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.

Zalehah Turner Biographical Note

Mark Roberts interviews Zalehah Turner    Zalehah Turner Four Poems

Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based poet, writer, critic, and editor undertaking Honours (BA Communication) in 2017. She is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review (RSR), an online journal of cultural criticism with a strong focus on poetry. Zalehah edits, publishes and promotes many of the featured articles and poets in RSR. She has also reviewed a wide range of cultural events for both it and Vertigo. Her mixed media poetry has been exhibited at several venues around Australia. Her most recent series, Interstices, was published on the Vertigo website in October 2016.

Mark Roberts interviews Zalehah Turner

Zalehah Turner Biographical Note   Zalehah Turner Four Poems

When did you start writing poetry? Can you remember the first poem you ever wrote?

The first poem I ever wrote was either ‘The House of Change’ or ‘Pills, Opportunities and Optimism’. Both were part of a series six of poems written as an assessment piece for English in High School. I’ve always been interested in intermedia and transmedia poetry. I created a one woman show accompanied by audio and visual media for Theatre based on ‘Pills, Opportunity and Optimism’. The rest of the five poems, I developed as theatrical, multimedia pieces for a play I wrote for the same subject entitled, Andrea, Alec and Avril which included contemporary ballet, a medusa style, snake queen on stilts, skaters in wire meshing, and a Chinese dragon rat.

The threat of death interrupted my studies at 19 and continued to over many years. However, I never stopped writing and drawing. The first poems that I wrote after returning to university study were four haikus which were displayed in Federation Square as part of the Overload Poetry Festival in 2008.

What made you want to write to start writing poetry?

The short answer, reading ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg and my love of words and poetry.

Can you talk about some of the major influences on your work? Who were the poets that inspired you to start writing and have those influences changed over time?

My work is influenced by art, films, novels, music, and poetry. I am continually impressed by the power of expression from creatives working in a variety of mediums who come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Milton by Blake made a significant impact on me at a young age. It was on my mother’s bookshelf along with other books of poetry and works of literature. It seemed magical, powerful and mysterious. It definitely encouraged my desire to engage through both art and poetry. Howl by Allen Ginsberg inspired me to start writing poetry. Its impact on my life was uncontested until, I read The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot. I read and re-read the poem and was incredibly intrigued by all the literary and personal references within it. Admittedly, I first read T.S. Eliot’s The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a child, so, perhaps his influence was there all along. My poetry was, and still is, incredibly influenced by Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.

Curating the featured writers for Rochford Street Review has also significantly inspired me. It may also have inadvertently helped me develop my Honours Project. It has significantly increased my appreciation of Australian poetry as well as, opening me up to work from Manus Island, Ukraine, and Russia. Interviewing poets and reading their reflections upon their own work is incredibly interesting and inspiring.
For me one of the highlights of your work at RSR has been the leading role you took with the New Shoots Prize (co-creating, judging, promoting). Can you tell me about how you went about organising that prize and the work involved? I’m particularly interested in understanding if it influenced your own work in any way.

I undertook an internship with The Red Room Company early in 2016 where I complied a collection of plant inspired poetry for Tamryn Bennett, the Artistic Director of the RRC. The RRC were just beginning their project New Shoots. I saw the opportunity, as an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review, to collaborate by developing a prize or rather prizes where the winners could be published in RSR, RRC and on the Royal Botanic Garden website. Tamryn and I agreed on the guidelines which I wrote and she put together a great package of poetry anthologies, seed packets and journals for the different prizes. There was an incredible amount of work involved but as ecology, poetry and community engagement are all very important to me, it was an invaluable and inspiring experience. I was impressed with the submissions, the variation and range, as well as, the strength in the poetry. I put together a shortlist. Tamryn and I easily agreed on all the winners, and most of the highly commended.

I developed a plant inspired poetry prompt for social media each Sunday as way to promote, inspire and engage poets and plant lovers. It opened my eyes to the incredible changes that the planet is undergoing and the amazing responses from artists, poets and the world as a whole. Publishing the poems and interviewing the winning and highly commended poets was a great chance to go back and take an in depth look at poems we had chosen and find out what the poets had to say about their own work. If the entire experience didn’t influence the way I think and write, including the topics I write on, I would be surprised. Sure enough, when I met with my Honours supervisor late last year to discuss my project for 2017, I warned her of the possible impact of New Shoots on my chosen project!

