Featured Writers: Four Poems from ‘To End All Wars’

Parallels of latitude

In one version of our story, Gavrilo Princip,
.    named by his devout parents after the Archangel
Gabriel, dies in infancy – like six of his siblings.
.    In another version he survives, and applies
himself so well at primary school, the headmaster
.    gives him a volume of Serbian epic verse.
Roused by his reading, young Gavrilo,
.    born into a long line of subsistence farmers
in a remote Bosnian hamlet called Obljaj,
.    spends the rest of his life writing poetry.

Then there is the version where Gavrilo follows
.    in his father’s footsteps and becomes a zealous
nationalist. Expelled from school in 1912 for protesting
.    against Austro-Hungarian rule, our promising insurgent
absconds to Belgrade, where he soon falls in with fellow
.     revolutionaries – or ‘terrorists’ as we prefer to say today.
Gavrilo joins their training camp at Vranje but is killed
.    while handling ordinance the group was using
to rehearse their next assassination plot.

In a completely different version, Gavrilo stays in Obljaj
.    to become a teacher, who falls incurably in love
with Anna, the best friend of a distant cousin.
.    The embers of Gavrilo’s murderous rebellion are now
slaked by floods of passion for his bride, and nascent love
.    for their first child due early in the spring.
In this version, presumptive heir to empire Archduke
.    Franz Ferdinand and his new wife, Sophie,
survive the drive through Sarajevo, felicitously seated
.    in the second car of the imperial convoy.
Not the fourth, which is blown up by a hand grenade
.    thrown by the Vranje band as planned.
The intact royal car still stalls after taking a wrong turn
.    into the street where Gavrilo would have been that day,
ready with a gun, to accept this gift of fate – but for Anna,
.    who could have spurned him for another, and did not.

And so Kaiser Wilhelm’s never drawn into protracted war
.    by his Habsburg ally. The cousins on the thrones of Britain,
Germany and Russia remain friends for many years.
.    And Anzac boots don’t touch the shores of the Gallipoli
peninsula. Instead, ten decades on, squadrons of retirees
.    from Australia and New Zealand swarm from buses
every summer to trek the Dardanelles. To fill their phones
.    with photos they post on social media as proof
of yet another bucket-list adventure: this time the must-see
.    rugged ridges guarding open and as yet unspoiled beaches
north of Kabatepe on the Aegean coastline of a land
.    where Ottoman and Islamic heritage live easily enough
alongside western influence – in this latest variation
.    on our hypothetical narration.

Many of our travellers then fly on to France.
.    And after Paris they descend on regions like the Somme.
Hungry for rustic charm and local produce, they practise
.    high school French on villagers, who forgive Antipodean
vowels when asked about the choicest cycling routes
.    and picnic arbours – locals and tourists equally oblivious
to the treachery of tunnels, and the misery of mustard gas
.    and trench foot. And the abandoned corpses speared
on endless concertinas of barbed wire, lacing the horizon
.    of a ravaged swampland. One hundred years ago
in the final version of our story.

– Gisela Sophia Nittel

 

The Sestina Shot for Desertion

‘There is not a sign of life on the horizon, and a thousand signs of death. Not a blade of grass, not an insect; once or twice a day the shadow of a big hawk scenting carrion.’

Wilfred Owen in a letter to his mother 4th February 1917.

You were so young
and happy at first in the trenches of honour.
With no bugle or drum to sound your own beauty.
It’s a marvel your singing kept the tune straight.
Going over the top was a fizz in the blood.
All those excited, patriotic bodies

falling over the other decomposing bodies,
unburied. Maggots older than time in the eyes of the young.
Climbing over the top descended to a blood
sport.  And you trapped in the hell of those trenches of honour.
It’s a marvel your courage kept the bayonets straight.
Some see bullet holes as flesh-roses of beauty

or Owen’s ‘full-opened sea-anemone.’ Beautiful
loyalties face-down, kissing mud. Broken bodies
cleaned up by pure bravery. But history can’t keep a straight
face. Not when it comes to sacrificing our young.
It’s hunger for violence that lies behind all that honour.
Ask the carrion birds, those dull porters of blood,

what they think of the Great War. How the Hun’s blood
tasted no different to ours.  How the cruel beauty
of kill-or-be-killed pulls the trigger of honour.
Well, I have sons, and see no honour in piles of dead bodies.
Human nature’s a fucked-up sestina at heart. No young
doubt, ambivalence or straight

up compassion. No commitment to incorruptible beauty.
Just endless repetition. Clichés galore. It’s up to the young
to break pride’s spirograph.  Embrace the straight
line of peace, no matter the cost.
Ignore the compulsion to go round in circles of blood
for the sake of honour.

