A Life in Words: Gig Ryan launches ‘Your Scratch Entourage’ by Kris Hemensley

Gig Ryan launched Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensley, Cordite Books 2016, at Collected Works Bookshop on Tuesday, December 13, 2016,

your-scratch-entourageReading  Kris’s book has been a great salutary reminder of what poetry can be, beautiful language under pressure of thought and emotion, commemorative, unpredictable, a life, in words. There is also the specific Englishness of the poems, the poet in nature, following from Wordsworth and Coleridge.  As he puts it in ‘Against Dread’ –  ‘Natural’ is all that knows itself without an artist’s contribution’. Kris could, at a stretch, be seen as part of the British Poetry Revival that occurred in the 1960s, partly as reaction against the so-called Movement poets, then seen as bleak and ‘uptight’, but much more he is a seminal figure in Australian poetry, as both poet and catalyst of the equivalent revival here. The title of this book, also the title of the elegy to Barry McSweeney who died in 2000,  reminds me a little of Jeremy Prynne, in its enticing ambiguity. Does it mean those who have gone before, one’s entourage that has since passed away, that is, those who have been scratched from the race?  Or is it scratch as adjective meaning assembled from whatever is available, a good definition of poetry, but in this case it is also rather modest, because the bits and pieces go back to Shakespeare, to Keats, and also to Olson and Creeley. Some of the poems here have been re-assembled, and revised, over a period of forty years, and yet how fresh they seem. One doesn’t read this book as a Selected Poems, tracing the poet’s development, or lack of, chronologically, yet it is also a type of selected, like an anatomical dissection where we see the layers of time and events. And although there is a looking back over time, there is more a re-inhabiting of time, a sense that all times exist at once, that all we experience is forever in us and with us, with all those colleagues who have died still being present in our poems. (Today I found, online,  a 1977 review of Hemensley, by Sydney University academic, James Tulip, and he mentions Kris’s postscript to The Poem of the Clear Eye, in which brothers in a fish and chip shop merge into the fisherman in the shop’s painting:  ‘They flow in and out of each other in Hemensley’s mind – his comedy of empathy’, Southerly, No. 2, 1977, ‘Towards an Australian Modernism: New Writings of Kris Hemensley’ https://nanojim.com/2016/12/08/towards-an-australian-modernism-new-writings-of-kris-hemensley/). There is certainly a ‘comedy of empathy’ in many poems here, and it is this moderating, and modulating, empathy that encapsulates Kris’s metaphysics.

Two long sequences pay homage to rather neglected poets F. T. Prince and Ivor Gurney, as well as to his late friend, poet Charles Buckmaster, who killed himself, aged 21, in 1972 (you can find some Buckmaster poems on John Tranter’s website, from his 1979 anthology The New Australian Poetry http://johntranter.net/as-an-editor/1979-the-new-australian-poetry/buckmaster/, see also Kris Hemensley on Charles Buckmaster https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/12/04/kris-hemensley-recalls-charles-buckmaster-on-the-40th-anniversary-of-his-death/) as well as to many painters, and Kris has inherited the mellifluousness that he praises in these poets, as in ‘Leaving Bridport with Ivor Gurney’, a poem with an irregular rhyming scheme that then folds into rhyming couplets at its end. Ivor Gurney died in 1937, so, that is, in the poet’s world, all is contemporaneous, and our forebears accompany us everywhere. In Kris’s poems alliteration abounds, and sound and rhythm are uppermost.

It’s plain the poet’s own name proxies this place
heralding a combination of bliss & pain
that only music can measure or contain –
since leaving Bridport no conversation
just a word half choked on between gasping gaze
& the first note of murmured disbelief
& the silence trapping beauty in its maze
in which life & death spark the self-same blaze.
……………………………….(‘Leaving Bridport with Ivor Gurney’)

The recurring place-names, the bluebells and other flowers, compose a genealogy of the poet himself – ‘They walked on air. / They’d brushed nettle and bluebell. They thanked / their lucky stars for such an English April.’ (‘In the middle of the world at war’)

As Lucas Weschke’s introduction describes, many poems are in a rough hexameter, creating a rhythm perfectly suited to the constant sense of wonder, as the poet moves forward through the world painting its beauty and surprises, both reassembling and forgiving the past. Such reconciliation is the core of the wonderful poem ‘Father’s Dark Ship’, with its tolling triplet end words ‘harbour’ / ‘darker’ / ‘failure’ resolving at its finish into ‘youth’ / ‘once’ / ‘earth’, and the final ‘again’.

One thing that Kris has continued from the late sixties is a life-affirming optimism, also apparent in his love of the patterns of words, the puns and connotations that each might have. Dark and darkness recur throughout, yet delight always glints through, delight in absurdity  – ‘what does day bring besides bad news? / why no fog to bolt up vision in its broom cupboard?’ (‘English Sweets, 2’), and ‘I travel the trains as tho’ in a stagecoach / or on the back of a recalcitrant angel / who can’t yet dispose of his love of the earth’ (‘English Sweets, 1’).

Especially significant are the last two sequences of sonnets ‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream than Dante’,  and ‘Harbour’, the first an anaphoric sequence of sonnets, with its titular first line introducing each sonnet, a sort of Stations of the Cross, describing moments of awakening into revelation (a little like Jennifer Maiden’s sequences, and it is important to remember that Kris and Robert Kenny were among the first to publish Maiden’s work)  – ‘Whether journey’s beginning or end / I couldn’t fathom it. Time’s classic double-cross. / Weirder fate’s plaything now instead of cocky host.’

