Unfolding Complexity: Mark Roberts considers Anna Couani’s ‘thinking process’

This is a slightly edited version of Mark Roberts’ introduction to thinking process by Anna Couani, Owl Publications, 2017

Anna has been a friend and a mentor for more years than I care to remember. As a young poet in the late 1970s I had discovered New Poetry magazine and the Poets Union readings at the Royal Standard Hotel in Sydney. I began to meet poets and I read as widely as could among the small literary magazines and presses of the time. Then, I think it was in 1979, I came across Italy by Anna Couani (Rigmarole of the Hours 1977).

There are a number of things that I can remember from the first time that I read that book, the wonderful cover, which consisted of a simple line drawing of a kitchen with a pot on a hot plate and a bottle of salt off to the left and the opening lines of ‘Untitled’, the first prose piece in the book:

As I write down the sentences, mentally compose them and then read them off, they begin to break off like huge chunks of glacial ice, the row of type – the glacier’s cliff face at the water.”

There was  also, later in Italy, a drawing of a doorway, with most of a cane chair, a mirror leaning up against the wall reflecting another chair and a window and a piece of paper pinned to the wall with the word ‘Poetry’ written on it. This picture, for me, encapsulates Anna’s work, both literary and visual. It is, on first glance, a simple line drawing of a room. But as it draws you in the complexity begins to unfold. There is the hidden window reflected in the mirror, is it a glimpse through the doorway? There is the intricate detail of the cane chair and the piece of paper/poetry hanging on the wall.

It is interesting to realise that the connection between the visual and the literary has always been at the centre of Anna’s work. Early in her latest collection, thinking process, Anna asks:

is it ekphrasis
if the poet also made the picture?

She doesn’t directly answer this question but we know after reading the poems in this collection that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. For Anna the “thinking process’ revolves around making art, whether it it is the writing of the poems, the making of the visual art that the poems describe , or the process of making space for the world of art and imagination. In the opening poem, ‘the idea of worlds’ she refers to her “world of work” as a school teacher:

the poignancy that
no one can understand
how it feels

the sense of restriction

but there is the other world “the virtual world already there / in the peripheral vision”. This other world is already an art work

a shimmering white border
enclosing a blue and green world

Anna’s background as a teacher runs through many of these poems. In a sequence of poems about making a print of an iris flower Anna refers to being a student learning a new printmaking technique. There is also a playfulness to many of these poems. The playfulness of an image that ends up being something completely different to what was intended, or the playfulness of words in a poem such as ‘2C’ which discusses how we are taught to ‘see’ an image. The ‘2C’ of the title is echoed in the poem when Anna writes that:

so that could mean
a scene in 2D

thinking process is an important book full of finely crafted poems by a writer and artist who has played a critical, if under appreciated, role in the Sydney and wider Australian cultural scene for many decades. There is a final image from poem ‘200’ which, for me, encapsulates the success of this collection:

but texture and colour can sing
like the traditional finger painted end papers
of old books
something beautiful to see and touch.

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is one of the founding editors of Rochford Street Review. His latest collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in 2016.

thinking process is available from http://www.owlpublishing.com.au/chapbook-series.html

The Slipperiness of Meaning: Jean Kent launches ‘Instant History’ by Richard Tipping

Instant History, by Richard Tipping (Flying Island Books), was launched by Jean Kent at  Poetry at the Pub, in Newcastle on 18th April 2018.

Forty years ago — when I was such a new poet I would never have dared call myself one— I bought a book which is still one of my most treasured possessions. It was the catalogue for a touring exhibition of poems by Australian poets. There were only 75 poets included: one of them was Richard Tipping

 Richard had already published two collections by this time, and was a significant presence on the poetry scene. I didn’t know him personally, but I was certainly aware of his poetry. In the years since then, he became known both in Australia and internationally for his visual poems and his sculptural poems, many of which are now held in art galleries. But he has always also been a writer of finely crafted poems for the page, and Instant History is an important reminder of that.