What are you working on now?

I am currently editing a couple of poetry reviews from contributors which I aim to publish in Rochford Street Review soon. I am also reviewing two poetry collections, one art exhibition, and currently finalising the editing and layout for the Featured Writer for issue 22. Aside for my work as Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, I am working on a 30-page intermedia poetry collection entitled, Critical condition, focused on the interstitial threshold between life and death in medical crises. Critical condition is my Honours Project and the Creative component of my Honours (Communication) degree at the University of Technology, Sydney which I started last week.

Many Thanks Zalehah

This is the Book for You: Amy Brown launches ‘redactor’ by Eddie Paterson

redactor by Eddie Paterson, Whitmore Press 2017, was launched by Amy Brown at the Bella Union Bar, Trades Hall, Melbourne on 1 February.

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‘This is the book for you’ is the title of a satirical, distilled review, which begins ‘joan collins is an extraordinary orchid of evil & beauty’; it also happens to be true of redactor – whatever “true” means these days. This is the book for you, because of its acute timeliness.  With wit and sagacity, Eddie Paterson’s latest collection of poems seems to herald and ward against several recent dystopian events. I’ll start with the most obvious: as I type, the U.S. president’s last tweet was:

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Congratulations to @FoxNews for being number one in inauguration ratings. They were many times higher than FAKE NEWS @CNN – public is smart!

We are living in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. “Post truth”, the Oxford Dictionary’s word of 2016, is defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. Donald Trump has demonstrated how objective facts, when swayed by subjective beliefs, are uselessly fickle. Perhaps the only thing that Eddie Paterson has in common with Trump is that he has demonstrated this hegemony of subjectivity over the objective fact too, albeit benevolently. The first section of redactor, titled ‘Aversion’, is a dossier of manipulated of information. ‘Bureau of Statistics’, a droll portrait of this nation via figures, begins:

31 australians have died
since 1996 watering
their christmas tree while
the fairy lights were plugged in
19 australians have died
in the last 3 years by eating
christmas decorations they believed were
chocolate hospitals reported 4 broken
arms last year after cracker pulling incidents

All text – the legend of the map at a zoo, census data, personal email excerpts – is the redactable material from which versions of the truth are made. Eddie’s redaction, in the sense of editing and arranging, draws attention to the myriad “truths” any written communication yields and encourages readers to avert, or turn away, from the well-trodden path of interpretation, to read from an unexpected angle.

Any retelling of an experience is necessarily subjective. The experiences recorded in the first section of redactor are surreal due to the precision of the description. Flying into Melbourne, Eddie sees:

great blimps
move through the clouds,
huge grey airships
curl amongst skyscrapers & through suburbs
& it’s a minute or two
before i realise i’m looking at the harbour
& not the sky & fog is eating the world.

At the supermarket, a screaming kid latches on to Eddie:

he pulls himself
up my arm
& screams in my face.
the mother unhinges her child
from my arm. i go on looking for the Special K.
the squeaking
wheel
on my trolley
spins round & round.

Librarian types are referred to as ‘the dewy ones’, legs as ‘loaves of bread’ and an airport as ‘a lung with particles moving through it’. The crisp exactness of these metaphors is a relief next to the stale communiqués found on bulletin boards and government websites. Still, Eddie’s satirical redaction of these depressing texts renders them fresh. For example-

this is the boy
this is a picture of the boy
do not feed the boy
any nuts,
unchecked snacks or sandwiches
do not give the boy
liquids, inc. water, cordial, milk,
without express permission.
please monitor the boy &
notify if situation does not improve.
if there is an escalation,
perform the procedure.
if you are unfamiliar with the procedure
do not ask the boy
he will be prone
by then.

 

After hearing Eddie read this poem early last year, my partner now refers to our son almost exclusively as “the boy”.

