‘Snakes known to exist in this area’: ophidiophile poets Amanda Joy and Liana Joy Christensen talk to Zalehah Turner

Zalehah: Hello Liana and Amanda, anything you’d like to say about snakes, poetry and Western Australia by way of an opening?

Liana: Poetry in Western Australian is a lively and diverse ‘ecosystem’, where the poets are likely, on the whole, to welcome serpents! Encounters with snakes in the wild always leave an indelible impression, so it’s not surprising to me that such highly charged moments will find an afterlife in poetry. Without being overly mystic, an encounter with a snake sharpens the moment: life and death are revealed as conjoined.

Amanda: I grew up largely outdoors, due to being in the desert and living in a caravan in the heat, I have barely a memory of being inside. My father in particular made sure I knew a lot about snakes, which ones were poisonous, how to walk slowly in order to encounter them and the need to stand completely still when I saw them. It has left an indelible hyper-sensitivity to them which means I encounter them in my reading as well with that same recognition. Liana has already mentioned, a sharpening, but also a familiarity. There is barely a collection of poetry I have read and loved which doesn’t have a snake or several.

Zalehah: Liana and Amanda, what are your thoughts on endangered species, snakes, and the destruction of their habit through deforestation and urbanisation?

Liana: My thoughts immediately turn to our Biblical heritage. The queen of heaven crushing the serpent; the conflation of the serpent with ‘evil’. These ideas are so powerful in our culture. I see the current, parlous state of deforestation, loss of species, and unchecked urbanisation as directly connected. It has created a world where in many cultures humans view themselves as ‘having dominion’. I think we have much to learn from Indigenous cultures that have a more respectful concept of cohabitation.

Amanda: Recently, a huge tract of land was bulldozed in an area of remnant bushland where I walk regularly. I have rarely walked in there without at least one snake sighting, I found myself grieving for all the terrestrial animals which may not make their way back in there for quite some time. There is something about the spaces inhabited by snakes, the ‘gap in things’ to borrow a line from Luke Davies’ ‘Totem Poem’ that I have had moving around in my head while wandering in there. It speaks to me of wild and untouched space, understories and humus, shrubs and caves, where things go to breed and incubate and generate. When the ground is barren and animals lost, when seeds have nowhere to fall, regeneration is impossible. There is a starkness in the destruction of wild spaces which fosters more starkness, which speaks to me of a terror.

Zalehah: Can you tell me about any experiences with snakes or snake skin that you’ve had? The strongest, most memorable.

Amanda: Of course, the entirety of Snake Like Charms is about my experiences with snakes and even some snake skins. The most memorable was a face-to-face meeting with a tiger snake while walking in an area of Beeliar Wetlands with an anthropologist. We were in a very important sacred site and I was on my knees taking a photograph of a quite large Burton’s legless lizard. As I swivelled away, still on my knees, I found myself directly level with the tongue of a huge snake, its head was flared. I’d never seen one from quite that angle before. Fortunately, my body, in its infinite wisdom, froze. I have no idea how long we were like that, facing each other. It was that meeting and the next couple of days of adrenaline coursing through my system which solidified the conception of Snake Like Charms.

Liana: I have had the privilege of visiting a very special place in the south-west, one that very few people have experienced. It can only be accessed by walking ocean wards from the back of a private property in Walpole. After much flat landscape, the earth opens up in a deep fissure. You realise that the little green shrubs you had thought you saw were, in fact, the tops of jarrah trees. This place, called Lander’s Gully, has a freshwater spring at one end. Although known to few people, it is, naturally enough, known to the wildlife. We were resting on the sandy track down into the gully, when my companion said in one word: ‘damnbloodyhell’. I turned and saw a tiger snake approaching us from behind. We moved to either side of the track and watched the snake make its slow way to the head of the springs and drink its fill. Shades of D.H. Lawrence!

Zalehah: These experiences are life and death. I am pleased that you both managed to survive! Mythological and symbolic references to snakes appear throughout your poetry: the Ouroboros and the headless Medusa. Are these powerful motifs, images and life experiences the reason that you express yourself through poetry or prose? Why poetry in particular? What is about the form that appeals to you?

Amanda: There is a fantastic essay by James Hillman in his Dream Animals collection titled ‘A Snake is not a Symbol’ where he writes about a workshop exercise he uses, having the group discuss all the snake references which come to mind. So many! Then he asks them to consider the ‘snake-ness’ of an actual snake. The wonder of that, the physical attributes actually bring about its prominence in mythology and in particular creation stories. It is a brilliant meditation on the tempering involved when balancing the motifs and myths with a contemporary context within a poem. Stuart Cooke in his introduction to his translation of George Dyuŋgayan’s The Bulu Line discusses the ‘haze’ in the songs (poems) he is translating, the uncertainty. That same ‘gap in things’ I mentioned earlier, it’s a space we as readers need to sift for meaning which draws me to the form as a writer and a reader. A meeting place within the text as an encounter, where we can bring with us all our points of reference. It would be impossible to think of snakes without bringing the mythos of the snake, especially on Country which was sung into being by serpents.

Liana: Oddly enough, that encounter (and several other close ones) have not evoked mortal terror for me. More a feeling of respectful fascination. I have seen my neighbour’s dog die from dugite venom, so I’m not unaware of the dangers. But in my encounters fear has never been the dominant emotion. It is, of course, not possible to shed all the cultural and mythological scales from our eyes . . . nor is it necessary. I agree with Amanda, though, on the importance of resisting the possibility of cultural overlays obscuring the actual existence of another life. The snake is Saturn, haloed by rings of mythos, no doubt, but centrally and intrinsically itself.

Zalehah: As ‘female, activist poets’ (Liana’s words!)- what do you hope readers will think/ or rethink about their perceptions of the world, wildlife, and precious existence of animals (deadly or not) within it? What do you feel strongly about? What do you hope readers will take away with them after reading your work?

Liana: There is a strong tradition of activist, female poets in Australia – Judith Wright pre-eminent among them. I’ve often pondered this topic as Amanda and I — together with poets, Nandi Chinna and Jennifer Kornberger, among many others — have been involved in direct action campaigns in defence of wild spaces. The most recent of these was a protracted struggle to protect the Beeliar wetlands from a massive road project (think ‘WestConnex’ for a parallel). From time to time we have comforted each other by quoting excerpts from Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poems about trees and wetlands. You can, of course, write about the bush from the city, as Henry Lawson did. However, I think that poets are potentially receptive to nature as more than just a theoretical construct, and some of them are willing to put their bodies — as well as their words — on the line to protect the wild. Poetry is not a didactic art form; however, it can excel at shifting consciousness indirectly. I would hope that both my poetry and prose may cause some such shifts in the reader towards a revaluing of that which is being lost at too rapid a rate. I have been involved in the Animals and Society Study group since its foundation at UWA several years ago. My passion for wildlife and wild places is the heartwood of my life.

Amanda: I’m so grateful Liana brought Nandi Chinna into this conversation. When I read the poetry of Nandi or Liana, or any female poets of this rich heritage we have from Judith Wright, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Dorothy Hewett, and so many more, I find myself yearning for those spaces and encounters found within them. I’m reminded that I need, on a very deep level, to make my way back into bush or desert country and the ‘wild’ encounters I can find there. I would hope that my own poetry at its best, might inspire those same desires. Even more so I would love to think it might feed a sense of urgency in readers to make contact and protect the Country the poems come from.

Liana: Amanda’s poems do exactly that!

Zalehah: I’m interested in your views on ecopoetry. Is it tame?

Amanda: I want to find the opposite of ‘tame’ I look for it as much in what I read as in where I walk. There is some fantastic poetry coming out under the banner of ecopoetry, the best of it has a lot of ‘wild’ in its many definitions.

Liana: Ecopoetry is a broad umbrella that shelters a very diverse array of works. Some of these works may be ‘tame’, as you put it – contemporary versions of the Romantic poets’ nature idylls. I’m inclined to disrupt any binary I happen to encounter, though (to quote from my poem ‘Beastitudes’: Blessed are the carnivores/ reviled for being wild/ Blessed are the companion animals/ reviled for not being wild. I guess I incline to inclusiveness, and feel there is a role for the lyrical as well as the spiky in ecopoetry. My own poetic responses are often to the beauty implicit in scientific accounts of nature.