In the beautifully produced, palm-sized format of all Flying Islands books, Instant History may look small, but in fact it is an extraordinarily large collection. Not only are there a lot of poems, their range is also vast. Thirty plus years of life and observation are distilled here, in the typical Tipping style, with dazzling wit, playfulness, precision and clarity.

 Richard’s delight in words is (to use one of his own words about the book) multifarious: simply reading the title and the names of the different sections – The Postcard Life, Rush Hour in the Poetry Library, Earth Heart, Kind of Yeah – suggests how he loves the slipperiness of meaning.

 Even the title Instant History can be understood in so many ways. Is it immediate history? The history of small instances? Or a nod to the way so much of our lives now is captured by the media and then forgotten?

Considering Richard’s gift for plucking the right couple of words out of air as if this is as natural as breathing, we might think it’s just another of his serendipitous , but very clever throwaway phrases … until we realize that there is also a poem in the book called ‘Instant History’.

This title, though, is not just ‘Instant History’. In brackets after that we find “Gulf War 1”. ‘Instant History (Gulf War 1)’ is a vividly shocking recreation of the way television and on the spot reporters changed the recording and receiving of news about war. Now that the transmission of news, both personal and public, is as instant as a click on a Smart Phone, it is chilling to be reminded of this time when, suddenly, cameras “at the place of the Arabs’ are “filling houses across America with worry”, the President keeps repeating “Read my lips. This war/ is not about prime time television”, and

collateral language
keeps bobbing its head up
out of the bloodied sand

where bodies have become pink mist
swirling in data smog.


Richard has been a film maker, visual artist and musician, as well as a poet, and his talents in all these areas are obvious in the poems. He has also travelled extensively, so not surprisingly there is a global awareness in much of his writing. There are poems of social and political commentary, postcards from everywhere, riddles, lyrics, meditations … and so many memorable phrases.  

I don’t have time tonight to offer more than a small glimpse into the surprises and treasures Instant History contains. But I’d like to mention one of my favourite poems from the travel section.

‘Snap’, is the poetic equivalent of tourist snap shots on a trip from London to Tokyo, interspersed with reflections on how “to find the Tao”. Moments all through the trip are observed with photographic clarity, giving glimpses of the world, gone in seconds, but vivid. There are acutely observed progressions from the confinement within the plane – “Jumbo shivering vast fatness / Dinners warming in the microwave” to the almost hallucinatory brilliance of scenes on the ground, at last, in Japan: 

…………….Globular persimmons, orange weights
glowing in bare branches

Old man, bowing to a crowd
of worn stone Buddhas.
Etched shadows on crystal moss

 and the wonderfully unexpected end, where

 …………….One hundred bobbing nuns
all laugh at once”

 In this poem, blank white space on the page gives a sense of time passing, or past. The way poems look on the page is important all through this book. It’s something I especially admire about Richard’s work. He also has a natural ear for the way words work, and there are some wonderful, pithy expressions of both the way language can degenerate into inarticulateness, and the power it has to work magic if we are alert to its possibilities—the way, for instance, a poem can be condensed to

…..a single

of tensile energy
transmitted on the tongue.”

 There are also tantalizing examples in Instant History of Richard’s typographic and sculptural poems, including one which is in the grounds of Lake Macquarie Art Gallery. This ‘earth sculpture’ consists of bricks laid into the grass in a circle. From the air, the bricks clearly form letters, which spell out Richard’s title of the work: ‘HEAR THE ART (EARTH HEART)’. There are no gaps between the letters, so if you are at ground level, you have to walk slowly around the circle to make sense of it … Other words then start to form – like ‘HEART’ and ‘EARTH’ and ‘HEARTH’. It’s a classic Richard Tipping concrete poem—surprising, enigmatic, charming and clever.

This poem in the earth is much loved by the swallows that live by the lake—they swoop and dive and circle around the bricks, “quick-dancing in the rising wind”, as Richard aptly describes them in a related poem.