For anyone embroiled in the Centrelink “debt recovery” debacle, Eddie’s treatment of Kafkaesque bureaucratic missives will offer some consolation. And, for anyone who is or has been a postgrad arts student or sessional academic, much of redactor will ring true – in some cases it may ring so piercingly true that you suspect you are reading phrases plucked from your own emails; you may wonder whether the redacted name under the tiny black rectangle is yours.

Writing from within such a niche métier risks riddling a book with exclusive in-jokes. Feeling excluded is in this case part of the point, I think. One poem refers directly to the Brechtian theatre term, ‘Verfremdungseffekt’, which is the distancing or alienating of the audience from the experience of the characters in a performance. In-jokes act as a form of encryption, which the reader is invited to try and crack. There is a deliberate positioning of the reader as eavesdropper and voyeur, particularly in the second section of the book, ‘Call and Response’. Here, the reader is privy to redacted gossip, discussions about films, books and reality TV. Indeed, this section of redactor could be classed as “reality poetry”, except its scripting and editing is much subtler than in your average episode of Beauty and the Geek.  There is a cryptic motif of mint slice biscuits – why? Well might the person or computer scanning these emails wonder. German psychologist Michal Kosinski, whose research inadvertently enabled the inauguration of Trump, created a psychometric application capable of identifying a person’s characteristics in meticulous detail based upon their Facebook “likes”. With 300 likes, Kosinski boasted that his model could predict a person’s answers to a questionnaire better than their lover could; Trump’s campaign used this technology to search for and manipulate undecided voters.

So, a pattern of mint slice mentions could be a poetic motif, or a piece of ‘big data’ ripe for psychometric analysis. Another dystopian event this collection seemed to predict was the Turnbull Government’s data retention scheme. Originally designed to combat terrorism, there is now the suggestion that the data collected could be subpoenaed for use in civil cases. What is private, what is sensitive, what is classified? What aspects of ourselves should we be endeavouring to protect or hide? In his prolific, ‘Barbara Cartland Love Poem’, Eddie provides what I read as an answer to these questions:

& as for my brain – contains far too many basketball statistics
from the 80s, references to hbo serials & guilt/doubt which
hangs off me like an overstuffed quicksilver you are welcome to
the stupid thing. i am unkind. for it also contains the memory of
you lying next to kafka in a park on an unexpectedly beautiful
afternoon. that bit i’ll keep, you can have the rest

This image that must be kept is repeated on the last page of the collection, in ‘Love Poem’:

leave me with the park with the sun & that afternoon when
unexpectedly you moved away from kafka & toward me.

Perhaps it is sentimental of me, but I find these final lines optimistic, suggesting that even in this Kafkaesque world, moments of beauty, intimacy and privacy will not be completely oppressed.

So, for anyone feeling despondent about global politics, or battling with Centrelink, or whose New Year’s resolution was to quit Facebook, or whose guilty pleasures include reality television and mint slice biscuits: this is the book for you. Buy it, seek solace in it, and keep it nearby – you are going to need it.

 – Amy Brown

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Amy Brown is a New Zealand poet, novelist and teacher who now lives in Melbourne. In 2012 she completed a PhD in creative writing on contemporary epic poetry. Her latest book, The Odour of Sanctity, was published by Victoria University Press.

redactor is available from https://whitmorepress.com/2017/02/28/redactor-available-online/

Strange Beauty: Amanda Anastasi launches ‘We the Mapless’ by Ian McBryde

We the Mapless by Ian McBryde, Bareknuckle Books 2017, was launched by Amanda Anastasi at Collected Works on 16 February 2017

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Ian McBryde reading at the launch of We the Mapless, Photo by Melbourne Spoken Word.

Making my way through these poems – and I say “making my way” because there is never a feeling, at any point, of having to work the poems out. It is much like walking through a gallery of striking paintings – each beautiful, savage, tender and stark. These word paintings and snapshots resonate long after you have put the book down.

We are eased into the collection softly with selections from Ian’s 1994 collection The Familiar, with the very slight and quiet ‘Cat to Antelope’. The poems from The Familiar imprint some unforgettable lines upon us. The moon as “a venomous shrunken nun”, for instance. One can faintly hear “the music from the south tower” in ‘Reports from the Palace’, and the faint music still plays in each of Ian’s Reports from the Palace poems thereafter. Upon reading the selection from Flank, I swear that I could hear the muted horses of the “blind cavalry”, each camera click in ‘The Still Company’ and an exquisite music emanating from ‘Prelude’. Then, there is the Westgate Bridge collapse depicted as “a terrible child splitting the insect.”

