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
dot

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

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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/ 

A Common Engagement with Understanding: Martin Langford Launches ‘Engraft’ by Michele Seminara

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Martin Langford launched Michele Seminara’s first collection of poetry, Engraft (Island Press 2016), at the Friend in Hand Hotel, Glebe NSW, on Saturday 6th February 2016.

Michele Seminara signing copies of Engraft at the launch. Photograph Naida Entwistle.

Michele Seminara signing copies of Engraft at the launch. Photograph Naida Entwistle.

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Writing has a complex relationship with Buddhism. It is so weighted with the dirt and doubt and slew of ordinary living that it can never hope to walk in that territory where one is free of such encumbrances – the territory, that is, that Buddhism aims for. For this reason, some schools of Buddhism dismiss the arts altogether. What the two do share, however, is a common engagement with understandings. They may come at them from slightly different routes, and neither of them may quite have understanding as their ultimate aim – there is a point in Buddhism where one hopes to move beyond one’s understandings, whereas in literature, the aim is usually to take those understandings and work them into some sort of overall aesthetic experience – but both revolve, in important though different ways, around that fragile, verbal confrontation.

I was thinking of these similarities and differences reading Michele Seminara’s new book, Engraft. Many of the poems are attempts to shape the forces at play in experience in a credible and accurate way: in short, to understand them. ‘Contagion’ (p.27) tracks the way an argument plays out in the dynamic of a family. ‘Bleak Love’ (p.24) charts the defensive but self-defeating measures people can take when they are hurt. ‘Lotus’ (p. 35) considers the unsought and unanticipated effects a parent can have on children:

Tying your nooses around your necks each morning
strangling yourselves a little more each day:
obediently becoming (for me)
what I never wanted
you to be.

And then there are poems which try to understand the effects that time and loss have on our lives:

Everything’s

so full of lasts,
quivering, on the brink.
Time thrusts forward.
The body vehicle will not cease
decaying, children growing
ever distant, their cords
unravelling to unbearable lengths
as we circumvent this world –

Surely there must be a limit?
(There is not.)

Death, inbuilt in those I’ve born
is yet half grown in me;
close to flowering powerfully out
of my grandmother’s powdery furrows.

Routine lends the illusion of solace:
tranquillised to truth we sleep
fitfully, swaddled against horror.

 

1Engraft_Cropped_Cover_02.12.15 (2) (1)There is considerable overlap with Buddhist perspectives here: the long views, the sense of change without limit. Some of the language is Buddhist: “The body vehicle will not cease/decaying”. But there is nothing here of Buddhist equanimity. These “lasts” are overwhelming. The distances between us become “unbearable”. The sense of flux is the same, whether one looks at it through Buddhist perspectives, or in terms of the hard-won understandings of the poem. But the effect on the reader is one of weight: of the grief of these losses; of the pain they cause. At this point, perhaps, I ought to declare myself and say that I trust this about art – and I trust it in these poems. I appreciate the impulse of the Buddhist to move beyond this, and I can believe that people find ways of being able to do so. But perhaps because it is the world that I share too; because I – like others here – will have experienced such things, this is a world I can enter as one I belong to, one in which I don’t have to keep asking myself whether I am worthy to be travelling in such territory.

And so the reader can enter poems of frustration about the constriction of daily
tasks, such as “Dog” (p.6) where the “World jerks my neck, master to/ slave, and drags me/ from world’s wonderment”. There are difficult, personal poems from Michele’s past, such as “Epistle To My Paedophile”. There are poems of love, and love’s arguments. One section, “Mother”, is given over to pieces governed or prompted by the author’s habitation of that role. (Such poems participate in one of the most important recent additions to the list of things we can write about. It is still astonishing to think that, for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, all the drama and dailiness of motherhood had somehow been invisible to the imagination, as if there was nothing worth saying about it.) There are plenty of poems which play with language too, where the focus may not be on the weight of experience, but where the play of words is saturated in it anyhow: found poems and erasure poems and remixes.

I don’t want to suggest that Michele is content with these things. Like everyone else, she wishes to gesture beyond it. “I crave some beauty to buoy me”, she says, in “Zhang Zhou Dreams in Pink” (p. 37). That is the poet speaking. But before that, in the same poem, the Buddhist in her had written:

I suck the pink flowers off the tree
into the negative space of my heart:
they spear towards me –
reverse Buddha blossoms –
transformed by mind’s Maras into weapons.

There is a tension here, between the Buddhist perspectives, and the saturation in the life of the self that underpins most western literary habits, and it is a productive tension. There is a case for saying that what writers really write about are the things they can’t resolve: there is no point in dwelling on what has been sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. It underpins the whole book, the way Michele not only has such good instincts for the weight of ordinary things, but the fact that she seeks to think beyond them as well: that she honours both elements of a tension that is so difficult to resolve.

Long may she continue the difficult juggling act between owning her experiences, and mistrusting them, between being at home in the life of the self, and staring right  through it.

 – Martin Langford

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Martin Langford’s most recent collection, Ground, is avialble from Puncher and Wattmann https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/ground

Engraft can be ordered from the Island Press website  http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm or you can get Paypal and Direct Debit details by emailing Michele at micheleseminara@hotmail.com.com

Please contact us if you are interested in reviewing Engraft  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/about-rochford-street-review/contact-rochford-street-review/