In this book as a whole, I think there is also a dazzling combination of aerial views and close attention at ground level. Instant History is a book to dip into, like the swallows, for light-hearted joy, but it is also a complex, comprehensive response to the experience of living in our times, a ‘his-story’ which rewards careful, serious reading.

  – Jean Kent


Jean Kent is the author of eight books of poetry. Her most recent books are The Hour of Silvered Mullet (Pitt Street Poetry, 2015) and Paris in my Pocket (PSP, 2016), a selection of her poems from an Australia Council residency in Paris. With Kit Kelen, in 2014 Jean co-edited A Slow Combusting Hymn: Poetry from and about Newcastle and the Hunter Region. Samples of her poems and occasional jottings are on her website http://jeankent.net/

Instant History is available from https://asmacao.org/publications/instant-history/ 

Featured Writers from ‘To End All Wars’: Biographical Notes

!Gisela Nittel 2012

Gisela Nittel (2012)

Gisela Sophia Nittel was inspired to start writing poetry after completing her PhD on the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann. She is an active member of three poetry groups in Sydney, and her poems have been published in Australian Poetry Journal, Going Down Swinging, Australian Poetry Collaboration, Quadrant, Yours&Mine and Tamba. Gisela has an ongoing research interest in post-war German poets, whose work she also enjoys translating.



!Judy Johnson photo credit Judy Johnson

Judy Johnson. photo taken by Judy Johnson

Judy Johnson has published six poetry books and several chap books. She’s won many prizes for individual poems, and for collections, including the Wesley Michel Wright Prize (twice) and the Victorian Premier’s Award for poetry. Her work was also shortlisted in the WA Premier’s and NSW Premier’s Awards. She taught Creative Writing part time for several years at the University of Newcastle and is one of four editors for a 25-year retrospective Contemporary Australian Poetry published by Puncher and Wattmann in 2016.


!Andy Kissane photo credit Michael Reynolds

Andy Kissane. photo taken by Micheal Reynolds

Andy Kissane has published a novel, a book of short stories, The Swarm, and four books of poetry. Radiance (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014) was shortlisted for the Victorian and Western Australian Premier’s Prizes and the Adelaide Festival Awards. He was the winner of the 2017 Tom Collins Prize for Poetry. He has read his work in Ireland, England, Austria and many venues in Australia. He is currently working on a verse novel and a short story cycle. http://andykissane.com






Angela Gardner

Angela Gardner is the author of Parts of Speech (UQP, 2007); Views of the Hudson (2009) and The Told World (2014) both from Shearsman UK; and Thing & Unthing (Vagabond, 2014) as well as three published collaborations. Recently she has been published in Blackbox Manifold, The Long Poem and Tears in the Fence, UK; Axon, Hecate, Rabbit and Cordite; West Branch and Yale Review USA. She has received a Churchill Fellowship, an Australia Council Literature Residency and project grant, and the Thomas Shapcott Prize. She edits at www.foame.org. ‘Ilium’ (after Sidney Nolan’s Gallipoli series) first appeared in APJ 3.1. and was later published in The Told World.


A selection of four poems from To End All Wars (Puncher and Whattman, 2018):

‘Parallels of latitude’- Gisela Sophia Nittel
‘The Sestina Shot for Desertion’- Judy Johnson
‘Raking the Powder, 1943’- Andy Kissane
‘Ilium’- Angela Gardner

To End All Wars, edited by Dael Allison, Kit Kelen, Anna Couani and Les Wicks, is available from Puncher and Wattmann



Featured Writer Jennifer Maiden: excerpts from ‘Appalachian Fall’, ‘Play with Knives: Five’, and ‘Selected Poems: 1967-2018’