McBryde captures, in his characteristically minimalist way, crimes and disasters of history – many clear, detailed and razor-sharp reportings, dense with atmosphere. Dallas’ 63 documents the JFK assassination, Melbourne Bitter the Julian Knight shootings. And of course, there are the poems from Domain, the 2004 collection based on the events of the Holocaust.

Here, McBryde hones in on the ordinary, human things occurring around the inhuman atrocities – Himmler retiring for the night; Heydrich dining out, the piles of clothes carefully labelled. It is an insightful view into the emotional distance of the criminal mind. The most striking image here is the flower blooming in Auschwitz – the stubbornness of beauty and life amid the obscenest human ugliness.

Similarly, the poems from Equatorial often depict the dark side of the human psyche. Here we have an arsonist, a sniper, a “fallen priest, defrocked.” In so many of these poems, there is a fascination with the mindset of the outsider, the deviant, the broken. And yet, there is always a searing beauty even in the most disturbing recollections.

The Adoption Order poems take a softer turn. Here we are presented with the tenuous, yet immovable presence of biology and family. From the bitterness of ‘Songs for Paul’ to the surrender of ‘Motherlode’ containing the repeated line “I will die with your name in my mouth”. Here, the loud silences that exist between us and those who birthed us, are perfectly conveyed.

The strange beauty contained in many of McBryde’s poems lies in what is not said. There is always room to wander, and there is always just enough unresolved to keep you thinking afterward. The selection from Slivers, lifted from an entire collection of monostitch poems, aims to create a complete poem within one line. Each contains its own mystery. Each is a hook; a door slightly ajar. Yet, each is complete.

We are also gifted with new poems, which I will not talk about. These are the surprise of the book and, as Ian does, I will not say too much. It is in the final poem of the collection – the last instalment of ‘Reports from the Palace’, that puts the title of the collection into context. It reads: “We the mapless are here, knowing that this pale house is ours.”
It is with pleasure, that I declare We the Mapless by Ian McBryde…launched.

 – Amanda Anastasi


 Amanda Anastasi is a Melbourne writer, and the curator of La Mama Poetica. Her writing has been published in magazines and anthologies both locally and internationally, including The Massachusetts Review, FourW and Cordite Poetry Review. Amanda’s poetry collections include 2012 and other poems and The Silences’(Eaglemont Press). a chapbook with Robbie Coburn.

We the Mapless is availabe from http://www.bareknucklebooks.com/authors/ian-mcbryde/

New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 winner: ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ by Stuart Cooke

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stuart-cooke-picStuart Cooke lives on the Gold Coast, where he lectures in creative writing and literary studies at Griffith University. He has published collections of poetry, criticism and translation. His latest book, Opera was published by Five Islands Press in 2016. Stuart Cooke is the winner of the 2016 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize.

‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’: Zalehah Turner interviews Stuart Cooke

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A fascination with sound, individual words and language: Paul Scully talks about his latest book, ‘Suture Lines’

“To me, the best poetry engages the mind, the emotions and the senses, and words are what we have to work with, so I try to steep myself in them.”- Paul Scully

Suture Lines by Paul Scully (Guillotine Press, 2016).

suture-linesHow did your new collection, Suture Lines, come about?