Oust the old men of power who hunger for War,
and then when they get it, take 6 words as gospel:
.   young
.             straight
.                    beauty
.                           blood
.                                    bodies
.                                           honour

then arrange them in 39 rows of cannon fodder.

-Judy Johnson

 

Raking the Powder, 1943

Every day I remove my ring, brooch
and bobby pins, draw the blue serge sack
over my head, tie the laces of my special
shoes—shoes without nails in the soles—
walk up the duckboard ramp and punch
the bundy to begin my shift. The powder
comes to me like a lump of wet clay.
I weigh it, then place it on a heated table
on a handkerchief of Fuji silk, as a bride
might spread her gown out over the bed
before dressing. Once it’s warmed, I load
the powder onto a trolley and wheel it
to the charging room. The machine has a plate
with holes like those on a salt cellar.
I slide a tray of caps under the shelf,
open the holes and brush the powder across
the top with a delicate velvet rake.
Push in too much powder and you’re history,
but there’s a war on, so I don’t think
about the danger. Occasionally the boss
takes us, the gelignite wrappers, the cordite
girls and the women who crimp the detonators
into the paddock for a safety drill.
One day he walked half a mile away,
dug something into the earth and marched back.
“This is what happens when you’re careless,”
he said, as grass shot into the sky and dirt
rained down on us. We were frightened and
terribly careful afterwards, but you never
think anything will happen to you. We were just
about to finish last Tuesday—you have to clean
the press and the pellets before you knock off—
when I heard this rumble. If it’s a pop
you ignore it, but when the floor moves
you know something is wrong. The blast stripped
the protective clothing off her—dress,
shoes, cap, everything but her undies were gone.
Stubble on her forehead like burnt hay.
Skin flaking off the way a dead moth crumbles
in your fingers. The foreman didn’t recognise her,
that’s how bad she was. I held her and said,
“you’ll be alright, love. We’ll have you
doing a foxtrot in no time.” She loved
to dance. She was barely conscious and had
no use for the truth. At least I managed to lie.

– Andy Kissane

 

Ilium

after Sidney Nolan’s Gallipoli Series

I

in the small shallows of midday
he bends to retrieve
fallen colours

slouch hat, bare chest
an emptied beach, flag against nothing
maybe a ship

out beyond the cut-throat rocks

walks the horses back into their shafts,
a ribbon of old picnic race tickets
worn as a shade to his dark face

smoke hazes their position
making the strappers nervous and sweaty
as the horses shift

II

the moment the guns fire
each horse stands
as if backed against bad weather

a range beyond human voice
attempts to hold the sky
to silence

even as it disappears

III

the horse is waterborne — legs kicking
neck a nebula in Andromeda
exploding shrapnel stars

he surveys the drainage
with its naked dead
the cliffs behind roseate and unhelpful

— it is Ilium unrecognisable

But for the crossfire
the man’s languid pose might be love-made
his naked face

untouched

as on a different beach, his lover
before the rain flattened
— or hit his left side

IV

cockade and plume ragged
the grasses on cold white sand
bend over their work

— driftwood in pyres

out there the ships are copping it

all the bright days, the burst
as swimming, they faced each incoming hit
of wave

their touching flesh beset
with exhaustion
bodies ripped in streaming light

— open
washed in blood, adrift
in limp animal-hipped shallows

V

in the act of firing a weapon
he searches for signs of the enemy
for death almost

beautiful

finds his slack arm holding lost shoes
drone and flash in all directions
the sky spilled

VI

into this two-up — unsaddled
the calm young
tread dirty air’s comet tail

the pillion flicks aside

one only is capable of moving
faceless, dog-tagged
held crutch and truss
to an armature of metal

they are parts of a gun
oiled to hollow downcast weight
of prosthetic

— weapon equal of the man

VII

in a moment of quiet entering the water
horse and rider are alert
for a trail of bubbles to surface

even here where rock or water belay
to knife point
the sea’s uninterrupted search

the world put in its place
distant, voided, cast into water
a horizon lacking solidity

VIII

they are limbed again, jaunted and weightless
no longer stilted to be heel-hauled
from open bodies of water

at play in some otherwhere

and the figure he crosses to
— already falling, gone ahead
dreams emptying like cargo lost at sea

the clean anonymous water
and he the sunlit swimmer
shield arm raised

no longer soldier nor anything from home.