Rich Men’s Houses

I have quoted myself once already in a poem,
Uses of Live Odds, that poor men don’t belong
in rich men’s houses. I said it first in an essay,
Death by Persona, about John Forbes. I say
he spent too much time in the houses of those
friends financially better off than he was.
I will tell you how I witnessed the Luna Park
Fire, because I’m thinking bleakly of those
new things I know about it: Lionel Murphy
being friends with the crime boss of Sydney,
Abe Saffron, who is said to have ordered it
so that he could take over the land, a set up
to be approved by the Labour Party. Poor men
are a danger in rich men’s houses. But then
when the fire burned the ghost train, a man
and some children, I was young. I saw it when
I’d had to transfer an opera ticket from my
usual cheap matinees to a sleekly wealthy
First Night of The Girl of The Golden West. It was
the only time I saw Donald Smith sing, his voice
less harsh than the recordings, much more tender
in focus to his soprano, directed only to her,
as if a small fat bald man were ideal lover.
We’ve moved into triplets: I must be nervous.
There was reason to be nervous, but the guess
I had then was only about some fire as such, if
intuitively looking at the exits, fearing smoke.
When it was late and we had left the Opera House,
there was a light reflected in the Harbour
like the shuddering of autumn leaves on tar.
And no one left the pier. One followed their gaze
and saw the flames three times the height of the head,
and clown’s face leer underneath. Next day the dead
were numbered. But I remember the strange tallness
of the pure thick flames, no blackness and no breath
of creeping smoke: all looked intentional.
Someone else there that night was Phil Hammial,
who was a carnival hand. Many of these were out
of work a long time, but he may have been too close
to really see the nature of the beast. I was across
enough water to measure the scope. Poor men
do not belong in rich men’s houses.

-Jennifer Maiden

‘Rich Men’s Houses’ was published in Appalachian Fall (Quemar Press, 2018).


Solstice Eve

It was the eve of winter solstice in Australia. Silkie
seemed still safe with the Lithgow Coven, was still eating
bits of the vegan feast they were preparing. In Mt Druitt,
Clare’s mother, Coral, hugged the baby Corbyn closer
and sang to his hair some lullaby in a murmur
like the soft sea at Thirroul outside a window, probably
the sound, Clare thought, in which he was conceived.
She was lulled in a cold armchair with a cup of tea,
which she caressed lingeringly with her fingers,
as it was warmth from her mother, but relieved
that Corbyn like the tea was a conduit now
for the illusive love between them. Perhaps she
was conceived in the same sound, she drowsily
remembered when she was a baby the lullaby
Coral sang next to her cot as much the same noise
as the croonings from the bedroom when her mother
placated one angry husband or another.
.                   Clare’s second-last stepfather
killed himself when she was in prison for her murder
of her younger siblings. George had told her later
using the truth as he did then like a hammer.
But she had never felt she was the cause.
Nor had her mother been the cause of her deaths.
Near her arm there was a square fan-heater, flame effect.
Paper on wire inside turned round, as if the breeze
blew delicate flames on ashes. It also had a mutter
like immortal sea, the room’s noises swirled together
with the midnight wind outside to slow the heart
until the air was beyond time and space. I wonder,
she considered, if this is when and how
I should talk to my mother about jealousy.
Jealousy, too strong for just one object was searing
like an amputation again inside her body,
at some apex of feeling and lack of feeling,
in a skin that was unchosen and imprisoned.
Their gazes relaxed at last in meeting, briefly.
Then they both looked down to concentrate on speech.
Clare said, ‘I don’t know if jealousy is a simple matter.
Do I want to be the baby in your arms, or the you he
trusts and nestles into maybe over there as much
as he does me? If I were only one of you, is that enough
to soothe me? It wasn’t that you didn’t care enough, but
there were always others. You asked me to babysit,
and not go to the movie. I knew at the time you thought
you were helping me to love them, letting me be you,
as if my ego boundaries were too narrow.’ Her mother
said, ‘When you brought up children then they told you
that they learn to love by having responsibility, as if
all the numb ones needed were pet rabbits. I never
thought you did it on purpose.’ The solstice
rain fogged like filmy swaddling on the window.
.             In Coral’s accustomed arms, the baby
stretched away arms-length: bored, fickle or understanding
his mother’s defeated sadness. Glow, from wire and paper,
flickered on him as Clare took him back in keeping.