Paul Scully: In many ways, Suture Lines (SL) grew out of my Master’s degree at Sydney University. Many of the poems first found life there. The time and the shaping and filtering that aims at a viable collection have also played a part, but I hope it has attained an independent existence.
Putting a collection together is a strange process. You bring the pieces together, assemble them into theme or relationship groupings, prune sections or omit poems that are below the standard of the rest or that don’t fit well with the bulk of the collection, read and reread, and try to be your own critic.
I had one established poet look at my first collection, An Existential Grammar (EG), and two poets look at SL, at different stages. For Suture Lines, feedback at the earlier stage focused me on pruning more aggressively with a view to making my voice more distinctive. At the later stage, it concentrated my attentions, on reorganising and reducing the number of sections and aiming at a punchier and more concentrated presentation. I really appreciate the time and effort all three poets spent on me.
Then there is trying to find a publisher if you are not a poet with a well-established publishing relationship, particularly if you go out seeking when the Government announces radical changes to arts sector funding. This seemed to mean that lists were being restricted until some funding surety was received, although that may have been a polite way of communicating lack of interest.
An Existential Grammar was published by Walleah Press, so was naturally my first port of call. Ralph Wessman there advised me that he wasn’t necessarily going to continue publishing and was restricting new work at that time. I’ve since read that he doesn’t often publish multiple works by the same author. I don’t know what Walleah’s current state of play is. So I had to look elsewhere.
Guillotine Press is quite a new publishing firm and I approached them at a time when they were looking for poetry in particular. Mark Rafidi has been very enthusiastic about my work and supportive. One of my friends has a volume coming out with him later this year and Mark wants to grow the enterprise.

How does Suture Lines differ from An Existential Grammar?

P.S.: There are more themed poem sequences (five versus one) and, at this stage of my writing, I think I have a greater fascination with sound, individual words and language per se. To me the best poetry engages the mind, the emotions and the senses, and words are what we have to work with, so I try to steep myself in them. Caitlin Maling’s blurb describes this as being “in thrall with language” and (very generously) in the nature of “birdsong”. To this extent Suture Lines is a somewhat more integrated read, I think.
On that score, David Musgrave made an interesting observation in his blurb that the collection deals with the “many forms and dimensions of love”. While I was certainly aware that love featured strongly in certain poems, I hadn’t intuited it as a more pervasive theme. I now think David is right and wonder how that came to be.
The title, Suture Lines, comes from a line in a poem, as did An Existential Grammar. To me, it speaks to what I hope is an unconscious wholeness emerging from the bits and pieces that make up the collection.

Can you describe some of the sequences?

P.S.: The ‘Librarians of Alexandria’ sequence in Suture Lines began with the ‘Cincinnatus’ sequence in An Existential Grammar. Cincinnatus was appointed dictator for the defence of Rome, then renounced the position when the job was done, though the detail is far more nuanced than that simple summary. I had enjoyed getting into the mind of an historical figure and creating a hopefully personal sub-text to the reported history. I had always been taken with the notion of storing all the wisdom of the world in a single place, one of the reported motivations for the Royal Library, and the sequence grew from there. The burning of the library on the order of a Coptic patriarch was an act of unspeakable barbarism. Maybe I’ll return to the library someday.
The ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ sequence in Suture Lines came from my master’s dissertation. It is based on the Attar’s Conference of the Birds, a Persian classic. I hadn’t read the original in full (in translation obviously) at the very early stage. I don’t really know why I was attracted to it, other than I’d read Rumi and about Sufism, and was intrigued about a mystical form of Islam when we read so much about fundamentalism. I was also fascinated by the whirling dervishes of a particular Sufi sect in Turkey and am a sucker for birds.
The plan had been to write an Australian version. I found that Anne Fairbairn had already done so, albeit in a stripped-down form, so changed tack. I was mightily relieved at this after I realised the enormity of my original intention. I wanted to use classic forms as well as free verse, the original having been written in couplets of fixed syllabic length and rhyme points, and mirror somehow the allegories that Attar inserts into the narrative. I came across Tim Low’s Where Song Began in the process of working on the poems and its thesis that the first song birds came from Australia and PNG. It provided a rich source of material to draw from. This was important in the end since there are so many bird poems out there and I needed some element of differentiation.
The ‘Face Value’ sequence in Suture Lines was originally two sequences. The first drew from a magazine article and the second, from something that happened to my brother in London. The magazine article was about a couple, the male of whom suffered from face blindness, the inability to recognise facial features. Sufferers use other cues to navigate the world of relationships. The article described incidents from the man’s life and the woman’s challenges in dealing with a beloved who couldn’t recognise her in a conventional manner.
As for my brother, he is a priest in the East End of London. Someone stole the crucifix from the wall of his church. After a few days, the guy found the Twitter world ablaze with news of the theft, was overcome with guilt, and returned the crucifix. They were the starting points at least. I put the two sequences together as part of consolidating the manuscript under the notion that things are not always what they first seem.
All this sounds a bit manufactured. While there is some degree of planning, the process for me is organic, whatever that means, and I’d like to think that quality persists.