Zalehah: A few questions about the poems from each of you published in Rochford Street Review:

Zalehah: Amanda, ‘Making a Meal of it’ is skillfully executed and surgically expresses the horror of killing and eating snakes. Can you elaborate?

Amanda: In regard to eating snakes further, I think I revere them too much to do it. I couldn’t when I have had the opportunity and can’t envisage myself doing so.

Zalehah: Amanda, in ‘Snake Skin, Roe Swamp’ you describe yourself or the narrator of the poem as coming across a snake skin only to put it on. In ‘Locus’ you are belly down and snake-like only to then wish you were the water around the krait. The boundaries blur. Do you feel that there is a deep connection between the snake and yourself, a longing and an incredibly strong link or perhaps even, no division between yourself and nature/ the wildness?

Amanda: I have a mild fascination with the limbic portion of the brain, that part which we share so closely in its purpose with all creatures: the way it maps bodies through landscapes externally and encounters, and in turn, maps the way bodies respond internally. There is something in the mutual understanding I was writing of in the tiger snake encounter, the way in those meetings you have to overcome the ‘fight or flight’ and freeze or one of you will come off the worse. I suppose this is what you are questioning when you ask about the connection or longing between myself and the snake in ‘Snake Skin, Roe Swamp’ and ‘Locus’. I believe it is the same longing I am indulging when I immerse myself in readings of ecopoetry or eco-feminist literature, not merely a ‘something I can relate to’. More the ‘strangeness’ of the snake, the impossibility of closeness, that ‘gap in things’ again. That’s wilderness – what could be untouched, in the natural world, physically, but also by ideas.

Zalehah: Liana, in ‘Crunching the numbers’ you expressed that you ‘drew a line in the sand’ at eating endangered species and poetically laid down the maths of humans eating other species, asking the reader to crunch the numbers themselves. Can explain you explain your views in relation to eating snakes further?

Liana: ‘Crunching the Numbers’ shows that by playing with mathematical concepts. The poem had its genesis in a trip I took to China that caused me to revise my thinking about what we consume. Like many in the West, I find the notion of eating snakes, insects or anything outside a very small range to be a challenge. I cannot imagine taking up eating snakes. However, I did see quite clearly that eating a much broader span of animal species does, at least ‘spread the load’.

Zalehah: Liana, in ‘Hey Kekule’ you reference Kekulé’s Ouroboros dream and reverse snake charming to ‘charming snake’. What are your feelings on the tradition of snake charming and the mythology of life and death within the snake eating his/ her tail?

Liana: Ouroboros has always been a compelling symbol for me (I have been known to quote at length a passage from Pynchon that directly connects the symbol to a non-linear, self-contained natural world). I think it’s a significant metaphor for those of us who desire a more ecocentric world view. ‘Hey Kekule’ also references the tantric tradition which speaks of the serpent coiled at the base of the spine that with esoteric training can be ‘charmed’ into rising up through the chakras. Wildness is, as Amanda so beautifully explains, not reducible. It is both potent and dangerous and requires the containment of respect.

Zalehah: Liana, in ‘Cohabitation 2’ you make you views clear leaving the reader with ‘snakes known to exist in this area’. The title appears to express your views. Would you like to elaborate?

Liana: As for Snakes known to exist in this area – it is, of course, a reverse reading of the intended meaning of the sign, which was meant to serve as a warning. For me there is no such thing as a ‘paradise’ without snakes. Whether or not I see them – the continuous hum of other life forces, the homeliness of cohabitation is deeply precious. I celebrate all beings known to exist in this area!

Zalehah: Liana, Wild Familiars and Deadly Beautiful. Your interest and experience with wildlife and scientific journalism attracted you not just to snakes, ‘a matter of scale’, but deadly animals. What’s the attraction and intrigue?

Liana: As I mentioned above, my response is not restricted to dangerous or deadly animals. I grew up near Fremantle, and spent a lot of my childhood in the local bushland. It formed me in significant ways, including a responsive joy to wildlife, both plant and animal. My first professional job was as the editor of Landscope magazine, which was much concerned with wildlife and science. Since then I’ve done a lot of science writing and also found myself having poetic responses to the science I was reading. I like to wander back and forth across those territories. I was approached by Exisle Publisher and they asked if I want to write a book on ‘dangerous animals of Australia’. Once I ascertained that it was not a schlock-horror theme, but a conservation one, I readily agreed. However, somewhere between my agreement and the writing, they decided that they wanted ‘deadly animals of the world’. Gulp! However, I found that cold-emailing scientists in other places often resulted in very warm and helpful responses. The process also had some poetic outcomes. In my research for the book, for instance, I came across the fact that scorpions fluoresce under ultraviolet light. This had to be a poem (‘Scorpionism’ was published in Unusual Work.) Years ago, I was putting in a paper for the inaugural Animals and Society conference at the University of Western Australia. I mentioned to an artist friend, Kati Thamo, that she should submit some of her prints to be part of the conference exhibition. Then I promptly felt jealous that she would have the fun of a creative response while I was stuck with an academic paper. This inspired me to write some poems and enter them as part of an art exhibition with Kati. Later I wrote some more, and collected them together for Wild Familiars. Kati Thamo’s exquisite work ‘The Embrace’ adorns the cover.

Zalehah: Amanda, congratulations again on winning the Peter Porter Prize in 2016 for ‘Tailings’. I love that blue tongue lizards, cockatoos and a man looking for a hookup on Grindr all appear in your poem. You’ve written a wonderful, contemporary, Australian poem that takes in the landscape from a very intimate and personal perspective. Take me through ‘Tailings’: your thoughts, inspirations, and your poetry collection, Snake Like Charms.

Amanda: Thanks, Zalehah. A friend recently posted a photo on Facebook of a swamp beneath a highway overpass, filled with litter jettisoned from vehicles passing over. The overpass was supposedly a way of preserving what was underneath. I held the picture in my mind’s eye a lot over the past few months and what it conveyed was a lot of what gave urgency to publishing Snake Like Charms and writing ‘Tailings’. Since the industrial age, there has been a fear of swampland and these spaces which necessitate ‘discomfort’ in the settled parts of us. Here in Perth vast areas have been filled in for housing and roads, what is left accumulates marginalised wildlife and all manner of what is pushed aside. As a child, when we came to Perth I spent a lot of my time finding those places, even climbing out of my bedroom windows at night to get to the river and swamp. I suppose that’s why if I write them, I write them in as I find them and as I found/ find myself in them. They are the places which hold memories of a marginalised and lonely childhood in many ways and are still the places I go to find my solitude as well as all manner of other solitudes driven to the margins by suburbia. ‘Tailings’, by one definition, are the unusable detritus left over from mining or industrial activities. I found it a potent metaphor for many of the inspirations behind the poem.

Zalehah: Lastly, any insights you’d like to share about each other’s work or your own? Comments or even questions for one another?

Liana: Having had the privilege of sharing creative space with Amanda during the time she was writing Snake Like Charms (we are part of a small group of women poets convened by Jennifer Kornberger), of course I looked forward to reading the finished collection. The collective impact of the works was even greater than I expected. I found the poems to be sinewy as well as sinuous. Familiar with fear and yet deeply unafraid. I learned a lot from paying them close attention.

Amanda: My gratitude for Liana’s work lies in part to the forensic listening, looking and research which I know is contained within its form. The greater conversation it contributes to is omnipresent, nature and science, animals and human society, domestic and wild spaces are given voice in a unique and enlightening way. Her writing is always vital and surprising and I deeply admire her unique blend. I have to say here also that Deadly Beautiful has been gifted to almost all my nearest and dearest over the past few years!

Zalehah: Wonderful to be in such a writing group!

Liana: Oh yes, it’s a small, highly supportive and productive group. We all find it very useful. 🙂

Zalehah: Liana and Amanda, just to clarify, I do not think ecopoetry is necessarily tame by any means. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the e-interview with both of you. Thanks so much for your time. You’re both incredibly inspiring and have given my readers and myself much to think about.

Liana and Amanda: Hi Zalehah, thank you. It’s been a most enjoyable conversation. We have no problem with ‘tame’!

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Amanda Joy photograph by Alex Chapman 2017 cropped jpeg

Amanda Joy. photograph by Josephine Clark 2017.

Amanda Joy was born and raised in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of Western Australia. Her first full-length book, Snake Like Charms, is part of the UWAP Poetry series. Her poem ‘Tailings’ won the 2016 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. She is the author of two chapbooks, Not Enough to Fold and Orchid Poems.

