” – Nathan Hondros

 

“An intense, at times disturbing, emotional journey employing a surreal, fetishist use of the human body reminiscent of the painter, Francis Bacon.” S.K. Kelen

Available now!

cartWithin Australia $7.50

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International Aus$12

 Check out the entire Rochford Street Press backlist at http://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/rochford-street-press-titles/

Horrors & Hay: Les Wicks reviews ‘Rain Season’ by Robbie Coburn

Rain Season by Robbie Coburn, Picaro, 2013. Reviewed by Les Wicks.

robbieAs a general rule I only write positive reviews of Australian poetry. Sure, the argument exists that this presents to the revered reader a one-dimensional aspect of this oh so wise critic’s poetic worldview. There are certainly alternative approaches out there, I note particularly a few who wrap up superficially cogent demolition jobs around malicious misreadings of a handful of pieces within a book to generate a few titters amongst their readership. I suspect there is a childhood history of torturing kittens. But what is the point? There are already more than enough reasons not to buy Australian poetry floating about. Sure, there are any number of books that I won’t review because I can’t be enthusiastic about them. I’d rather tell you about the ones that have enriched, surprised or challenged me.

I’m inclined to be generous when I open the covers of a first book. But all predispositions were unnecessary as I immersed myself in Robbie Coburn’s Rain Season. By any measure, this is an accomplished collection by a writer clearly confident in the voice of his work.

Coburn lives in Woodstock, semi-rural Victoria. The landscape lends itself to his sparse, sometimes ruthless lyric style through much of the book:

home suspended on brass hinges,
I ignore all motion. alive.
my hands have disappeared in front of me –

there is beauty in that.

– “There Are No Strangers”

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it was weeks before Dad returned home from hospital
and even then he suffered death a second time
spluttering beneath his gutted body, his chest’s bloody centre
sewn shut.

– “The Heart Resetting”

To my mind he’s the best portraitist of Australian rural life since Brendan Ryan. This is no shallow pastoral – fire, death, abuse and depression roam alongside a rich connection to the landscape, evolution of an adult life, relationships et cetera. Throughout there is an endearing, sometimes heartbreaking, autobiographical journey…

I open the vein, twice
the deeply pressed blade embedded
in flesh like an extension of my limb

– “Poem”

Section II is the title poem of the book and examines the 2009 bushfire that burnt through his region. The challenges of drafting a consistently engaging long poem alongside the imperative to detail factual material has shipwrecked many practitioners. This poem, for me, is perhaps the weakest part of the book but there aren’t many who could do it better.

“Sophie” is a delightfully clean and simple love poem. Throughout, there are some great lines like daylight bends like a flame (“Chemical Winter”) and death was fashionable when we were kids (“Follow”).

I’ve often said it’s kinda hard to shake the foundations with yet another poem about middle-class greybeards sitting around drinking good coffee and whingeing about their backs. The newly examined has a great capacity to draw the reader in, to fix them in the poetic experience. A number of pieces in this book are centred around greyhound breeding/racing, an area of human activity completely alien to me and no doubt most readers. These poems manage to range across both empathy and detachment, a pre-requisite perhaps for those involved in working with animals.

There is much in this book that is confronting, but I laughed out loud when I read Coburn’s hilarious discussion around the point at which the poet settles on his sexuality – “Three Lessons Remembered” – there’s a punchline I’m not going to spoil by repeating, a great image.

This is an enriching read.

– Les Wicks

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Les Wicks has seen publication across 18 countries in 10 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013). This year he will performing in LA – Beyond Baroque, Austin International poetry Festival & RhiZomic.. He can be found at http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Rain Season is available from Picaro. www.picaropress.com/