What distinguishes your poetry?

P.S.: Like many people I am often attracted to the side-track and alley-way, even when the ostensible topic is well-covered. In the ‘Librarians of Alexandria’, I found that one of the librarians was credited with developing the first cataloguing system. I eventually landed on him whining to his regular courtesan about how the scholars annoy him because they can’t remember where things are and she comes up with the idea to give them a kind of guide to that effect. For the hoopoe/ sheikh figure in my take on The Conference of the Birds, the role is split between a marbled frogmouth, not “its tawny cousin”, perhaps the more obvious choice, and the reclusive bristlebird. The underlying element of duality in Sufism is hopefully more powerful because of it. For the religious part of ‘Face Value’, a garage sale at a convent around the corner from where I live gave me a new angle.
I am especially pleased when a poem ends in an unexpected place (even to me). For instance, the catalogue poem which ends with the courtesan reflecting on her role, not the librarian’s and a poem about a visit to the Arctic which ends with a comment that the greatest gods pray for irrelevance.

An Existential Grammar acknowledges your father, Kenrick Scully (pseudonym John Dawes). What has been his influence on your writing?

P.S.: A parent obviously influences in all sorts of ways. For me as a writer, in the first place, that my father wrote. Our place was always overflowing with books. Secondly, that he wrote poetry, as well as novels, non-fiction, plays, children’s verse and journalism. His work is not well known these days but, in his day, he encouraged poets like Peter Skrzynecki. My brother, Kevin, has written a book that covers Dad’s career (and many other things). I don’t think I write anything like my father, though, and I have never consciously sought to do so, nor not to do so.

You have worked in finance. T. S Eliot also. Has that darkened your writing as it is reported to have done for him?

P.S.: If I could write like Eliot, I’d take light, dark, anything!
The short answer is no. I came at finance as a professional choice when I was young out of an interest in maths (via actuarial studies). I worked in it full time for some 25-30 years and still work part-time in it. It’s conventional to think of a sector in unitary terms, whereas there’s considerable diversity and people of all sorts of opinions and interests. Some of the biggest supporters of action on climate change, for example, are in insurance.
One thing it has done is deepen my interest in poetry (and literature generally) if anything, as another means of being a more rounded person.
You asked about my view on the cuts in arts from this perspective. I don’t think there was any financial motivation in the original decision. It was purely political.

-Paul Scully

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Paul Scully
is a Sydney-based poet and author of two collections, An Existential Grammar by published by Walleah Press in 2014 and Suture Lines by Guillotine Press in 2016. His work has appeared in print and online journals in Australia and the USA. He is a current Board member of Australian Poetry.

Purchase Suture Lines by Paul Scully from Guillotine Press

Adventurous, challenging and thoughtful: Paul Scully reviews ‘Our Lady of the Fence Post’ by J.H. Crone

Our Lady of the Fence Post by J. H. Crone (UWA Publishing, 2016).

our_lady_of_the_fence_postH. Crone’s Our Lady of the Fence Post, a book-length poetic dissertation of sorts, begins as an imaginative interleaving of two narratives: the effects on the seaside community of Sunshine Bay (a cipher for Coogee) of the Bali bombings and the sighting of a Marian apparition there. The community is particularised through “bystander” characters including, Mari, Maria de Jesus, Joe, and Mae who have their own stories and afford the work a vital personal dimension. The loci and vessels of connection are place, religion (Islam, Catholicism and, more distantly, Hinduism), and the secondary impacts that “great” events wreak on “collateral” and individual lives. Crone goes so far as to hint at causality, as well as connection, by having an expert suggest that the sightings are a manifestation of the spiritual unease the bombings and their antecedents have engendered.

The Balinese exemplify the “collateral”: affected by the terrorism of the bombers, the tourists, assertive of their right to behave as they wish, and then, the withdrawal of tourism.