-Jennifer Maiden

Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Solstice Eve’ was published in Play With Knives: Five: George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds: a novel in prose and verse (Quemar Press, 2018, pp.105-107).


Mary Rose

One thing among the many things I love
about Gen Y is that they’re ready to accept
transgender in anything, as if Caitlyn Jenner
was the best fan fiction ever. I’m thinking of Emily Bronte
having baked the bread for her family,
charging over the moors, with a rapturous dog
and a headful of Heathcliff and Cathy. I’m thinking
of the first and one of the best English
novels, Defoe’s Roxana, written in a saucy
female first person: never marry a fool, she says,
ladies, whatever: you must never marry a fool. I’m
thinking of Alfred Hitchcock, after Marnie, eager
to film Barrie’s Mary Rose. He’d seen the play
in England as a boy: in England, where the police
locked him as a child in a cell, to frighten
any trace of crime away, his parents quite okay
with that: Oh, God. The plot of Mary Rose
is that a little girl on a remote Scots island goes
AWOL into mystery, returns the same, but later
visits as young bride with baby, does
the moonlight flit forever, until one
day her grown-up son returns to find
her, by accident: the child-ghost-mother,
perching on his knee: a little ‘ghostie’,
transcending any fear. I think, from memory,
they part again, but everything seems better. He
should have made that movie, despite
studio screams about money. After Marnie,
he was opened like an oyster in the dark. The Hitchcock
blonde, of course, is Hitchcock, hence
his tendency to beat her, but now here
Marnie was allowed an understanding, maybe
relief from retribution: we escape
those hours in the killing cell at last. I’m
thinking of Gen Y with real thanksgiving. When I
was young and used male first person in my
novels, my feminist critics – as if I wasn’t one –
were horrified that I seemed to want to be
a dull man when I was still really such an
interesting real-life woman. Really. Now they’ve
grown old as me, some still seem to disparage
transgender as if they had monopoly
.                            austerely
on anything female, or indeed maybe
on all things that can stop the living body
claiming its other half in any way.  Gen Y
would have no problem with moorbound Emily
in perfect English hymn metre writing ‘There let
thy bleeding branch atone’, or Keats, becoming
Lamia so he could face the autumn, writing ‘You
must be mine to die upon the rack
if I want you’ to an unfazed Fanny Brawne. The psyche
well-expressed splits like an atom. It’s energy
flies wild as the unconfined electrons
of lightning finding home.

-Jennifer Maiden

Mary Rose’ was published in Selected Poems: 1967-2018 (Quemar Press, 2018).

Jennifer Maiden photo Katharine Margot Toohey

Jennifer Maiden, Penrith, N.S.W., 2018. photographer: Katharine Margot Toohey.

Jennifer Maiden was born in Penrith, NSW. She has had 29 books published – 23 poetry collections and 6 novels. She has won 3 Kenneth Slessor Prizes, 2 C. J. Dennis Prizes, overall Victorian Prize for Literature, Harri Jones Prize, Christopher Brennan Award, 2 Melbourne Age Poetry Book of Year, overall Melbourne Age Book of Year, and ALS Gold Medal. She was shortlisted for Griffin International Poetry Prize. In 2018, Quemar Press published her Play With Knives quintet of novels, Appalachian Fall poetry collection and Selected Poems: 1967-2018. Quemar will publish brookings: the noun in 2019.


Featured Writer Jennifer Maiden: Three New Poems
Featured Writer Jennifer Maiden: Biographical Note

Appalachian Fall, Selected Poems: 1967-2018, and Play With Knives: Five: George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds: a novel in prose and verse are available for purchase from Quemar Press and selected bookshops.