-Angela Gardner

 


 

To End All Wars Cover

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

Featured Writers from To End All Wars: Biographical Notes

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

 

 

Listen to several of the poets included in the anthology To End All Wars read and discuss their poems on Earshot, Radio National

 

Questions, Ambiguities, Bodies: Simon Patton reviews ‘The Thin Bridge’ by Andy Jackson

The Thin Bridge by Andy Jackson. Whitmore Press, Geelong, 2014

andy jackson the thine bridgeWorthwhile poets are people who have found their own voice in the language of everyone else. Their use of words is distinctive, a distinction backed up by an original and poignant contact with the world. The originality of this voice does not have to be startling, or startlingly bizarre. It can be subtle, simple, nearly inconspicuous. Such is the case with Andy Jackson. There are significant quirks in the way he writes, but they don’t jump out from the page at you. They are the result of discoveries he has made in his long-term immersion in the processes of poetry and so have become second nature to his style, perfectly integrated into how he works.

For me, there are two fascinating poetic idiosyncrasies in The Thin Bridge. The first involves the use of questions. Jackson could be described as a poet who has asked himself What is a question and what can it do for a poem? A second intruiging device is his particular brand of ambiguity. This ambiguity is not the eye-catching kind achieved through a strenuous agitation of language (such as Brady Collar’s “even to constellations of cells / those curates of the inner world / fed by the long lit pipes of my veins” or Dael Allison’s “the crack of carapace underfoot the sole imperative”). More often than not, it involves the realization that everyday phrases can take on unsuspected significance when framed by a novel context. Both of these features add to our understanding of the resources of poetry; in the case of Andy Jackson, they also intersect with his interest in physical embodiment and the mystery of human corporeal nature.

Questions

By nature, questions make a direct appeal to the reader, a quality that gives them more urgency than statements. With statements, the reader has the leisure and the autonomy to judge their value without immediate pressure to engage; questions dramatically shorten this distance by addressing readers and demanding a response.

Throughout The Thin Bridge, Jackson finds other poetically significant ways to make use of questions. For example, “A Deer” opens with the question How to be lifted up from here? This use is basically reflexive: the speaker here is asking himself for a response which is then worked out (but not necessarily answered) in the rest of the poem. It is a kind of thinking aloud which kicks off with a general query. In “Two Portraits, No Black Rectangle”, questions function as a chorus, commenting after the event on the actions of the unsympathetic medical practitioner who plays a central role in the poem: “Can you move your boxers down just a little? / What does it matter what I felt? / Lift your chin up. That’s it. Just one more. / There were plenty more / but who’d prefer / the truth to relief?” Here, the questions also introduce a tinge of helplessness and bitterness. Jackson’s overall sensitivity to this kind of utterance is also displayed in the poem “A Language I Didn’t Know I Spoke”. After a moving encounter with a bird, Jackson describes the speaker’s return to mundane reality in the following terms: “As I leave, a group of hikers arrive, drawn / to the view, busily talking of other subjects. / I reply to their rhetorical greeting / without thinking . . .” He knows that their question implies no genuine interest in his well-being.

‘A Closed Window’ is a good extended example of Jackson’s use of questions:

You wake to a doctor, sitting where your leg would be.
How brave, they say, as if a body is to be endured.
Through a closed window — a wind-tossed tree.

You wanted to be normal, not to be reassured.
What is lost? An empty room soon fills with echoes.
How brave, they say, as if a body is to be endured,

you keep score, sitting in the stands. Who knows
what a nine-child home swallows with its noise?
What is lost? An empty room soon fills with echoes —

two girls, one lost at birth, and six growing boys.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be sung.
What a nine-child home swallows with its noise

is no more bitter than the taste of your own tongue.
Is a wood and plastic limb a tender, living thing?
There’s nothing to be ashamed, nothing to be sung.

They come at night — mask, needle, saw — calling . . .
You wake to no doctor. Sitting where your leg would be
is a wood and plastic limb. A tender, living thing

through a closed window — a wind-tossed tree.

What is lost? asks the first question, a true question in this case, but one addressed perhaps by the poem to itself as an announcement of its purpose and central focus. The issue is developed by the second question, Who knows what a nine-child home swallows with its noise? The form this time is rhetorical; by implication it suggests that, unquestionably, a great deal is lost. We can also note here that the question doesn’t really ask anything; instead, it functions in much the same way as an exclamation to indicate the high degree of bereftness: How much is swallowed in a nine-child home! But rather than labour the reader with harrowing accounts of distress and trauma, Jackson resorts to an intelligent mobilization of questions to coolly intimate rather than elaborately state.

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The repetition of What is lost? in the third stanza indirectly communicates the extent of the loss and possibly a sense of hopelessness. We often resort to unanswerable questions when we don’t know what to do with ourselves: Why me? we ask when baffled by an unfortunate turn of events. This leads us on to the poem’s final question: Is a wood and plastic limb a tender, living thing? The form of this question is again basically rhetorical; it certainly seems to suggest that the expected answer is No, of course not! At the same time, you might feel that there is a hint here of sarcasm or scorn: merely posing the question suggests how ridiculous it is to ask it in the first place, since the way it is phrased only emphasises the disgusting contrast between wood-plastic and tender-living. Interestingly, though, in the conclusion of the poem, there is a reminder to us that the opposition might not be so clear-cut: there is “wind” in a “window” and a tree, though made of wood, is obviously in its own way a tender, living thing. This neatly reminds us not to get trapped by the yes/no logic at work at the heart of this particular question.