The most remarkable quality of these poems is their lack of unifying irony that so many of us wear like a sort of glove-puppet, which too often disguises embarrassment at any emotion or ambition.  There is irony of course, but it doesn’t smother the poet’s intentions, doesn’t build a ring road for readers to manoeuvre through. Kris, with his harrowing honesty, doesn’t swerve from either emotion or ambition, but like Whitman, like Shakespeare, encompasses all – ‘Prince & hick. Groan and grin.’ (‘More Midsummer Night’s Dream than Dante’).

 – Gig Ryan


Gig Ryan is a poet and freelance reviewer. She has published numerous books including New and Selected Poems (Giramondo, Australia, 2011); Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, UK, 2012); songs with Disband, Six Goodbyes (1988), Driving Past, Real Estate (1999) and Travel (2006).

Your Scratch Entourage by Kris Hemensleyis available from  http://corditebooks.org.au/products/your-scratch-entourage



“The writer-narrator takes the reader by the hand”: Carmel Bird reviews ‘Napoleon’s Roads’ by David Brooks

Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks (UQP, 2016).

napoleons_roads_david_brooksThirty years ago, I read a most wonderful collection of short fiction. I think I reviewed it. It was The Book of Sei by David Brooks. Since then, I have read most of David’s books. Reading Napoleon’s Roads was a bit like finding that, The Book of Sei had a glorious new compartment, to which I now had access.

On the last page of Napoleon’s Roads, the narrator says, that critics say the ‘writer’s’ books are “beautifully written, even haunting”, but that there is always some indefinable thing missing, an unspoken absence around which everything turns’. Note the ‘but’ in that sentence. It signifies that idea that those critics, are in some way, disappointed by, or afraid of, the ‘thing missing’. The stories of David Brooks can be read as turning on the mysterious thing, and many readers, myself included, celebrate the way the fiction is constructed around that thing. It’s death of course, un-named.

In the second, last story of the collection, ‘A Traveller’s Tale’, a narrator speaks directly to readers on the subject of how stories work. The tone is deliciously direct and instructive, and the story could be productively studied in fiction-writing courses. ‘I want you to think about that,’ says the narrator. The readers and the quiet voice are up close, as the narrator leads on to the moment when everyone must step out ‘into the wide world, the difficult terrain’ of the story which is ‘horrid, distressing, almost untellable’. Death, you see?

‘Is that what we came here for, to wander about in the shadowy streets of ourselves?’ These shadowy streets are the Dantesque internal and external pathways through which the fiction moves, the roads built by Napoleon’s men, the dreamscapes of the imagination, the ways to enter or to leave ‘the city’.

The first piece in the collection is one paragraph called, ‘Paths to Writing’. It signals the nature of what is to follow, invoking in poetic prose the hope that words can carry, and sometimes reveal, the deep information of the human heart. ‘A Traveller’s Tale’ contains a magnificent short discussion of the word ‘heart’. The heart is one of the ‘most durable organs of the body’ but the word is so often metaphoric; the centre of love, the heart that ‘in the human mind’ is ‘heart-shaped’. The narrator explains that, when the word is being used in the tale, the word ‘heart’ is an amalgam of the organ and the metaphor. So information, messages, move across the collection, holding the reader’s hand for the journey, sometimes letting go.

Threaded throughout is a signposting image of birds, those manifestations of the soul, harbingers of doom, messengers of hope. As I read, there seemed to be a lot of doves, but in fact when I counted, I found there were only four, plus one that was ‘almost dove’. That one stopped me in my tracks.

‘Lost Pages’ concerns a writer whose work constantly fragments and disappears. Here the storyteller has an idea of writing something ‘about The Language of Birds’, the medieval language of the troubadours. He doesn’t of course, but other characters in other stories see and hear birds, all kinds of birds. ‘Swan’ is a particularly elegant tale of longing, ending with the image of a man’s rumpled bed where in the morning, a ‘bird-like shape has formed itself’ among the sheets.

One of the most delicious (if I may, borrow the word from the restaurant review) stories is ‘Ten Short Pieces’. These tiny jewels flash across the reader’s mind like exquisite samplings of what might be said, or meant, or stated, or missed in the longer stories. The narrator-writer thinks of himself as ‘a man at a table in a workshop’, making a shoe, mending a watch, saying ‘over and over, what lines he has in the hope that one of these lines will run on, will spill over into something he has not yet imagined’. Now this is a description of how a writer works. Again, this little piece, consisting of only two sentences, is perfect for offering to students of writing. Not to mention, the pleasure of coming to the end of the long, second sentence, only to learn that the tools the writer finds in his cupboard might be ‘a piece of sheepsong or the end of a shower of rain, an owl.’ Note the last comma. Brilliant.

The word ‘sheepsong’ took me back to David’s 1990 collection titled, Sheep and the Diva – opening a doorway backwards into the apartment building of the work. Somehow, it does seem sometimes to be a vast building, or perhaps a city, through which the writer-narrator takes the reader by the hand. Dante again, I suppose. Sometimes, there is a burst through, into bright freedom ‘breaking through a veil of green words’, and sometimes (six times, actually) there is a dark image of a panther in a cage, pacing.

The story, ‘Napoleon’s Roads, begins with the panther, and the final story, ‘The Panther’, ends with the writer-narrator standing before a painting of a panther. Here, the collection ends:

‘I can see him there, in the shadows.
He does not look at me.’

I want to conclude by referring to the story, ‘Grief’, which is one, along with, ‘The Dead’, that is concerned, perhaps most openly, with mortality. This story ends with the effect of a man saying the Rosary at a funeral: ‘the fright and confusion become dignity, music moving through us in a kind of praise, making us instruments, wind, clay vessels, a kind of brooding bird, almost dove.’

-Carmel Bird

Purchase Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks
Read a sample of Napoleon’s Roads

Carmel Bird is the winner of the 2016 Patrick White Literary Award. Her most recent books are the novel, Family Skeleton (2016) and the short story collection, My Hearts Are Your Hearts (2015).