‘Making a Meal of it’, ‘Snake Skin, Roe Swamp’ and ‘Locus’ by Amanda Joy

 

Purchase Snake Like Charms by Amanda Joy

Liana Joy Christesnen photograph

Liana Joy Christensen. photograph by Amber Bateup Photography.

Liana Joy Christensen is an ophidiophile, as well as a writer and poet. She is the author of Deadly Beautiful, and Wild Familiars, prose and poetry, respectively. Her work is widely published and she was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2014.

‘Hey Kekulé’, ‘Crunching the Numbers’ and ‘Cohabitation 2’ by Liana Joy Christensen

 

Purchase Deadly Beautiful by Liana Joy Christensen

A Wonderful Variety of Tone and Theme: Melinda Smith launches ‘The Loyalty of Chickens’ by Jenny Blackford

The Loyalty of Chickens by Jenny Blackford, Pitt Street Poetry 2017, was launched by Melinda Smith at the Press Book House on 8 April as part of the 2017 Newcastle Writers Festival

Welcome everyone. What a privilege it is to be launching the first full-length collection of this prize winning and widely anthologised poet.

I was very pleased when Jenny asked me to be her launcher because there is something about the sensibility in her poems I have always enjoyed. The way they connect everyday life with dreams, nightmares, myths and the mystical, while maintaining a light touch and a sense of fun. Also, cats. And palaeontology. And geekdom – there is at least one Star Trek and one Lord of the Rings reference – I’ll leave you to find those on your own.

The book also contains more serious pieces: meditations on history and mortality, and the stories families tell – and don’t tell – each other. All in all a wonderful variety of tone and theme is on offer here.

As always Pitt St Poetry have made a beautiful container for Jenny’s words, and I should also mention the fabulous illustration by Gwynne McGinley of the loyal chickens themselves.

Animals + Birds

The first thing I noticed about this collection is it is teeming with animal life. Not only cats, but dogs too, and dozens and dozens of birds, starting of course with loyal chickens! But there is a huge variety, from penguins to gulls to butcherbirds to noisy miners to lorikeets and cockatoos to all sorts of waterfowl. They are all beautifully observed. In one poem a cormorant is ‘drying dark silk wings’. And you can both see and hear the birds in this one if you listen closely:

‘Magpies | glossy as glass-dipped demons | chortle on the lawn | like church organs | dreaming’

Nature descriptions

Jenny also excels at beautiful descriptions of natural scenes more generally. Here are some of my favourites:

  • ‘The weed’s thick-layered onto the water, slathered by the sky’s bright knife.’ in ‘The Drowned Brickworks’.
  • In ‘the sun’s bright crayons’ she describes rays of light in sea water as ‘lines | that cross-criss-cross || a fishing net of light | to catch moon-jellies | fallen from the blue above,| and tiny salty stars’
  • And finally, in ‘Road Trip’, ‘Autumn poplars shine cold yellow candles, lighting dry fields.’

Deep Time

Something I have always appreciated about Jenny’s work is her awareness of deep time, the long long planetary past of geological eras, on the scale of which the whole of our civilisation is a tiny blip.

In ‘the wide dark’: there is ‘a creek which has carved cliffs from an ancient plain’ singing ‘of the wide dark between the stars | before our earth was brown and green and blue’.

This awareness of what for want of a better expression I’ll call the long context is reflexive and permeates everywhere. Plesiosaurs and shallow ancient seas appear in ‘The Drowned Brickworks’. Gulls become Pterodactyls; Tree ferns have ‘silver-green lacework older than most dinosaurs’; the blue-tongue lizard has a ‘Pre-Jurassic brain’, while crocodiles claim their place as the older siblings of the dinosaurs in ‘Masters of the mud’.

The long context also shapes her poetry at the metaphorical level: one of my favourites, ‘An afterlife of Stone’ imagines an eminence beside the Hume highway as an enormous petrified mammoth.

She also engages with the prehistoric human past, exploring for example the incredible usefulness of the mussel shell as a tool before metal and plastic – ‘a Swiss Army Knife free from the sea’.

Classics

Moving from pre-history to ancient history, Jenny’s training as a classicist is much in evidence in this book – but she wears her learning lightly and it always serves the poem.

In ‘Pleiades’ (‘the seven sisters’), there is this gorgeous line, about the elusive 7th sister: ‘Some say | they’ve danced with her | high in the blue. | Clouds of shy stars | drift in their eyes.’

Demeter appears multiple times, and we also meet with Poseidon, Aphrodite, Herakles / Hercules and the Graiae – the sisters of the Gorgons. There are allusions to the Iliad and the Elysian Fields. ‘The gods’ in a more general sense misbehave in ‘Driving through smoke’, her poem on the ‘Black Saturday’ fires.

There are even memories of her old classics professor Godfrey-Tanner in ‘The beast in socks and sandals’.

We get a sprinkling of characters from non-Greek mythologies too – including a fair wodge of old Norse material with a mention of Fimbulwinter (the great winter), Yggdrasil (the world tree) and the Midgard serpent – the serpent that circles the world (disguised as a cat – as it once appeared to Thor). The semi-mythological also features: Boudicca makes an appearance, and that ancient weapon of mass destruction, ‘Greek fire’.

And Jenny makes her own myths too, as in the haunting ‘Aluminium apples of the moon’ that gives its title to the last section of the book.

Relationships and history

In ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ Yeats wrote of the necessity, eventually, to understand that myth is only part of the picture. ‘…Now that my ladder’s gone /I must lie down where all the ladders start / in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. I’m not saying the results are foul in Jenny’s case, but in this collection she does turn her gaze to humanity’s recent, yet-to-be mythologised past, and also to the sometimes perplexing mythmaking of her own family.

She considers the refugee experience in the moving ‘Polenta memories’.

In ‘The Interchange’ she delves into the myth and truth of her great grandfather Charles Clements’ life and death.

‘The patriarch’s lurid past’ explores poverty and the misdemeanours it compels.

‘Full of church’ is a meditation on different seasons of womanhood in the family.

She has also written some heart-wrenching poems for her mother at the end of her life, ‘Dipping into that lake’ and ‘Beloved impostor’.

I have great pleasure in declaring The Loyalty of Chickens officially launched!

 – Melinda Smith

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Melinda Smith won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for her fourth book of poems, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (Pitt St Poetry, 2013). Her fifth, Goodbye, Cruel, is out now. She is based in the ACT and is currently poetry editor of The Canberra Times.

The Loyalty of Chickens is available from https://pittstreetpoetry.com/emporium/

Shock Treatment: Simon Patton reviews ‘Year of the Wasp’ by Joel Deane

Year of the Wasp by Joel Deane, Hunter Publishers, 2016

In 2012, Joel Deane suffered a huge shock to the system that could have ended his life. In Year of the Wasp, he tries to come to terms with this devastating experience, attempting — by means of novel and often weird imagery — to reproduce in the reader something of the intensity and alienation he felt. But how do you convey a highly unusual life-episode without toning down its otherness? And how do you convey such otherness in a way that enables others to share in it? These are two questions that reverberate throughout Deane’s Wasp.

Be prepared for the unexpected! Deane spends little time dwelling on the medical details of his ordeal. In the third poem we are given the briefest of glimpses — “Paramedics arrive. / Give him a shot of Stemetil / [ . . .] He slurs, ‘I have to spew.’ / ‘Use the bag, champ’. / And the nurse goes, / ‘Do you know where you are?’” — but from then on in, anything like a realistic therapeutic scenario is withdrawn from the writing and is replaced by a series of idiosyncratic, imaginative responses, hallucinogenic in nature, and fringed with both strong violence and occasional eroticism. It is these ingredients which offer him a means of translating the raw data of incident into a language with enough vital texture to engage us:

The owl floats across the darkened ward;
lands on the metal bed head
with a click. Stares, does not blink
at the face shining on the pillow,
white as a pharmaceutical moon.
Asks,
……………‘Did you fall?’
And the face replies,
‘But first I flew.’
At which the owl nods,
‘That much is true.
What falls must first fly.’
Shifts, claw to claw, then decides,
‘But I have only ever flown.’
And blinks.
……………And hops onto the pillow.
Baits her beak with his lazy eye.
And the face screams.
‘Wait!’
……………How could you never fall?’
And the owl does not blink.
……………Does not speak, but claws
her answer into his skin.