Featured Writer Jennifer Maiden: Biographical Note

Jennifer Maiden photo Katharine Margot Toohey

Jennifer Maiden, Penrith, N.S.W., 2018. photographer: Katharine Margot Toohey.

Jennifer Maiden was born in Penrith, NSW. She has had 29 books published – 23 poetry collections and 6 novels. She has won 3 Kenneth Slessor Prizes, 2 C. J. Dennis Prizes, overall Victorian Prize for Literature, Harri Jones Prize, Christopher Brennan Award, 2 Melbourne Age Poetry Book of Year, overall Melbourne Age Book of Year, and ALS Gold Medal. She was shortlisted for Griffin International Poetry Prize. In 2018, Quemar Press published her Play With Knives quintet of novels, Appalachian Fall poetry collection and Selected Poems: 1967-2018. Quemar will publish her next collection, brookings: the noun early next year.

Featured Writer Jennifer Maiden: Three New Poems
Featured Writer Jennifer Maiden: excerpts from Appalachian Fall, Play With Knives: Five, and Selected Poems: 1967-2018

Appalachian Fall, Selected Poems: 1967-2018, and Play With Knives: Five: George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds: a novel in prose and verse are available for purchase from Quemar Press and selected bookshops.


ISSUE 24. Double Issue October 2017 – March 2018

photographers-shadow 3

Photographer’s Shadow. Anna Couani. Photograph 2017



  • Featured Writers:



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Published by Rochford Street Press
ISSN 2200-9922

“An art work has to be approached—there are the footsteps”: Judith Rodriguez launched ‘Footsteps’ by Greg Rochlin at Collected Works Bookshop

Judith Rodriguez launches Footsteps by Greg Rochlin (Littlefox Press, 2016), 2.00pm, 22 October 2016 at Collected Works Bookshop

Footsteps A5 cover art etch linesHow long have I known Greg Rochlin? I don’t know. There are friendships where you’ve known someone for years but never felt you’ve known them. And there are those you’ve met, in class, on a committee, at a dinner, and they become part of your friendship circle; your life is changed that bit by them, they expand your world. Greg is one of those.

I can’t actually remember the CAE group he was in. But at Yak and then at the Moat meetings of poets, he’s an irregular regular, whose poems always create interest and sometimes discussion.

Should I add that Greg takes part in the Melbourne productions of plays in French? An extra language is an extra string to your bow; it opens up another literature in the medium in which it is best met—its own language. And it gets you thinking constructively about language, because other languages behave differently from English.

Greg is the only student poet I’ve known who has proposed a new and difficult poem form, the villanellette. It is, if you like, a parody of the villanelle that shows both its problems and its finesse. A trial and critique that both entertains and exercises the poet.

Now we have Footsteps—what a modest title, by a poet who understands that one is always going somewhere, making a fresh start, directing the words to be different from say, just conversation or a business mission statement. An art work has to be approached—there are the footsteps.

– Judith Rodriguez

Judith Rodriguez is a Melbourne poet. Her recent books are Manatee (2007) and The Hanging of Minnie Thwaites (2012). She wrote the libretto for Moya Henderson’s opera Lindy which was performed at the Sydney Opera House in 2002. She taught at La Trobe University (1969–1985) and Deakin University (1998–2003). Judith is a recipient of the Christopher Brennan Award.


Featured Writer Darby Hudson: ‘WALK’



“To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home…”

-Charles Baudelaire on the flâneur (The Painter of Modern Life, Le Figaro, 1863)

The way you walk is your walk.
From a great distance, you can recognise your mum or brother by the shape of their walk, a mile away.

WALK 2 Darby Hudson

Your walk is your DNA in motion.
Your walk is your spirit saddling your body like a horse and taking it for a ride.