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: On regional writing.

Chris Palazzolo continues his musings on Regionality.

Image result for shoppers imagesIn my last column I chucked a few ideas around for a theory of Regional Reading. I proposed this kind of reading as a tactical response to technological changes in the structure of media and publishing, that is to say, technology’s white-anting of the nexus of authority, aesthetics and capital in those industries, and the now quite conceivable extinction of The Book and The Movie (through hyper-production). I concluded with a few words on how I write these columns, and I would like to continue where I left off under the subject heading Regional Writing.

As I’ve already stated, I write these columns in a café in my local shopping centre. But this is not the whole story. I actually only write the first draft here. The subsequent drafts I work over in the following evenings at home, after my kids have gone to bed and the house is quiet. It usually takes me three drafts before I’m ready to post, each session requiring approximately three hours of ‘writing labour’ (thinking and typing). For the sake of brevity I’ll focus on the first session (the café-shopping centre draft) because the fact that prior to it taking place no draft existed at all (the ‘something from nothing’ moment) makes it the best session to illustrate Regionality on the act of creation.

Traditional readings start from the assumption that the Author has placed a meaning inside their piece of writing (a column, an essay, a book). That meaning is the idea that was in the Author’s mind as they wrote; its existence preceded the writing of the piece, and the writing serves to give it expression – the reader’s duty is to find out what it is. Now I can’t speak for every writer, but if the truth be known, I only have vague and jumbled ideas when I sit at this table and switch on my laptop, and sometimes I don’t have any at all. Most of the time, the ideas only start to form as I write, and they’re usually highly contingent on the line I write first. It’s as if ideas coincide with the act of writing, in the same way I form ideas in conversation with another person I’ve just bumped into. The ideas are as contingent on what the other person says (which I can never completely anticipate, even if it is some polite chat about the weather) as those that precede my own utterance. Utterance and idea are in dialogue in other words and no psychology or linguistics has ever been able to say which comes first. Writing and ideas are the same; they are in dialogue with each other, and with my Region.

I described Regionality as a continuous proximity. It is also zones of proximity, graduated distances which become less and less proximate, but no matter how far away they are share with my Region the world. This is what I meant when I said Regionality is the world; the world is everywhere and always continually less and less and more and more proximate; the world mixes in through all the zones of all the regions. The café table where I sit is my immediate zone. My perceptions of what goes on in my zone are open and fluid, but zones are formed by the shape my region takes, that is to say the built environment which segments the region; zones it. Zones are not just physical, they’re reinforced by government, council and commercial laws; I sit in the café, the café is a business, I’m obliged to buy something (sometimes I’ll start with tea and sometimes black coffee). I watch the people in the next zone, the shopping centre concourse, who are obliged (by zonal regulation) to keep walking past. Dressed in colourful manufactures, they’re engaged in the same benign activities as millions of other people all around the world; purchasing and consuming goods from far away zones of (less benign) production. Their passing presences, as they continue into further away zones, or come and sit in the café near me, hold my attention, distract me, and sometimes, in glancing ways, are strung into the dialogue of writing and ideas. There are all sorts of things going on like this, and the whole hubbub is in my pieces. A good reading should be able to hear it all.

I write about books and movies, or I call books and movies into existence in my writing, for the sake of coherence. The raw experience of Regionality is like a private language, utterly relative to everyone else’s regions. Books and movies are still (thankfully) part of a shared language where we can be understood, and engaged in a dialogue of exciting ideas. The excitement for me is pulling together out of my teeming region, something with form and meaning, something which depends for its existence on other existents, but which has never existed before, until now.

– Chris Palazzolo


Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

A Life Evolving: David O’Sullivan Reviews ‘First Things First, Selected Letters of Kate Llewellyn’

First Things First: Selected Letters By Kate Llewellyn 1977-2004 edited by Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, Wakefield Press 2015

first things firstI enjoy reading the correspondence from leading authors and thinkers. I love the insight provided by seeing a glimpse of famous people’s personal lives and thoughts. Examples include Franz Kafka’s letters which reveal his inner turmoil and love, and Vladimir Nabokov’s letters to his wife, examining their enchantment and connection. First Things First, Selected Letters of Kate Llewellyn is no exception. Published here for the first time are a selection of Kate Llewellyn’s personal correspondence from 1977-2004. Writers of this quality are fascinating to read; you get to experience their skill with the written word. The guard that artists build so carefully, so often held up, is rarely penetrated, but here we get a rare chance to see a famous life examined. The reader is able to see what thoughts, doubts, and struggles exist in the mind of Kate Llewellyn.

We see Kate Llewellyn the thinker:

We drove to the wetlands twenty kilometres away and saw the trees standing dead in it with pink galahs decorating them like bows of ribbon.

The person

I am stiff in the limbs as I helped haul in two tonnes (or is it ton) of salmon this afternoon. A great day. A great haul. I wandered along for about four kilometres to get my mail from a small P.O. store on the beach. When I got back I saw a fisherman running to his boat parked on the beach. I said, “Do you know something I don’t?” He said… “a big mob of salmon up at Sellicks Beach. Hop in if you want to come.” I leapt into the four-wheel drive (an old wreck) and at the top of the ramp, in leapt his elderly cousin Colin with a big dog… I was in my bathers squashed between men, dog, gear and binoculars in my lap.

And, of course, the artist

I’ve always said I will write anywhere. You could throw me into prison, cut off my arms and legs and you will find me in the morning with a pen in my mouth writing on the floor.

This book provides a record of activities and actions taken by the author over a significant period of her life in a way a biography could not. We feel her happiness, frustration, and joy. We see the sad and exciting. Time moves by and as she ages gracefully, we see a life evolve.