There are plenty of arresting details here. A technique Deane uses frequently is the omission of the grammatical subject, and here it contributes to the spooky atmosphere and enables some very effective compression (“Shifts, claw to claw, then decides”). The precision of “click” is well judged, I think, and demonstrates a wonderful attentiveness to sound, equalled elsewhere in lines such as “walked back to the car / popped the boot”. More striking is the simile “white as a pharmaceutical moon”, an intriguing case of a kind of double simile combining “white as the moon” and “round and white like a pill”. And then there’s the understated horror of the verbal metaphor in “Baits her beak with his lazy eye”, another brilliant gesture that evokes in a sudden flash of insight the wounding point of the fish-hook. We cannot but squirm in response.

Greek mythology is another important feature. “The owl floats across the darkened ward” is one of several poems that hints at the story of Icarus, and the loss of power that comes to one who falls. The owl’s lesson on this score is not something that can be translated into clear ideas — the bird “claws her answer into his skin” — but this clawing looks very much like writing, a visceral kind of writing reminiscent of an enigmatic poetry that perhaps, at least occasionally, attains to that extraordinary still-point beyond flying and falling, that seems to last forever, in the same way as a sublime passage of music: “She says, ‘Remain perfectly still,’ / although nothing ever is. / Then Something Blue begins and he thinks, / ‘Almost nothing’.” (“The giant toad squatting”). This is the knowledge that the owl, symbol of wisdom, brings obliquely home to us.

Such pronounced weirdness in the writing can tend to obscure the human truth of the subject-matter. In “And so he wakes”, for example, a brief description of the ambulance journey ends with the lines “ . . . siren singing / as a wasp performs a pig Latin liturgy / on the tabernacle / of his tongue” is both surreal and demonic, but it is bizarre rather than apt, and veers towards absurdity. In another poem, “And on the third day”, the speaker tries to placate a seagull which has “ants for eyes” by tossing it scrabble tiles of “the most expensive kind — Q, X, Z”. This kind of blending of the far-fetched and the grotesque appears to be essential to Deane’s experience of serious illness, and it provides the reader with some insight into how the mind responds to severe stress and medication, but ultimately I found such passages unenlightening with regard to the nature — and value — of human suffering.

But there is a whimsical side to Deane that counterbalances the showy melodrama of his dominant mode:

Doors painted red,
summer night drowsy with smoke,
he walks out to the courtyard.
Says, ‘Firewords,’
……………………..instead of fireworks.
Apologises to Caligula,
the crossbred canine.
‘My mind’s not right, Cal.’
The Japanese willow,
also middle-aged, has thickened
where he has thinned, scratches
his head with a sympathetic branch.
‘Much obliged,’ he says,
Gong Xi Fa Cai.’
Apologises again.
‘You don’t speak Mandarin, do you?’
And the willow offers
not a whisper in reply,
‘Neither do I.’
……………………..More firewords.
Somewhere, somewhere close,
people are talking in a backyard.
A barbecue is burning flesh.
Cal brushes against him and
he leans hard against the willow,
where a mosquito finds him,
…………..gives him an ang pow kiss
to mark the going and the coming
of the year of the wasp.

The chatty, relaxed tone makes good sense here, because the poem is about reconnection with life in its everyday manifestations. The doors are “painted” red by New Year’s Eve fireworks, and this launches the speaker into a gentle-witty drift of associations: Caligula, the Roman emperor, a nod at Asia as a contrast to Europe, a desire for speech and physical contact as a support for powerlessness (“lean hard” indicates this), even if it comes in the form of a mild insect bite. There’s a muted hopefulness here, alongside a clear-sighted recognition that the world goes on as it always has, with the smell of “burning flesh” usually somewhere nearby.

What of the central wasp motif as an effective symbol of malevolence, of the death of desire, of anti-life? Apart from the examples we have already encountered, its major uses in the first section are as follows:

It was foolish to hope. He prayed / for rain but the heavens let fall / Tithonus instead, / whose every atom / was transfigured into a wasp. And / every wasp was born in fury / and showered down and / stung and did not slake the thirst.

A wasp is in the ward: / scrawling graffiti in negative / space: / tapping / against the windowpane / searching / for the crack / that lets in / the cold:

The wasp / that was inside / the ward / is now inside / (his head).

His head, / blunt as a bowling ball, / lies heavy [ . . . ] / and the wasp / strains to lift him / by his fingerholes.

The wasp in the umbrella tree, exclamation marks / in search of an ending. / Turn people into verbs.

In my view, these wasps aren’t particularly menacing, especially when evoked in the singular, as they almost always are here. Surely a single wasp in a ward is a minor irritation in comparison with an owl! When Deane tries to invest the wasp with greater significance, he sometimes strains in the attempt. The first example makes use of another mythological reference, this time to immortal Tithonus, a figure well-known to poetry-readers thanks to Tennyson, who wrote a poem that describes his unique predicament in the following lines: “Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath, / And after many a summer dies the swan. / Me only cruel immortality / Consumes . . .” When this is coupled with deliberately archaic language (“and did not slake the thirst”), the effect is histrionic rather than chilling. In the third example, the image of the speaker’s damaged head as a blunt bowling ball has a certain appalling force, but to extend it by adding “and the wasp / strains to lift him / by his fingerholes” requires too much negative capability on the part of the reader to achieve the desired result. But it’s true that many people associate wasps with toxic peril. Judith Beveridge, for instance, in her recent prize-winning poem “As Wasps Fly Up”, describes the insects squirting venom into the eyes of unlucky entomologist as he dangles from a tree over a Costa Rican gorge.

“Eight Views of Nowhere” is the evocative name of the book’s second section, and alludes to both mortality and nothingness. It is borrowed from the title of a series of inkjet and digital prints made by the artist Meredith Squires in 2013. Most of these feature mist-shrouded mountains with a very Chinese feel, except for the second view, which shows a waterfront cityscape reminiscent of Hong Kong’s Central District. All the views include extensive areas of blank or “negative” space, and it is this presentation of formlessness that seems to appeal to Deane, as well as the Oriental ambience.

The first poem is a long one and opens as follows:

Contemplate her eight views of nowhere:
…………these eight views of myself
to which she made me an accessory.
Gaze unblinking into the mirrored,
reversed world of an extinction in progress,
a transfiguration from infinity to infirmary,
…………delusion to allusion, god to wasp.
And the wasps, born anew
…………diurnally as deities would,
should they be reproduced to scale on
the digital archival paper that holds these views,
…………be reborn as dragons
……………………to rival Ishiro Honda’s keiju —
ink jet manifestations of the past anxieties
…………of our tokusetsu life. As for today,
fear sets me free, gives me flight,
…………transforms me from an insect
into something greater/lesser, blinding me
to the moment fast approaching when
…………these wings are no longer able to defy
gravity and I, too, shall fall
…………from the monochrome sky
and break my imagined self against
…………the footpath of a confected world . . .

Casting himself in the role of a nowhere man, Deane reads Squires’ images as a mirror in which to imagine himself as “an extinction in progress” — the fact that her eight views contain only one city-scene hints at the transience of our presence on the Earth. However, the passage is not as straightforwardly gloomy as it sounds: our ordinary life of anxieties (symbolized by the wasp) may be “transfigured” by the encounter with nothingness, and we may be able to “fly” for a while, until we “break” open our imaginary selves and become enlightened to a reality beyond that of this “confected world”. The remainder of the poem conducts a brief investigation into reality and illusion. This may be designed expressly to allow for a positive, perhaps Daoist- or Zen-inspired, interpretation of apparent nothingness (“nothing — nowhere — is as it seems”).

This poem is heavy-going in places and is made even more difficult by its use of Japanese words. Deane clearly delights in the texture and aura of foreign terms and enjoys the way they can influence the atmosphere in a text — it is part and parcel of how he relates to language. He includes a few snatches of Latin in “Old, yet always new”, and there is the Mandarin Chinese expression gongxi facai (literally “congratulations, make money”, but roughly functionally equivalent to our “Happy New Year”) in one of the poems quoted above from the first section. In this particular instance, understanding the meaning of the phrase is not strictly necessary: we are put in the position of the tree, that of course has no idea what the speaker is saying. In addition, we are told that the phrase is Chinese, and that is probably all the information we need to appreciate the text.