WALK 3 Darby Hudson

When you meet someone for the first time and they walk towards you,
you witness their vulnerability though the nakedness of space –
you see their whole body unconsciously attempt to own the earth in the face of impossibility.
It’s why when you see someone with a swagger, or a
.                    dance
.       move,
it gives you a sense of sorrow.
These are moves for an earth unowned, a life unlived.
But it’s why a walking conversation with a good friend is one of
the loveliest things possible.
And you are never alone.
Not alone at all.
If you want to summon the familiarity of your spirit, all you have to do is
walk the earth.
Even if it’s down to the shops.

WALK 1 Darby Hudson

-Darby Hudson

WALK is an illustrated poem. The full text of the poem, ‘WALK’, has been published in Rochford Street Review along with a number of illustrated pages from Darby Hudson’s mixed media book with the author’s permission.

Darby Hudson is a writer and artist from Melbourne, Australia. His poetry has been published in wet concrete, old trees, thin air, Best Australian Poems, Meanjin, and Cordite. His little book WALK, an illustrated poem, was independently published in 2017.

WALK is available from Readings Bookstores online


Featured Writer Darby Hudson: Biographical Note

Darby Hudson pic

Darby Hudson. self portrait (2017).


Darby Hudson is a writer and artist from Melbourne, Australia. His poetry has been published in wet concrete, old trees, thin air, Best Australian Poems, Meanjin, and Cordite. His little book WALK, an illustrated poem, was independently published in 2017.

WALK is available from Readings Bookstores online

Featured Writer Darby Hudson: ‘WALK’


“Dark Convicts is an enterprising and exemplary work”: Tony Voss reviews ‘Dark Convicts’ by Judy Johnson

Dark Convicts: Ex-slaves on the First Fleet by Judy Johnson (UWA Publishing, 2017).

Dark_convicts_coverThe subtitle of Dark Convicts identifies these men (as it happens they are all male) as ex-slaves on the First Fleet: eleven black prisoner-pioneers who are among ‘the founders of Australia’, as the continental commonwealth would become known. The site of their enslavement had been what would in its turn become known as the United States of America.

They had gained their freedom by enlisting in the British Imperial and Loyalist forces during the War of Independence. Some of their fellows had been resettled in Canada and other British colonies, but many of the over 8,000 fugitive slaves who defected were shipped over to a new life in London. They had left the caste of slavery, but they could not escape the class of poverty. In the metropolis, they had no access to charity, no respect from their emancipators and little chance of gainful and dignified employment. In desperation, no doubt, many turned to crime.

Ironically, it was that decision that admitted them to the relentless record-keeping of the British Imperial and mercantile machine of state and so preserved at least the skeleton of their stories for this poet to revisit and recapture in this engaging and moving book. The substantial sequence of nearly fifty poems is interspersed with a prose commentary which identifies speakers and protagonists, sustains the narrative and contextualises the action.

Judy Johnson is directly engaged in this story since she is descended from two of the Dark Convicts, John Martin and John Randall. Martin married the daughter of his best friend Randall and their descendants now probably number 25,000. If any of them read poetry, they will be proud of the achievement of their congener. The sequence of poems concentrates on ‘the flavour of the life and times’ of the two ancestors. The poems evoke much of the detail and general condition of the early years of the New South Wales settlement.

Martin, sentenced at the Old Bailey to seven years transportation. He spent three years in Newgate and two years aboard the hulk Ceres (remember Great Expectations), where Randall was also held. It was there the two probably became friends. By the time Martin reached Sydney Cove, he had only eighteen months of his sentence to serve but had to wait until 1792 to be restored to liberty and granted 50 acres of the Northern Boundary Farm, Parramatta. His conduct had been exemplary, and he had among other duties been a member of the night watch. On the same day, Randall who had served as one of the governor’s three ‘game shooters’, and thus enjoyed some freedom of movement and encounter with the indigenous people, received a grant of 60 adjacent acres.

However, not all the Dark Convicts settled as happily as Martin and Randall. All suffered drought and famine: most succumbed to scurvy, dysentery or venereal disease. Many, Martin among them, were mercilessly flogged for minor infringements of whatever the code was. Within the first few years, several men and women were executed. In June of the first year, two young men, both in their early twenties, were hanged. Samuel Peyton for the theft of ‘shirts, stockings and combs’, and Edward Corbet for attempting to escape into the bush.