The letters reflect the love, intelligence, shortcomings and kindness of Llewellyn. From her everyday experiences:

Jack sitting here eating poached eggs and gravy on toast, a thing Hugh and I love…

to the difficulties of travelling to book fairs “three hours each way” only to “only sell three books.” We also see reflected the history of Australia and the effect it had on Llewellyn:

13th March 1993

Dear Bob and Mandy,

Well labor won… thank god… a modern miracle… until the last week I thought they were gone goslings as Wendy would say. All, or many artists will be heaving sighs of relief.

These letters brim with the personality of the poet and prose master; they reflect her power to transfer images from her mind to the mind of the reader with skill and ease. These selected letters are a must read for fans of Llewellyn, the insights provided into the life of an author. The experiences of travelling, writing, perfecting her craft may also appeal to people who are attracted to art and artists. The journey that we follow is one into a genuine life well lived.

On the other side of this, I must issue a warning. At times this journey can be rather dull. At times, the book can be like reading the letters from your grandmother’s long gone and unfamiliar friends, after your grandmother has passed away. There were pages I skimmed, there were life events, that although interesting for those connected at the time, I felt more like an outsider who could not care less. But for each of these times, as I read on, glimpses of genius would flare up and reignite my interest.

Editors Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill have read through decades of correspondence to bring what they consider to be the most poignant and revealing notes. This book is like getting to know a new lover, you dip into the intimate side of their lives, amusing and touching moments are revealed, you live through the dry and dull moments and you are left with the memory of truly knowing another living human.

 – David O’Sullivan


David O’Sullivan is a writer and an academic literacy and learning adviser at Charles Sturt University. David is the author of two novels The Bomber and Anvil Soul. You can follow David’s writing blog at www.davidgosullivan.com

First Things First: Selected Letters By Kate Llewellyn 1977-2004 is available from http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1210&cat=0&page=&featured=Y

Kerryn Goldsworthy’s launch speech for First Things First: Selected Letters By Kate Llewellyn can be found at https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/05/25/living-the-life-of-a-writer-kerryn-goldsworthy-launches-first-things-first-selected-letters-by-kate-llewellyn-1977-2004/


Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: On regional reading

Chris Palazzolo looks at one way of seeing through the contemporary murk

Novels and narrative films are easy things to analyse because they are (or have been) customarily presented to us as singular objects. In the case of the novel, the objective form is the Book (authored, published, commodified) and in the case of the narrative film (an automated audio-visual spectacle of a definite duration), a Movie. With the internet now demonstrating what the much scoffed-at deconstructionists warned us about 50 years ago – that the ‘object’ status of the Book and Movie are historically contingent things, and that the age of the ‘text,’ which is neither objective nor singular, is now upon us, analysts are going to have to deal with a whole spooky realm of ‘regional’ readings – where defining a ‘region’ of text and calling that ‘region’ a novel, or a movie, is an act of will on the part of the reader. The collapse of the traditional model of book publishing and selling, and the feverish fractalising of electronic media means that commercial culture is going to be of less and less help in this regard; it’s embracing the ‘age of the text’ with planet enveloping enthusiasm.

Should we be afraid of these developments? After all, just over a century ago there were no such things as movies, and the Book as we know it now has really only been with us for a century and a half (sure, there are ‘books’ from the middle ages, but they were extremely rare things, and many of those the creations of monastic curators rather than single authors). Even up to the end of the nineteenth century the most common form of storytelling was poetic and verbal and the most common form of publishing, pamphlets and serials. Even our conception of criticism and analysis – of unlocking meaning from a single objective movie or book (including contemporary reviews which reduce criticism to whether something is good or bad) has only been with us for a century. But with the sense that our civilisation is threatened from all kinds of forces (political, economic and environmental) it’s natural that many readers would find the current situation alarming. How can we evaluate, that is to say determine what is worthy by virtue of its inspiration, its genius, and so validate what we regard as the best in our civilisation – how can we say anything is better than anything else – if there are no longer any reliable Objects for us to single out and study? The whole purpose of reading seems redundant. All we can do now is flit across surfaces and surrender our minds to memes.

But perhaps there are plenty of masterpieces out there. They’re just not only from the great metropolitan centres of cultural production anymore. Perhaps the finest films of these times are ‘home movies,’ made with an artfulness and delicacy that we don’t have the critical tools to appreciate yet, uploaded onto Youtube? Perhaps the greatest novels of the twenty first century are not being published by the presses of New York or London; they’re to be found in that continent sized slush-pile of online self-published manuscripts? It’s impossible for us to know because the enormity of the change (to say nothing of the amount of the stuff) makes all of it look like dross. We can’t get a critical purchase on it because the scale and speed that it accumulates makes all our intellectual tools seem so feeble.

The 21st century is the century of the regions and the first direct threat to the West’s metropolitan hegemony since the Second World War. All of the big macro events of the last two decades, from the catastrophe of the Middle East to Brexit in Europe and Trumpism in the US are in critical ways the ‘revenge’ of the regions on the metropolitan centres of the West where so much of the world’s capital and prestige has accumulated. These events mark the beginnings of a global adjustment so to speak, and terrible crimes are already being committed because of it. We are all involved in it, no matter where we live; everyplace in the world is now as important as any other. That’s why I propose the concept of ‘regional reading,’ as a way to get a perspective on things. I mean regional to be understood in its geopolitical usage, but also in its existential usage, that is to say a kind of continuous proximity that bears on any kind of individual activity. And I mean reading to be understood, not as the opposite of writing, but as a kind of writing – an activity that calls meaning and form into existence. I write my Teasing Threads posts in a café in my local shopping centre, so that café bears on, or contributes to, the writing. It’s not just my mental labour that produces them, but all the things going on in my region also have an input; the café, the course of shoppers walking by, the gratifying sounds of other people’s kids chucking tantrums, etc. All of it colours and inflects what I write, sometimes even changes its direction altogether. The concept of text is much more useful in this regard than the closed concepts of books and movies. But if I choose to call books and movies into existence in the middle of the shopping centre, that’s because I’m a fifty year old guy and I love books and movies. The greatest works of art give a vantage point on the world, and as the world is regional only a regional reading can see the world.