The meaning of non-English words may, however, be vital to our comprehension of the sense of some lines, such as in “Contemplate her eight views of nowhere”. Here, there is no real context to help us understand the meaning of keiju and tokusetsu, and yet they are not just there for the sake of mood. A translator colleague explained their significance to me: keiju (or kaijū 怪獣) means “monster” — Honda Ishirō was the director of the original Godzilla film — while tokusetsu is probably tokusatsu 特撮, a word that is the equivalent of our “special effects”. When the meaning of non-English words is vital to the sense, it would be a good idea to provide a note with a simple translation. Otherwise, the reader is deprived of access to a crucial part of the text.

A serious rival to the prominent theme of personal extinction emerges quite strongly in the second section: the theme of eros. Deane has hinted at it largely in passing in the opening part of the book — there is the television sex-scene in “His life repeats on the portable TV”, the moment when he becomes aroused as a Somali nurse “polishes and rolls him”, and the lines “Old, yet always new, / desire not departing, / appetite redoubled, became / the blood and bone of him” — and he returns to it in two poems that conclude his “Eight Views of Nowhere”. One presents the peculiar image of “origami vaginas” that dissolve into an eternity of white, while the other sings of love, that romantic, all-too-human mode of infinity:

If this star of my affection
were love enough
……………………….no darkness would you see,
but shadows of longing.
…………The negative of ardour,
hard as obsidian,
that will burn until I fade —
…………blind the eternity of midnights
with the blink of one midday.

Nevertheless, we are reminded in a roundabout way of the primacy of the death theme when we realize that these poetic “Eight Views” only include a total of six pieces.
The collection closes on a Hopkins-esque note with a further nine poems grouped under the heading “Time’s Carrion Compass Course”. In it, Deane reprises elements of the previous two parts, especially the weird strain of the opening section. It begins with a brutally confronting poem about the mercy killing of a fox that has been run over, and includes a further appearance of the wasp symbol, although the phrase “in some crowded hive / a riot is awakened” blurs the entomological line between wasps (which gather in nests) and bees. Political themes, indicating a public turn in Deane’s writing, become prominent, with acerbic poems about Australian identity and refugees, “those embalmed alive / with razor wire” (“This devil’s bridge”). Significantly, the rambling final poem returns in its concluding lines to the theme of eros, and finishes with the lines “for, though we have no time to live, / we have just enough time to love”: despite the nightmarish quality of much of the poetry, something fragile but life-affirming emerges from the carnage. Coincidentally, Deane harks backs here to territory he explored in his previous book, Magisterium, when he writes “What matters most is that / we love this life we are leaving / and are unafraid of the next” (“Requiem”).

For me, an unexpected highlight of this section is the following low-key item:

Face a fist,
seven years of muscle
rising eight,
she forces me to lean hard
…………to hold her flat
on the table
as the doctor — who
insists on being called Daisy —
…………dabs liquid nitrogen
into my daughter’s sole.

I hear cold skin burning
as I tell her to be brave,
…………but the truth is
she is brave enough already.

It takes courage to be scared.

At once, all the phantasmagorical elements in Deane’s poetic repertoire fall away in the act of dealing with a child’s suffering. At once, we feel the situation with some immediacy. The metaphor “face a fist” embodies this directness, and finds support in the monosyllabic physical keenness of the simple description of the speaker leaning “hard to hold her flat on the table” (there’s a deft reference back to “he leans hard against the willow” here). We get a sense of fierce pain even before we have a clear idea about what is happening. The detail about the doctor insisting on being called Daisy (she would have to have a floral name, when the girl has been stung on the foot by a flower-feeding wasp/bee!) allows Deane to indulge his wit without straying from the facts of this mundane situation. This is turn clarifies the action and keeps it focused. Finally, the ingenious shift in the choice of preposition — not the obvious “on my daughter’s sole” but into it — proves how much more effective precise effects can be in comparison to extravagant oddity.

A striking instance of paradox closes the poem to give the reader a further jolt. However, this comes at too high a price: it distorts the meaning that the rest of the poem works towards in order to deliver another surprise. Actually, it doesn’t take bravery to be scared, but it does take courage to fully accept pain and one’s very human vulnerability to extremely unpleasant situations. There is something emblematic in this moment: throughout the collection there is a tendency to opt for exaggerated dramatic touches at the expense of absolute precision with regard to the difficult realities of pain and suffering.

Craig Sherborne has written that Deane is capable of “moody, strikingly versatile poetry” and this is certainly true of Year of the Wasp. Perhaps, though, one of the most impressive things about Deane’s poetry is his daring. At various moments in this collection, he puts himself into poetically very fraught situations, just to see what he can make of the difficulty. A memorable example of this is a short poem about desire:

And the man asked the mountain,

“How does it feel to become
something more than desire?”

And the mountain asked the man,

“Something less,
you mean?

It would feel as though

the sun stared too hard,
the sky forgot to rain,

the rivers lost their way.”

Deane sets himself the challenge here of trying to imagine how it would feel to live free of human wanting, stone-wise. There’s a welcome sense of surprise and relief in the mountain’s reply: at once, it denies the questioner’s assumption that there is anything intrinsically superior about transcending desire. But none of the images in the final three lines presents a convincing expression of what the mountain is trying to tell us about its desire-less state — a state possibly akin to the liberation from our imagined selves proposed in the second section. In this sense the promise of the poem is not fulfilled. Nevertheless, I find Deane’s willingness to take on such challenges admirable. Why shouldn’t we think of poetry in the way Simone Weil thought of philosophy, as a posing of insoluble problems, while “facing them in their insolubility, contemplating them in humility, without hope, indefinitely”?

Deane’s courage extends to his use of simile and metaphor. There are some remarkable examples of this scattered throughout the book. In “Paramedics arrive” we have “weeping trailers”, a metaphor that vividly indicate the distinct pattern of dripping that happens when boats are loaded onto them. The word “silk” is irresistibly sensuous, and Deane employs it with great effect in the lines “The way children wade over: / paint each other black / with the silk of volcanoes / that grind basalt to talcum in their sleep” (“The way the setting sun shadows”). And then elsewhere there is the dynamic “whirlpool of sparrows” contrasted with a sinister “scree of drones”.

Such boldness can create its own problems, however. In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser makes some helpful remarks on the question of unwanted shades of meaning, referring to them as “noun shadows”. For instance, when Deane writes of “the polished cheek / of a floor”, the meaning of “smoothness” highlighted by “cheek” is disturbed by the unwanted association of “roundedness”. Another noun shadow also undermines the effectiveness of “metronome skyscrapers” (“He laps the oval while”): yes, the buildings may be tall and narrow like the needle of a metronome, but they are unlikely to swing rhythmically from side to side! A third example appears in this description of a dawn sky: “they wait / for the Ferris wheel of the horizon”. This effectively summons up the looming orb of the rising sun, but again the reader has to fight hard against the distracting implication of wheeling rotation.

Shock then — as novelty, or as weirdness, or as violence — can make a strong momentary impression on readers, but there is something paradoxically powerless in it, perhaps because it is essentially a superficial effect. We are unlikely to be touched deeply by it, and our ideas about the world will not be enlarged as a result. In contrast, when the surface agitation of the poetry calms, there are occasions where Deane achieves the subtler and more powerful shock of real insight, and these are the moments that linger longest with me from the writer’s harrowing year of the wasp.

 – Simon Patton

 —————————————————————————————————————

Simon Patton translates Chinese literature. He lives with his partner, two cats and Sealyham the Terrier near Chinaman Creek in Central Victoria. He recently spent two months in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong as translator-in-residence at Lingnan University.

Year of the Wasp is available from http://hunterpublishers.com.au/books/year-of-the-wasp/

A number of poems from Year of the Wasp were published in Verity La http://verityla.com/poems-from-year-of-the-wasp-joel-deane/

Tilting at Poetic Windmills: John Foulcher launches ‘Goodbye, Cruel’ by Melinda Smith

Goodbye, Cruel by Melinda Smith was launched by John Foulcher on 8 April at the Civic Digest Cafe, Civic Theatre as part of the 2017 Newcastle Writers Festival

I first heard Melinda read at a Canberra venue with ‘local poets’ about ten years ago. They were all good poets but Melinda stood out – this was the real deal, here was an authentic voice who knew about craft. So I bought her slim, staple-bound volume, First . . . then and found the poems were as good on the page as they were when she read them. When she sent a manuscript to Pitt Street Poetry, John asked me if I knew her and what did I think. I think I said something like ‘read the manuscript’ but I can’t really remember. Soon after, John rang me to say that, although PSP’s year was full, he’d have to fit this one in – Melinda, he suggested, was Australia’s Wendy Cope. His faith was justified when Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call beat a host of luminaries to win the 2014 Prime Minister’s Award. And it richly deserved to do so.