The names of the women play on a sea/ mother/ “Mary” theme, as per a quotation from H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) cited by Crone. Mari owns a baker’s shop near the site of the apparitions, and is married to Joe, a man deeply affected by the bombings with a tendency towards violence. Mari is given the “briny taste of a fat lip” by Joe; Jesus/Maria is a sighter of Mary and mother to a son who died in the bombings; and Mae is a reporter with a religious upbringing.

The interleaving is illustrated stylistically in the poem, ‘How to Make Terrorists Pay’, where the lines alternate between the actions and reactions of schoolgirls and other protestors and those of Joe, as he attempts to navigate a way through them.

Crone widens her ambit as the verses progress to bring in Anzac Day, the Cronulla riots (relocated to Sunshine Bay), the war in Iraq, the rise in local influence of Islamic State, racism, and the demonisation of refugees. She also fashions a disquisition on the feminine and feminist in the poem, ‘The Inquisition’. It contextualises this concern by examining church historical views on the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, parallels in Greek mythology, and the conflict between a nun theologian and an exclusively male church hierarchy. A dying and unbelieving cancer patient observes, “The more the Virgin/ is elevated, the lower the status of women of ordinary birth.” I have italicised ‘virgin’ to highlight Crone’s analysis of the paradoxical refutation of female sexuality, yet glorification of motherhood as the defining female role inherent in the virgin icon.

The role of women is otherwise illustrated in the reflected musings and dialogues of Mari and Maria, their respective wife-husband and reimagined mother-son relationships and developments in their lives over the course of the work, and Mae’s Damascene evolution from reporter to disability worker. These three women eventually chart new lives for themselves since, for Crone, “resurrection” (used in the title of two poems) is personally determined─ Mae concludes:

The memory of Maria’s intense joy
in the midst of the sublime nonsense of the storm
has become a symbol in my mind
for the feeling
that I have finally become─
who I truly am.

While Crone risks diffuseness at times as she opens her gaze, the progression reads naturally enough and allows her to illustrate how a prisoner converts to Islam and radicalises as the book closes.

The work can clearly be read as modern allegorical. By way of illustration, the strongest impressions on my first reading were of the stories and overall tone. There is, however, resolute craft at work. Crone employs a range of poetic forms, from the conventional and even, exotic, such as the triolet and sestina, as well as, concrete-style forms, direct citations, prose poetry, dream sequences, faux riddles and reportage, social media formats, and elements of farce. The poem, ‘The Universal Bum Puppet Show’, presents a political comedy skit of obvious provenance at an A-lister party! Her mode of address also ranges from the direct to the speculative and her language from the prosaic to the more symbolic and imagistic. All this not only provides visual and textual variety but also reflects the multiple angles through which Crone transects her material.

Sympathy appears to be reserved for the Balinese and the female characters, and nuance largely for the later. While these are clear authorial choices, consistent with Crone’s foci, and understandable given poetry’s emphasis on economy, it does lend an air of the stereotype to the other characters, at times a little at odds with the otherwise, insightful and perceptive work. As always there is an exception to this, when Crone likens Joe’s heart to “a doe-eyed pygmy possum/ in a pool of snowmelt caused by the thrum/ of a new power plant”. As well, I found the incursion of Ginger Mick, coming unheralded and unrepeated, and a little jarring. The writing here is well-crafted, though, strongly echoic of C. J. Dennis’ diction, as best as I can recall, enhanced by incorporations from the original, and illustrates a continuity of attitude I assume Crone wants to convey, but is slighted somewhat by a similar unidimensionality.

Despite these quibbles, Our Lady of the Fence Post is adventurous, “spirited” (to quote Peter Minter from the title pages), challenging and thoughtful, and exhibits a conviction in the role of characterisation and an assured poetic versatility.

-Paul Scully

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Paul Scully is a Sydney-based poet and author of two collections, An Existential Grammar by published by Walleah Press in 2014 and Suture Lines by Guillotine Press in 2016. His work has appeared in print and online journals in Australia and the USA. He is a current Board member of Australian Poetry and is a member of a poetry group at which J.H.Crone is a periodic attendee.

Purchase Our Lady of the Fence Post by J. H. Crone from UWA Publishing
Read Our Lady of the Fence Post (extract) by J. H. Crone