By way of a post-script I would like to take the opportunity to promote my novel Scene and Circles. I’m doing this here on the flimsy pretext of regionality. It is a very regional novel, both in its subject matter and its literary status (an online slushpile masterpiece). But I’d love to see it as a proper book one day.  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419



– Chris Palazzolo



Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.


“A vision of past savagery that lies maddeningly between truth and fiction”: James Dunk reviews Sarah Drummond’s ‘The Sound’

The Sound by Sarah Drummond. Fremantle Press (2016).

the-soundSarah Drummond’s debut book, Salt Story: Of Sea-Dogs and Fisherwomen was a rare one – a non-fictional account of the sea and its people arising from the author’s own experience. It was short-listed for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards in 2014.

Drummond’s second novel, The Sound, fictionalises the lived experience of others, carefully reconstructing the world of the sealers who worked in the hinterland of British colonialism in Australia in the 1820s. It vividly recreates King George’s Sound, a bay at the south-western tip of the continent, as a theatre of cross purposes, of freedom and death – a beautiful place tortured by European savagery.

Drummond’s novel is a beautifully written excursion into the ethics of this violent world. Her protagonist is William Hook, a Maori man who crosses the Tasman in search of the sealers who sacked his village. To find them, he joins a sealing crew. The novel follows closely the small band from Hobart, through the islands of Bass Strait, to the Sound, dwelling on the relationships ‘Billhook’ forms with the white sealers and with the Aboriginal women in the group. Some are coerced; all are pursuing private agendas. They span the gamut of privilege and agency.

In Salamanca Bay, Hobart’s now charming and genteel dockside district, two heavy black pots stand in commemoration of the whaling industry. On ship decks, on the islands of Bass Strait, and on southern shores, blubber was boiled down for days at a stretch and drained into barrels of oil. These cauldrons now stand as opaque relics of ecological destruction. Phillip Hoare’s Leviathan, or the Whale (Fourth Estate, 2009) illuminated this history with its winsome, devastating portrayal of whale life and the life of whalers. Leviathan ties the early march of industrial progress to the hunting of cetaceans: the whales of the oceans died in thousands to light the streets of European cities.

‘Sealing’ was like ‘whaling’ (words which elide the black pots and bloody harpoons), except that where whales were fearsome quarry, seals were gormless creatures waiting beside the sea for men to club them. Graphic passages in The Sound describe this killing. Drummond’s language here is vivid and precise. She conjures the past in its infinitesimal details without labouring these details: a difficult balance to achieve. In less elegant historical novels, the paraphrasing of technical information gleaned from long researches easily breaks whatever spell may be obtaining. Drummond, however, deploys the fine grain of the past in order to bring the past credibly and compellingly into the present.

The Sound is set in the world of the sealers, deserters, and escapees who fled from colonial society and authority to the southern shore of the Australian continent and the islands of the Bass Strait. The Sound’s dust jacket calls it a ‘violent and lawless world.’ It was constituted in defiance of the authority and regularity, the sovereignty and justice of imperial Britain and in flagrant disregard for the subjectivity and sovereignty of Aboriginal people. The Empire, for all its sins, brought an air of bureaucratic formality to the areas it directly controlled, and this proscribed certain behaviours. At its territorial fringe, however, those who fled its restraints wielded European knowledge and technology licentiously.

Few of us read to be brutalised, but the problem of writing about the past is that it was often brutal. Penny Russell’s history of colonial mores, Savage or Civilised?: Manners in Colonial Australia (UNSW Press, 2010) maps the navigation of etiquette in colonial society. Although her work has mostly treated civility, rather than savagery, Russell is hardly a historian of niceness, seeking merely to divert. She delves into the archive of polite and impolite gestures, reading the construction of colonial society with a critical eye. Other literature, both fictional and non-fictional, simply conjures a past in which ‘civilisation’ really indicated virtue and restraint. The virtuous frontier summoned by this writing is a pleasant place to visit: a place where the dramas of individual and familial life can be played out in the curated world of the ‘pioneers’, rather than at the actual ragged edge of empire. Savagery is harder. To write about it is to either demonise it – to make it fundamentally, unfeasibly other – or to do the unpleasant work of imagining ourselves into the emotional and intellectual spaces in which savagery seems civilised. Nietzsche’s abyss threatens to open also in ourselves during the act of gazing.

The shroud lying over the Australian history of sealing, and sexual and labour slavery implied by it, is partly the deliberate work of its denizens, opposed as they were to authority, regularity, and record-keeping. But it has been reinforced by modern sensibilities. Although in many ways sealers and whalers were colonial pioneers, and even excelled in certain of the traits we laud in our more palatable pioneers, Australian narratives have neglected them. They represent the colonial darkness over which the brief, but rancorous history wars were fought. The literate public has tended to allow them the seclusion they themselves sought. As if they were not also the product of our empires, and builders of our ‘civilisations’.

Despite Lynnette Russell’s excellent Roving Mariners: Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Oceans, 1790-1870 (State University of New York Press, 2012), then, the world of these sealers remains for the most part an informal, uncertain one. In fiction, however, such a world can still be effectively explored. The mainspring behind The Sound is an unassuming, but entirely enthralling statement made by William Hook, to Edmund Lockyer, who arrived at King George’s Sound in 1826 as commandant of a new British settlement. The text, which appears in Historical Records of Australia, is reproduced in full on Drummond’s website, amongst a plethora of biographical and historical writing, all anchored by conventional references in the established historical record. It bears witness to crimes by sealers against the indigenous people of the Sound. British law, which had been largely theoretical, was breaking in.