Judy Johnson neatly captures the coordinates of imperial rule. Her poem on the first church service is called ‘Church Tree’, the poem on the first hangings is called ‘Death Tree’. Equally telling is John Martin’s ironic recall of Governor Philip’s own words in ‘John Martin’s Twenty-Five Lashes’: ‘there will be no slavery in New South Wales. The sequence maintains a balance between details of experience, observation and sensation on the one hand and the overall purpose and shape and moral ambiguity of the enterprise on the other.

The story told in Dark Convicts is preserved in many sources, and the poet is scrupulous in her acknowledgements, italicising quotations from the journals and books she has used. The power of the work, however, emanates from the poet’s disposition of the information and of the words of many of the original First Fleeters. The story covers nearly forty years, from just before the war of 1776, to 1812, when John Martin, 57, marries Mary, 19, daughter of John Randall and Mary Butler.

The poet’s basic decision on the poem’s form was to give it a kind of unity, or homogeneity, by settling ‘on a thirteen spoken-syllable line’. It sounds like a rough-and-ready metre, but the brave decision does seem, albeit unevenly, to pay off. All the poems are subjected to this measure, yet the poet achieves variety and liveliness in several prosodic ways. Many of the poems are given to the different voices of the participants (the two central characters, other convicts, the parson, the governor, soldiers, and officials). Stanzaic form varies from poem to poem, and the poet makes telling use of internal and, occasionally, end rhyme. There are also some skilful uses of quite strict prosodic forms.

The first poem, for example, is ‘George Washington’s Lost Slave Villanelle’, in which the General urges resistance against the British, or else the Americans will ‘be subjugated much like the slaves we own’. The thirteen-syllable line seems to struggle with the rhyme scheme and refrain of the verse form. However, the awkwardness of the resulting rhythm is right for what is a compromised defence of slavery recalling Johnson’s question: ‘How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’

In ‘Eleven Black Scoundrels Bound for the First Fleet’ which is ‘to be sung to the tune of The Twelve Days of Christmas’, the strict line-length doesn’t appear to harmonise with the form of the song. However, in ‘Farewell and Adieu Old England’, the strict line length is matched to a form of rhymed and half-rhymed quatrains which gives us an engaging sea-shanty. ‘Black Caesar’s Pantoum or The Bear is Hungry’, a poem spoken by David Collins, the Judge Advocate, about the incorrigible giant who became Australia’s first bushranger (eventually shot dead by a bounty-hunting fellow convict), is a triumph. A pantoum (also ‘pantun’) is a Malay verse form composed of quatrains, using assonance and a complex pattern of line repetition. Judy Johnson handles the form deftly and suits it to the speaker’s thoughts, combining direct quotation from Collins with her own imagined words.

Apart from the formal and prosodic pleasures of poetry, Dark Convicts testifies to the poet’s feel for and delight in words themselves. George Worgan, surgeon on the Sirius, writing home ‘On the Pleasures of Exploration’, speaks of ‘a bottle or two of O be joyful thrust into our knapsacks’. The ‘Game Shooters for the Governor’ talk of the ‘frizzen’ and the ‘flash pan’ of their weapon, the flintlock. Although Black Caesar’s assassin is ‘No pudding-sleeve/ parson’, he does intend ‘to conduct a service with/ his musket’.

Dark Convicts is an enterprising and exemplary work. It should engage many Australian general readers and will certainly interest both the readers and the writers of poetry.

-Tony Voss


Tony Voss retired from a University teaching career in South Africa in 1995 and emigrated to Sydney the following year. He continues to publish academic research papers and poetry, mostly in South African journals.

Read an extract from Dark Convicts: Ex-slaves on the First Fleet

Dark Convicts: Ex-slaves on the First Fleet by Judy Johnson is available from UWA Publishing