Command of a wide diversity of tone and subject matter, as well as consummate control of form, marked Melinda’s first PSP book, and while those qualities can again be found here, Goodbye, Cruel is a real step forward. Someone once suggested to me that, when you’ve got an achievement under your belt, you shouldn’t try to get better, you should try to get worse – by that, he meant you shouldn’t simply repeat what you know you can do, but you should try to do some things which are new territory for you, you should risk failure. I think Melinda has tried to get worse in this book, but I have to tell you she’s failed spectacularly, for every risk she seems to have taken here has worked. This is a terrific book.

Let’s start with the title: Goodbye, Cruel . . . yes, we all know what the next word is, but it’s not there. The omission is a verbal wink – there’s the hint of a sly laugh in it. ‘There are so many clichés about suicide,’ it seems to say, ‘but can we just put them aside and start again?’ The second section of the book, from which the title is lifted, does exactly that – it stares down an act which many would see as the ultimate obscenity – returning the most essential gift we’ve been given. Why would you do it? When I was a secondary school teacher (for my sins I spent forty years in the wilderness of classrooms), we weren’t allowed talk of suicide with kids. It was always rushed over, mutely hushed, avoided for fear the very acknowledgement of the act would put its seeds in other young heads. In newspaper reports, when someone suicides it’s usually not articulated; death in such cases is ‘untimely’. The absence of stated cause becomes a whisper of shock, almost embarrassment. It’s as if the perpetrator/victim shouldn’t be further humiliated by the ownership of the act.

This isn’t the approach Melinda takes. In a blisteringly good series of poems, she enters the act, she gives the voiceless voice, granting those who cross into death by their own hands a kind of dignity. This isn’t to say that she approves or affirms their decisions; she simply makes such a response irrelevant. In trademark fashion, she does this through shifts in voice and form. She moves effortlessly from the intimate and the colloquial to the formal and the elevated, allowing people to speak for themselves through time. Take, for instance, these wonderful lines from ‘A plate of biscuits’, written from the adult point of view of a child whose mother suicided when she was young. The poem addresses her mother:

That morning
you rose
iced the special biscuits
placed them on the baby-blue plate
made porridge for us
laid out clean clothes for my brother and me
combed our hair, oiled down my forehead curl
drove us to the school
dropped him at his classroom
walked me to my kindergarten class party
chatted to the teacher as she took the plate
from your pale hand
(above my head
it seemed you were passing her
a piece of the sky)
got back in the car
drove to your friend’s empty house
taped the doors and windows shut
and gassed yourself.

From the child’s perspective, an ordinary day – the list of routines which seem completely average, harmless, capped with a horrific action as if it, also, was nothing in particular. The simplicity of the language not only mimics the child’s viewpoint but it begs the question – what prompted this? Yet, as the list of daily tasks builds to its awful climax, its pounding rhythm becomes oppressive – you can hear a rising tide of frustration in it. The child may not understand this, but we who find ourselves slave to a numbing tide of routines that imperceptibly overtake and control us – we understand. Whether we’ve peered into that dark abyss or not, we get it.

How this contrasts with ‘The Undiscovered Country’, the poem which precedes ‘A plate of biscuits’. In this poem’s spare, fluid tercets, Melinda takes the voice of one of the suicides from Dante’s Inferno, condemned to exist as a gnarled, prickle-infested tree for eternity. A hatred of the body, always inferior, always inadequate, is at the heart of the woman/tree, who mutters to us:

I never once loved my body.
At first I hardly noticed it
then later – when it bled every month

when my breasts swelled. intruded themselves,
complicated my every move – it felt more
like a punishment, a humiliating

costume into which I had been sewn.
Too big, too floppy, too pale, too slow.
Sometimes I tried to take control

to starve it, cut it, knock it out with drink.
Later I simply bore it as a burden
as one does.

I’m sure the girls I taught with who had eating disorders – too many of them – would understand this as well.

Goodbye, Cruel . . . when we get to the final poem of this sequence, ‘Contemplating the Gap’, the title and its omission take on a new significance – Melinda tells me she’s going to read this poem, so I won’t ruin for you, other than to say the sequence ends on a note of strength and hope. In the end, the poem farewells cruelty itself, celebrates life in all its frailty and imperfection.

Don’t think, though, that this sequence is the extent of the book – Melinda tilts at an enormous number of poetic windmills here, from the elegant interpretations of Persian poet, Rabi’a Balkhi in the section entitled ‘Safina’ to the crisp observations of country and our own national history in the final sections, ‘Riverine’ and ‘Endtime’. The evocation of cattle in ‘A paddockful of Black Angus’ is as good as anything by our great poetic chroniclers of rural life:

So dark
the light slides off them,
they scan as silhouettes,
cave-painting cattle
radiating peace
as old as herds.
One of them arcs tail away from rump
with the suggestion of an arabesque,
makes a soft pile

podder podder
on the silent grass.

And that razor-sharp, Cope-like wit – many poems here lull you into laughter, then turn the knife. I can’t resist this delightful fantasy on a line of graffiti:

BRIAN LOVES Vicki . . .
…………I think someone should tell her
I think if she knew she would leave town
…………
I think he should arrange to meet her in real life soon
………………………..I think this is a good thing
…………I think she might not love him back
I think now would be a good time to tell her about his wife
…………I think he did before though and it didn’t end well
………………………..I think she is just trolling him
…………I think maybe this is not such a good thing
I think this is a triumph of hope over experience
…………I think he wants to give her all his money
………………………..I think he’ll change his mind when he finds out
………………………..about Trevor
I think he should stop hitting her if that’s the case

There’s a sting in the tail there that leaves you wondering if laughter was the appropriate response to anything in the poem.

When I was at university (yes, I can just about remember it), I took a course in literary craftsmanship, conducted by a really fine poet, Professor JM Couper. Ultimately, Couper told us, a poet’s worth is measured by the way he or she handles the long poem. As I’ve grown older and done a little writing poetry myself, I’ve come to doubt that. Often, I think a poet’s real talent is exemplified by the way he or she handles the short poem, the one that demands significance from a shard (think of WC Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’). As good as all Melinda’s more expansive poems are, you only need to read a few of her micro-poems to see how impressive her talent is. In this, the book’s final poem, ‘the bone tree’ is among Goodbye, Cruel’s finest:

in the bare blue air of my dream
there is a bone tree growing

it may not know where I have been
but it knows where I am going

Congratulations, Melinda. This book is a major achievement.

 ————————————————————————————————

 – John Foulcher

John Foulcher has written eleven books of poetry, most recently 101 Poems (PSP 2015), a selection from his previous books, and A Casual Penance (PSP 2017). His work has appeared in national magazines and anthologies for over thirty years. In 2010-11 he was the Literature Board’s resident at the Keesing Studio in Paris. He lives in Canberra.

For information on how to order Goodbye Cruel contact Pitt Street Poetry at http://pittstreetpoetry.com/

Liana Joy Christensen: three poems

Hey Kekulé

Out walking one day
we came across a snake
belly in the water/head
weaving/spells in the
empty air

Charming snake
draws us in
till, looping
out of the culvert,
it reveals a belly
rent and giving forth …

.                       what?

My companion saw birth;
I saw death:
We were both right.
.           *****

Certain training,
not without its price,
brings the ability
to dance with the snake.

Once you know precisely how
spinal resident rising
holograms the
great world snakes
you may fairly gauge
the risks you take.

Until then,
no matter how you ache,
don’t play with the snake.