Drummond uses Billhook to guide her through the mechanical difficulty of writing about savagery, that of perspective. How can we get close enough to savagery to see it properly? Drummond makes ‘Billhook’ the victim of a massacre in adjacent imperial borderlands – a real attack carried out in 1817 in Otago by James Kelly and the crew of the Sophia – but one not clearly linked with William Hook. By this means, readers only gradually enter the mindset of the sealers; the ugliness is introduced in stages. When we encounter genuine brutality, therefore, we are imaginatively involved with the brutalisers. The clubbing of seal cubs pales beside the abduction and rape of Aboriginal women. This was what transpired at the edge of empire.

Or was it? There is little evidence of precisely what happened amongst these sealers and whalers. This dearth has allowed space for prevarication, and justified silence. This savagery was a thing half known. Certain ‘cultural warriors’ sacralise a threshold of written factuality – something only achieved within that imperial formality; everything beyond is speculative, even malicious. This self-serving standard protects that image of the virtuous pioneers, who wrote their own histories.

In her dispute with Kate Grenville, author of a different imagined account of frontier brutality, The Secret River, the historian Inga Clendinnen (2006) argued that historians are set apart from novelists by their ‘moral contract’ with the past. At the end of The Sound, a note claims this moral authority for the author, if not the novel. Readers are directed to Drummond’s website, where a collection of closely-referenced biographical pieces explore the recorded past in the manner of what she calls ‘straight history’. Fiction, however, may be bolder than history, and the novel itself follows, imaginatively, the slender evidence to its likely conclusions.

Drummond is contractually bound not to the past, as it actually was, but to the problem of human savagery. It was unpleasant to get close enough to the characters to write them compellingly – particularly the sealer, Samuel Bailey. “I’m completely stalled with that writing,” Drummond (2013, para. 12) blogged at one point. “I don’t like them. I don’t want to hang out with Samuel Bailey every day. When I do, he does my fucking head in. I feel crazy by the end of the day. I just want to climb out of my own brain.”

Why take up such a project, without an injunction from actual victims to bear witness? Drummond uses the conceit of Bluebeard’s chamber to explore her fascination with Bailey. Like Bluebeard’s young bride, she blundered her way into a dangerous contract, telling herself ‘his beard is not quite so blue’. Researching, and particularly writing, was for Drummond the opening of the chamber, and the loss of this cultivated innocence. “When you shine a light in a dark cave,” Drummond (2013, para 29) writes of the minds of the sealers, “the crevices and corners become all the more darker.”

The problem fiction writers have, and historians do not, is that here there is no cave. The crevices and corners, while certainly dark, are written into the past from Drummond’s imagination. Fiction is wonderful; it transports us from the prosaic not only into rich-hued worlds, but into the thrust of meaningful narratives. Historical fiction produces these narratives by smoothing out past episodes that almost hang together. It abridges the pieces of men and women which we can find scattered in the records of the past that almost make believable characters. It can turn the past into a place we understand. But it cannot at the same time hold these men and women to account. A novel like The Sound, finally, has its own delicate cruelty. It traumatises with a vision of past savagery that lies maddeningly between truth and fiction.

-James Dunk

Reference list

Clendinnen, I. 2006, The history question: who owns the past?, Quarterly Essay 23, Black Inc., Melbourne.

Drummond, S. 2013, ‘Predator dreams,’ A winedark sea: ripping yarns, beautiful lies and a few home truths, weblog, 10 July, viewed 23 September 2016, <http://thawinedarksea.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/predator-dreams_10.html>.

Purchase Sarah Drummond’s The Sound from Fremantle Press here
Read a chapter from The Sound here


James Dunk is a historian and writer living in Sydney’s Inner West. He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney

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A Characteristically Bold Innovation in Form: Peter Stanley Launches ‘Plevna: A Biography in Verse’ by Geoff Page

Plevna: A Biography in Verse by Geoff Page. UWAP 2016

plevnaLadies and gentlemen, colleagues, friends. Good evening and thank you, Geoff, for inviting me to do the honours tonight. I’ve known and admired Geoff Page for about thirty years. In the early 1980s he put together an anthology of poetry reflecting on the Great War and submitted it to the Australian War Memorial, where I worked, and which in those days saw itself as open to publish words that did more than merely salute brave, dead diggers. His book, Shadows from Wire, was an honest and critical reflection on that war and all war, and it went on to be re-published by Penguin and become what I think can rightly be described as a best-seller in Australian verse.

As a sign of the passing of time, I remember that Geoff submitted the manuscript in a blue spring-backed binder, with the photographs (which were an integral part of his concept) stuck into a series of typed pages. It looked more like a school project than a manuscript, but he was after all a high school teacher, and ah, it was a more innocent age …

Since then Geoff has of course established a reputation as one of Australia’s foremost poets, and there can be few readers of the Saturday Canberra Times who are not aware of his standing as not only a poet himself but also as a critic and interpreter of poetry. That Geoff has survived the Fairfaxisation of our Canberra Times is a testament to his stature as a poet known nationally and not just in Canberra.

Geoff has always had an interest in reflecting on history through his use of words. I had the great pleasure in preparation for today of reading his novel Benton’s Conviction. It was not, as I had mis-remembered, written in verse, but it was all the same a very fine rendering of the stresses that the Great War brought to an Australian community. I noticed that it was dedicated to the memory of the Rev. Linden Webb, whose unusually principled sermons in Hay, NSW, questioning the easy acceptance of the war as a Christian crusade I referred to in my recent chapters on the war’s effects on Australian society.

And Geoff’s use of poetry to sharpen our awareness of important issues in history is fixed in my memory. In the early 1990s Geoff spoke at one of the big annual history conferences we used to hold at the Memorial. Geoff recited some of the poems he’d written commenting on frontier conflict in the settlement of colonial Australia: an unusual form and an unexpected venue, but they were different times. That subject – the acceptance of the fact and significance of frontier conflict – is still not resolved. It might be time to give those poems another outing, Geoff.

This evening we gather to celebrate Geoff’s latest book, and a characteristically bold innovation in form, a ‘Biography in Verse’ of Charles ‘Plevna’ Ryan. (If you try to find ‘biography in verse’ in the National Library’s catalogue you get just one hit: Plevna. (There are a very few memoirs in verse, but only one biography: this book is literally unique. As people say these days Plevna is ‘one of the only’ books to describe a life in verse.)

Who was Charles Ryan and why was he nicknamed ‘Plevna’? I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of Geoff’s account of Ryan’s life, so I’ll just say that he was a Melbourne-born surgeon who in the late 1870s found himself working as a medical officer for the Ottoman Turkish army at the siege of Plevna, in Bulgaria.

As Geoff shows, this eventful, stressful and traumatic period was the most intense time in Charles Ryan’s life and it defined him thereafter, when he had returned to practise in Melbourne, to marry and live a more sedate life – but he always carried the nickname of ‘Plevna’.

Ryan became the Ottoman empire’s first honorary consul in Australia, and he embodies an important stage in the long relationship between Australia and Turkey. In a book that I’ve just published, co-written with Vicken Babkenian, Armenia, Australia and the Great War, we mention Plevna Ryan’s service during a typhus epidemic in Ezeroum, in eastern Turkey. Indeed, we noticed the same anecdote that Geoff tells – but I’ll quote Geoff’s version, because it’s more economical and elegant than ours:

Along with Denniston and Stoker [British surgeons]
you treat Armenians for nothing,
including their archbishop who
insists you take, in recompense,
an ancient Persian bracelet
rescued from the time of Xerxes.

Did its maker’s father fight
at Salamis or Marathon?
you cannot help but wonder …

Here we have a writer whose skill and confidence with words enables him to do something that no one else has dared to do – to render a man’s life (or at least the most dramatic and accessible parts of it) in a form not usually associated with biography. It persuades me how verse enables a biographer to expose the essence of the story and of the emotions that underpin it – even when they are not apparent (as I hinted, Charles Ryan was a pretty buttoned up Victorian, and a surgeon to boot) – but some of his experiences in the Russo-Turkish war must have affected him for years, something to which Geoff’s text alludes. Geoff’s adept words and spare but sharp lines are like a lively life sketch rather than a fully worked-up oil painting.

But in just a few lines Geoff gives us the essence of Ryan’s experience – as a 60-year-old he served on Gallipoli as the 1st Division’s senior medico (one of the oldest combatants on the peninsula). Here he is at the celebrated 24 May truce on Gallipoli:

Those bodies, sprawled and rotting,
are hazardous to health
and dysentery is rife already.
You walk among the corpses,
quietly giving orders.
The shovel parties overlap;
and now some Turkish officers
have seen your Plevna decorations.
They think, like some Circassian,
you stole them from the dead and start to remonstrate.
‘No, no,’ you say in Turkish.
‘I got these when I fought at Plevna
with Gazi Osman Pasha.’
And then, we’re told, they’re hugging you
expansively as comrades.

And so on until Ryan’s death, on a ship off the South Australian coast in 1926.

I liked the sense of Geoff’s reflections throughout the book. On the very last page he wittily observes the challenges of writing any biography, in verse or not, noticing the

… random slips of evidence
the internet preserves,
managing the clash of dates,
the multiple accounts,
the various lacunae,
the several contradictions
that hinder and release,
forcing one to speculate
while falsifying nothing.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends, I hope that I’ve given you a fair impression of a wonderfully innovative, bold and fair ‘biography in verse’, one which resurrects one of the great characters of late Victorian Australia and one of the most notable characters on Gallipoli, a man who uniquely spanned two of the belligerent nations then and forever since.

On your behalf I congratulate Geoff Page on another wonderful book, which I pronounce duly launched. Congratulations, Geoff.

 – Peter Stanley

Prof. Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra is one of Australia’s most active military social historians, and President of Honest history. His latest book is Armenia, Australia and the Great War. 

Plevna: A Biography in Verse is available from http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/plevna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

go to the makers
not to the mockers

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

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

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

Go to the makers, not the mockers.

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

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

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

embrace the poem
squander the soul

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

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

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

‘the priming of a painter’s canvas’

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

Kit back cover

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

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

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

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

I remember your remembering
snow from Great War winters

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

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

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

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

where was I

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

where was the instant
green became me
danger was outrun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go to the makers, not the mockers.

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

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

Or as Kit has it:

in a book
are certain heavens

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

And in the poem,

keep this book

walk with it
sleep with it
read it out loud

then when it
falls apart
you’re the glue

And finally, from his ‘Advice to Poets’:

worship the earth
the all we have

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

Poetry, the breath of life.

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

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

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

 – Beth Spencer


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

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

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

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

Issue 18. April 2016- June 2016


Nicci Pratten, ‘Joey Bowie’, mixed media on paper, 2016.