 

Crunching the Numbers

Our tour group was divided 7:2
the majority disgusted
by the idea of eating dog,
the vocal minority
in favour of new flavor
sensations when travelling

Neither vegetarian,
nor starving,
I had the outlier luxury
of drawing my line in the sand
at endangered species
which was easy enough for me
in tourist towns
where menu boards in English
offered dog, tortoise, bamboo rat

But it is not possible
to reliably chart the trend
of all your choices
My travel companion
ordered a Bloody Mary
on the streets of Yangzhou.
I would not advise you
do the same

Unless, of course,
you are the sort of thrill-seeker
who can watch a snake’s throat slit
and bled into your evening drink
and remain sanguine yourself
Our shock must have shown
because the vendor assured us
that the snake would not be wasted
but cooked for dinner
which was a valid point
in a land of 6.3 billion recurring
whose attempts to subtract themselves
have been no less brutal at times

Worldwide humans consume 7000 species
We cultivate 103
Three per cent of all species provide
fifty-six per cent of our protein

Crunch the numbers yourself

 

Cohabitation 2

A sign at the edge
of my local lake
announces
WARNING
Snakes known to
exist in this area

What, exactly, am I
to make of this?
Is the very existence
of snakes an affront
to suburban citizenry?
Who perhaps prefer
the artificial lakes
created at the entrance
to discreetly gated communities
with just a duck or two

Nothing untidy or unwholesome
like quicksand
or sulphurous, organic smells
or slithery, cold-blooded creatures

I’d rather behead the sign
than the beast
and reading against the grain
secretly feast on my joy:

Snakes known to exist in this area

-Liana Joy Christensen

____________________________________________________________________________________________

‘Hey Kekulé’, ‘Crunching the Numbers’ and ‘Cohabitation 2’ were previously published in Wild Familiars by Liana Joy Christensen and have been republished in Rochford Street Review with permission by the author.

For more snake inspired poems: ‘Making a Meal of it’, ‘Snake Skin, Roe Swamp’ and ‘Locus’ by Amanda Joy

Liana Joy Christesnen photograph

Liana Joy Christensen. photograph by Amber Bateup Photography.

Liana Joy Christensen is an ophidiophile, as well as a writer and poet. She is the author of Deadly Beautiful, and Wild Familiars, prose and poetry, respectively. Her work is widely published and she was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2014.

Purchase Deadly Beautiful: vanishing killers from the animal kingdom

 

Liana Joy Christensen recently launched Amanda Joy’s Snake Like Charms at Voiceworks, Freemantle on 24 April 2017.

Amanda Joy: three poems

Making a Meal of it

Flinty incision
The skinning knife, white as a wing
Gestures a bending length, cuffs
the stricken head to dirt

The snake become a carcass, a swan
neck, a short rope. Innards fingered out
Flesh left pink as palms of hands
but softer and coated in spittle

Cauterized by indifferent light, meat still
moving in the enamel bowl. The cooking
fire hisses in spinifex as flies arrive
to blacken the table

Somewhere in the clumped guts
a heart with no fear left in it

 

Snake Skin, Roe Swamp

Shedding skin of a snake, will
loosen first at the lips, retract
backward over bluing eyes
dull crown, those sorcerous jaws

Resistance is needed, seeking
friction of rock, chafe of grass
scour and scrub of brown balga
it braces its body and slides out

Slipped fishnet of bubble wrap
mingled with a streaky mandala
of divested paperbark, becomes
my discovery, being its past

I tease open a brittle end, puzzle
my arm inside, until it is sheathed
to the elbow, ghost eyes puckering
my skin. My pulse, its unsealed centre

Vestiture of rain spittle in my hair
A cool trickle slides inside my collar
I tear the delicate mesh pulling it off
in what becomes a deluge

God of fragmentation, refusing
to keep things whole, coming
to me later. Showing again that
repetition might simply be
a lack of attention to detail

 

Locus

I was carelessly concealed
belly down on granite, fingers
untangling the slow creek
where it pooled and emptied out

when a shadow loosened itself
into an inky rivering of sheen
and black body

With no one to share the surprise
I closed my eyes and opened them
to find it, mouth to brown surface
swallowing silently, all thirst
and quench

Inexplicable how I wanted to be
that water, touched and soundless

Snake enters the pool, carries her
head above the river’s identical
remake of its likeness. A double
helix of ripples streaming behind

-Amanda Joy

____________________________________________________________________________________________

‘Making a Meal of it’, ‘Snake Skin, Roe Swamp’ and ‘Locus’ are published in Amanda Joy’s collection of poetry, Snake Like Charms (UWAP, 2017). They have been republished in Rochford Street Review with the permission of the author.

For more snake inspired poems: ‘Hey Kekulé’, ‘Crunching the Numbers’ and ‘Cohabitation 2’ by Liana Joy Christensen

Amanda Joy photograph by Alex Chapman 2017 cropped jpeg

Amanda Joy. photograph by Josephine Clarke 2017

Amanda Joy was born and raised in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of Western Australia. Her first full-length book, Snake Like Charms, is part of the UWAP Poetry series. Her poem ‘Tailings’ won the 2016 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. She is the author of two chapbooks, Not Enough to Fold and Orchid Poems.

 

 

Snake Like Charms by Amanda Joy, UWAP 2017 was launched by Liana Joy Christensen at Voiceworks, Fremantle on 24 April 2017.

Purchase Snake Like Charms (UWAP, 2017)

The Writhing, Hissing Life Force of the Poems: Liana Joy Christensen launches ‘Snake Like Charms’ by Amanda Joy

Snake Like Charms by Amanda Joy, UWAP 2017 was launched by Liana Joy Christensen at Voicebox, Fremantle on 24 April 2017

Your friend, an elder
from Broome explains the snake
is your guardian
 – “Your Ground”

Amanda Joy. Photograph Alex Chapman

To say I was charmed by the invitation to launch this collection is not a platitudinous social nicety. I was literally charmed in the original and potentially perilous sense of the word.  The meaning invoked in the title.

I had the privilege of encountering many of these poems during their season in the hibernaculum, the ‘winter tent’ of their gestation. They were powerful then, the poet’s voice singular and distinct.

The charm began in earnest, however, when I lay by a river in the karri forest, my sole companion this extraordinary volume. Taken collectively, these poems possess a power that commands and handsomely rewards a reader’s attention.

Amanda Joy chose a phrase from Luce Irigaray as the epigraph to the poem On Warmth: “don’t let any parts of us be amputated that could be expansive for us”.  This struck a note that resounded well beyond the individual poem to the entirety of the work. It is evident throughout that this poet has refused any such amputation.  And the volume gains a complex richness from her courage. For me there is a deeply intelligent and particularly feminine sensibility in Irigaray’s exhortation and Amanda Joy’s willingness to refract it past all clichés. She doesn’t do “pretty”. Her vision is truly fresh. And, at times, frightening (and I am not referring here to ophidiophobia!). There is a fierce intelligence at work in these poems.

The work is also coruscant with joy, wit and sudden startling insights. Here are just two of the many that struck me:

From “Girt”

………………………………………………..nationalism makes of each
landscape a bestiary.

and from “Medusa and the Taxonomic Vandal”:

She was pregnant with sea salt
and suddenly headless
eternally looking
at herself

and you want to focus on
what sprung from her head?

The reader will find many more examples to hold as touchstones or turn over in their mind’s eye. The pages of this volume seem barely able to contain the writhing, hissing life force of the poems within. Some will strike you. Some are self-efffacing and slither just beyond the limits of meaning, turning to promise more. In one light the poems are dense with mystery and in another plainspoken as day.

Read them by a river as I did and you will be astounded at the breadth and depth of the cultural knowledge and the lightness with which it is sown through the poems. Read them in the city and your heart will be broken open at the poet’s rare ability to conjure what is wild. A single reading would never suffice – each encounter yields new layers of meaning and of life.

Kenneth Slessor said: “I think poetry is written mostly for pleasure, by which I mean the pleasure of pain, horror, anguish and awe as well as the pleasure of beauty, music, and the act of living”.  Snake Like Charms qualifies on all counts.

It is for the poet to share with us a selection of her work tonight. I will conclude by reading one: “Sea Krait, Broome”

How slow an approach when viewed
from a distance. How more likley
the encounter if the ground is clear
A voice saying always ‘go ahead’
…………calls it freedom

Above the 27th parallel is the heat
I know as home, in my bones always
untouched by city’s cool centrifuge
that refracts a kind of light
which bursts and vanishes on the spot

Heading North, I escape the fray
Green hem of the outskirts, roadside
facade of forest, hiding a casement
of burnt earth, silent as myself

Outside, a poet ghosts a window
Writing back into life his night
parrots. I drive lines from water
to water, guzzle roadhouse coffee

Warming up, there is a conflict
of appetite, a surburban tree, black
with cockatoos shucking almonds
A dolphin trapped in a rockpool

Cane toads storming the Kimberley
in wet, find it planted with sugar
An olive python curled under a van
belly beaded with feral kittens

After three days of seated travel
I lunge from the car, sprint the length
of jetty, deaf to the man screaming
warning. Only in mid-air do I look
down to the sea, the time it takes
to panic

Two yellow and black krait, vivid
bandwidth of danger, turning on
the turquoise surface, and all
I can do, is fall

Sea Kraits may indeed be present in these pages. But I urge you to launch yourself into the collection with the same spectacular fearlessness.