Teasing Threads

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Deeper Meanings Under an Accessible Surface: Ron Pretty Launches ‘Cleanskin Poems’ by Laureen Williams

Cleanskin Poems by Laureen Williams, Island Presws 2016, was launched by Ron Pretty on 27th February 2016 at the Friend in Hand Hotel.
laureenIf you look at the brief bio at the back of the book, you will see that Lauren Williams has had a wide range of occupations, some of which appear in these poems; you will also see that her career as a poet has been interrupted, at least partly, by ten years or so as a song writer. So it’s no surprise that we have had to wait fifteen years for these Cleanskin Poems to arrive.

And it’s great to see them. If ever there was an appropriate title for a book of poems, it is this one, and I congratulate Lauren on its choice. I have spent the last few weeks considering the term ‘Clean Skin’, its various meanings, connotations and applications, and the way the term resonates with the poems and two articles that make up this book.

There are at least four different ways you can look at the term ‘clean skin’, three of which relate directly to the poems and articles in Lauren’s book. The other one, I’ll dispose of straight away. Those of you who know me will realise that I am now indeed a clean skin. Not from choice, I can assure you, but unfortunately, radiation therapy doesn’t give you much choice. I don’t think I have been this smooth of cheek since I was about one. The rest of the face & scalp is a different story: blame that on liquid nitrogen – and, I should add, the dermatologist’s sharp knife.

That wasn’t the first meaning that leapt into my head of course. Cleanskin immediately suggests wine – to me anyway. Good wine in plain bottles at a reasonable price. As an analogy for Lauren’s poems, it’s quite revealing. Her preference has always been for clear, strong poems: good wine in plain bottles. She writes poems that open out to her audience whether on stage or on paper. The trick with such poems, of course, and a method she has perfected over the years, is to suggest deeper meanings under an accessible surface. This is wine that will improve with being cellared, as well as wine that’s good for drinking now.

A poem of hers that I often use in workshops is a poem from an earlier book, Invisible Tattoos, I think it was. The poem itself is called ‘Shallow’, an amusing and somewhat self-deprecating poem, but a wonderful last line that gives a totally different way of seeing the whole. If you can find it, have a look. But there are a number of examples of the same method in this book.

See ‘Dental Record’ for instance (I love that ‘I don’t smile, I barracuda for the camera’) or the self-deprecation in ‘Some Harmless’, not so much in his cutting last comment, but in her earlier decisions to go along for the ride; or ‘On Chemistry’, its wonderful last stanza:

There is no chaperone more fierce
than age. I listen chastely
to my body’s late verse,
the exquisite ache of it, sad
as if speaking for the last time
on these matters, like someone
talking over their shoulder as they
quit the room, leaving the door
slightly ………. ajar.

Going back to the title, the term also suggests honesty and innocence, a suggestion that the ‘clean skin’ has not been corrupted by the world around them, or not yet anyway. As you read these poems, you will be struck by their directness, their refusal to pretend the experience was anything other than what it was, whether they are talking about other people, other experiences, or of the poet herself. See examples such as ‘The Belt’ or ‘Repetition Injury’ or ‘What the Trees Stand For’.

Finally, the title suggests – to me at least – the related term ‘having skin in the game’; and Lauren certainly has skin in the game. You don’t need to read the two essays to see that, for the poems themselves make it clear. Read for example, her long poem called ‘Say That Again’. It’s hard to quote from that complex satiric poem, but this will give you something of its flavour:

Does It Matter What Town I’m In?

If no-one understands
The first line, the poem
Is working

I don’t care for maps.
Get lost.

and engines,
That’ll do it…

Or read ‘Shakespeare Was a Performance Poet’ or – in fact read any of the poems in the last section of the book.

Having said that, you should read those two essays at the end of the book: they state her position – her skin in the game – very clearly. Whether or not you agree with her position, you’ll find them both interesting and challenging. I should add that I find myself agreeing with most of what she says there. Fundamental to both essays – and indeed to many of the poems – is the need for Australian poets to build their readership/audience, not as gatekeepers protecting a particular approach, or who dismiss other poets by attaching a label to them, but by entertaining people, moving them, challenging them … and giving them something both comprehensible and worth reading or listening to. It’s hard to argue with that.

Returning to the poetry for a moment, part of the pleasure of the poems in the book are their wide range of interests. Poems of childhood, autobiographical poems (many of which reveal that self-deprecating quality I mentioned in relation to ‘Shallow’; there are poems dealing with sex (including that wonderfully humorous poem, ‘Why I like talking to mechanics’ – who but Lauren could make car parts sound so sexy?); there are also poems of travel and of politics, poems exploring aspects of the art and life of Howard Arkley and many poems dealing with poets and poetry – her skin in the game, as I have just said. As you’d expect, there are also many hard-hitting poems – ‘Paddock Moll’ or ‘So You Want Blood’ or ‘What Gets Lost’ and many others.

Like a good bottle of wine, there is much pleasure to be had from Lauren’s latest collection. There is a lot of humour in the book – see for example, her poem called ‘New York City T-shirts 2002’ – a sort of never-ending poem, or ‘Last Tango in Wagga’ or ‘Young Female Poet II’; but there are also many strong, hard-hitting poems, well worth lingering over with a glass of good red. Buy the book, enjoy the fruits of the harvest.
I’m looking forward to hearing Lauren read some of these poems. Congratulations, Lauren, I declare Clean Skin a great vintage hereby launched.

– Ron Pretty


Ron Pretty has been publishing his poetry for 40 years. His eighth book of poetry, What the Afternoon Knows, was published in 2013. He has taught writing throughout Australia and in US, England and Austria. From 1983 to 1999 he was Head of Writing at the University of Wollongong. He was the director of Five Islands Press, for which he published 230 books by Australian poets in the 20 years 1987 – 2007. He taught creative writing at the University of Melbourne, 2004 – 2007. In 2012 the Australia Council for the Arts awarded him a residency in Rome.

Cleanskin Poemsis available from http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm or ytou can message Laureen on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/mslaurenlee