You will be charmed in every sense of the word, so buy up big. The book is now launched.

 – Dr Liana Joy Christensen

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Liana Joy Christensen is an ophidiophile, as well as a writer and poet. She is the author of Deadly Beautiful (https://www.exislepublishing.com.au/Deadly-Beautiful.html), and Wild Familiars, prose and poetry, respectively. Her work is widely published and she was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2014.

Snake Like Charms is available from https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/snake-like-charms

Visions and Visitations: Melinda Smith launches ‘A Casual Penance’ by John Foulcher

John Foulcher’s latest collection, A Casual Penance, was launched by Melinda Smith at the Civic Digest Cafe, Civic Theatre Newcastle on 8 April as part of the Newcastle Writers Festival

John Foulcher and Melinda Smith at the launch of A Casual Penance . Photograph Pitt Street Poetry

Thank you all for coming. I’m very honoured to have been asked to launch John Foulcher’s A Casual Penance this evening.

This book probably marks the beginning of a new period in John’s creative production, being his first post-retirement release – although many of the poems were written while he was still working as a teacher. At any rate future Foulcher scholars may look back on it as something of a watershed.

The book is divided into three sections:

  • First, an astonishing sequence of poems on Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘Crachis’ (named for the spattering technique used by the painter to create mists of colour on his lithographs).
  • a central section containing a variety of lyrics, meditations, elegies, a love poem and a nightmare.
  • The final section, a sequence of prose poems ‘The Greater Silence’ , which could be characterised as a spiritual autobiography – a re-telling, a re-appraisal of some formative spiritual moments, from 1958 to the present day. Containing one of the most unsettling wardrobe malfunctions I’ve ever read in a poem.

The three sections are book-ended by two rhyming pieces: a sonnet and a quatrain.

I’ll just talk a little about a few of the book’s themes and read you some tasters.

The Crachis section is outwardly a condensed biography of the painter Toulouse-Lautrec combined with an ekphrastic engagement with many of his well-known lithographs and paintings. Every poem in the sequence is beautiful, with a consistent, spare, tender, tone. From their tight focus on the life and work of one man they open out kaleidoscopically to encompass themes of mortality, disability, art, shame, and love. Most of them are apostrophes, addressing the painter directly. To give you just a taste, here is a little of ‘Portrait of Lucy Jourdan, Aging Coquette, 1899’:

‘ …Her eyes are slits

of eyes, trickling with sight, as she watches
your face beyond the frame, as red as her lips,
your body a starved, knuckled thing. She leans

into the light that rears from below,
as if from a row of footlights. She asks no favours,
no accolades. She is like a curtain coming down.’

Moving on to look over the rest of A Casual Penance, we see John returning to some of his favourite themes:

  • the spiritual / the numinous
  • particularly in The Greater Silences, his relationship to organised religion, and eventually to the Anglican church (which at points in the poems becomes entwined with his relationship with his wife Jane, an Anglican priest )
  • mortality / impermanence.

As John himself has said, the poems written at this time of life can often spring from a look back, a desire to re-assess, to understand fully in retrospect. 20 20 hindsight… ‘a reckoning’ if you will.

At this age too, lots of the fixed lights start to wink out, as captured in ‘The Day David Bowie Died’ (I love the images of disintegration in the poem’s final lines)

and shards of his life were scattered across the screen,
as if there’d been an explosion. On our way to the station,
a busker with a guitar plucked away at China Girl,
caressing its lean melody, coaxing the notes
from the prison of strings. A note, then silence,
then another note, blown about in the blustering wind,
falling on the ground around us like flakes of the finest snow.

There is a distinctly elegiac tone to many of the poems and several are actually elegies. The most devastating of these is ‘Two Farewells for Cameron Allan.’ We also have, from ‘Her brother is dead’, set outside a rural church after a funeral: ‘ The cross should be sharpened, I thought, like a stake. It should go deep into the earth. How else, I thought, could it carry a man?’

There are visions and visitations too, as in ‘Before the Storm’ when the poet’s father, fifty years dead, comes to stand on the other side of the flyscreen door and say his name.

There are other delights in the book as well:

  • Wildlife in the landscape – stark, and brutal but beautiful too, as with the dead baby wombat in ‘a walk’:

……………….the dead baby
that crawled out from under its mother’s trunk,
its skin dark, and as hard as bone,
its mouth burred with flies.
We finish the walk, and don’t talk any more.

Also the magpies’ song, in ‘Magpies and Sleep’, how it

‘sway[s] like a rope dangling from a branch,
sweet and low, tangled in the bark and twigs
laid bare in the great burlesque of winter.
Perhaps one has woken and remembered
something that can’t wait until morning.
Perhaps it’s just a lover’s tiff, or the soft,
unguarded talk after sex. Perhaps
they’re summoning the sun, like shamans,
or making promises they can’t keep.’

  • John’s longtime fascination with light gets a look-in, as in ‘Domestic’, a small marvel of a thing.
  • Not surprisingly many of the poems take us to France where John spent time on an Australia Council residency – not just the Toulouse-Lautrec series but several poems in ‘The Greater Silence’ as well. I think my two absolute favourites among these are ‘City of Bone’ and ‘Snow Falling in Paris, 2011’. From the latter, we have this:

….The snow gnaws at your hand. In another world, it would turn you to ash, it
….would burn you to bone..The snow keeps falling and falling..We press our hands
….to the window, we see the world dimly. We have only the things we have done,
….those we have loved. We see the street lamps blooming

  • Several of the poems are set at Reidsdale, the site of a de-consecrated country church he and his wife Jane are restoring. The unforgettable bat guano poem (‘Clearing out the Bats’) is one of these as are ‘Church for Sale, Reidsdale’, ‘Swallow, Reidsdale’ and ‘Night, Reidsdale’. This is the church described as ‘a barn filled with night’.

I can’t finish up without mentioning that one of the many things that has made me an enduring fan of John’s work is his excellent ear for speech. He knows exactly how to deploy a little snatch of dialogue to perfectly focus the poem, or the line, and to delineate character and add drama with supreme economy. Like this little exchange from the prose poem ‘Mark, Pauline and Me, 1970’:

I slit open the great bag of silence, say There are more stars in the universe than the grains of sand. We are lying on the grass, we are a trinity, on the grass. We are lying under a dark, pointillist sky. Bullshit Mark says there’s no God. 

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the list poem ‘the greater silence’, in which John enumerates several of the rarer kinds of silence:

‘silence that tempts you with a handful of the future
silence that is covered with dirt and stone
silence that has been roped that is thrashing about
silence that is a kind of wind
silence that wakes when the streets die when the lights go out in our rooms
silence that sinks and keeps sinking
silence that dancers ignore’

There’s plenty more where that came from. Grab your copy today.
I am very pleased to be able to declare A Casual Penance officially launched.

 – Melinda Smith

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Melinda Smith won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for her fourth book of poems, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (Pitt St Poetry, 2013). Her fifth, Goodbye, Cruel, is out now. She is based in the ACT and is currently poetry editor of The Canberra Times.

For information on how to purchase A Casual Penance contact Pitt Street Poetry at http://pittstreetpoetry.com/

If you are interested in reviewing A Casual Penance for Rochford Street Review please contact us at contact@rochfordstreetreview.com.

ISSUE 21. January – March 2017

luciano-prisco

Luciano Prisco Terra, earth, osso, bone. acrylic on five panels.

Featured

Teasing Threads

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Featuring Zalehah Turner

Over the coming issues Rochford Street Review will feature the work of our hardworking editors. The first editor to grace the RSR pages is Associate Editor Zalehah Turner. Since coming aboard Rochford Street Review a little over a year ago Zalehah has made a major contribution to keeping the journal running, editing both the Featured Writers and Artists sections as well as editing, marking up and publishing work. Without her help I’m not sure that RSR would have survived the last twelve months.