‘A Closed Window’ artfully deploys questions to highlight its concerns and to draw the reader into a more active engagement with the plight it describes. By nature, the question is questing, and even when no answer is arrived at, there is a sense of progression towards an enhanced understanding of an important problem. Questions also lend Jackson’s poems a kind of thinking-on-one’s-feet quality and this contributes freshness and spontaneity. Questioning can also shift poems out of surface descriptiveness and into a demonstration of a more profound grasp of the situation. We see an instance of this in “Their Positions”, a poem about beggars in India that concludes as follows:

. . . By then,
the flinty echo of coins in
a metal cup is a memory. When

I do give something, somehow I expect
one of us to disappear. What is this

currency? I think, as a dog limps past,
lies down underneath a parked car.

In these lines, Jackson is trying to come to grips with terrible poverty. With the question — a true one this time — What is this currency? he attempts to understand why he feels that the act of giving somehow cancels out the opposites of relative wealth and indigence (a situation possibly mirrored in the final reposeful image of the mobile but impaired dog lying beneath the immobile but powerful car). The focus on currency suggests economic exchange, but Jackson wants to push the puzzle beyond the realm of money. The question becomes: What kind of exchange between people would remove the extremes of both over- and under-privilege? The poem provides no answer to this line of enquiry, but it arrives at a potential point of interrogation, the energy of which can fuel our own further investigations and reflections.

Unanswerable questions of this kind provoke us, tease us, infuriate us, — and may even spur us on to intuitive insight. In this regard, they are more productive than statements. They possess something of the quality of the koan, a Zen “exercise for the mind” for which Ernest Wood gives the following quaintly phrased but lively explanation:

All reasoning is a building on top — adding something to an existing and mentally seen edifice of knowledge. Then, if you are told to put in an attic underneath the cellar, you just don’t know how to go about it. But if the person who told you to do it were the Supreme Architect of the Universe, or it were your Zen Master — which comes to the same thing if you be facing your Master with true Zen faith — you try, and you go on trying until suddenly you have solved the problem (Zen Dictionary: 55).

Jackson poses his own koan in the final poem of The Thin Bridge, in which he also returns to the earlier question — now put indirectly — of What’s lost?:

The black bike someone left, locked up,
is daily deconstructed by theft. With each
walk past, you think — I could do with that,
a simplification, where what’s lost isn’t up to me.
Without knowing it, this is Coburg’s version
of a zen koan — where has the bike itself gone?
A mynah swoops and clips a pigeon, a plastic bag
becomes a flag on a figtree and a young man
stares into his laptop’s dim, flickering screen.
Now you can’t walk past the half-demolished
house — no roof or walls, only an empty frame
surrounding a fireplace. Memories not even
lavender-patterned wallpaper can hold onto
lift into the sky, like pollen or dust in reverse.

Jackson’s comparison is a playful one, but it serves as a stepping-stone to a preoccupation with stripping away the superfluities, false concepts, and rigid conditioning of the self. How much of ourselves can we lose and still be who we think we are? The answer to that, of course, must be wholly individual and worked out over a lifetime.

Ambiguity

You might have puzzled a little over the phrase Now you can’t walk past the half-demolished house in the second half of ‘The Bike Itself’. Initially, I read it as meaning that the speaker couldn’t bring himself to walk past the house because it pained him to see the place in its demolished state. However, I don’t think this is what Jackson is primarily on about; the verb can has nothing to do with individual ability. Instead, as we saw in the case of the bike, it is a question of objective reality: you can’t walk past the house because the house — reduced as it is to a fireplace surrounded by an empty frame — no longer exists in a way that qualifies it for that label in language. The house has been unhoused and the memories once associated with its material presence have been dispersed for ever.

The ambiguity is very gentle here, nearly imperceptible. Jackson’s unique sesnsibility enables him to realize the productive ambiguity in everyday phrases. You could say that there are no hidden meanings in his use of double-meanings; it’s not as if one meaning is somehow hidden behind another one or obscured. No, Jackson’s puns are more like optical illusions: they depend on the way you happen to be looking. If your perspective is in default mode, you will register the obvious meaning, but not necessarily the equally accessible other sense. This requires a shift of view-point.

What triggers an awareness of ambiguity? In ‘The Bike Itself’, there is a nagging feeling that the phrase doesn’t make enough sense in the context. There is something inadequate about it; it is out of character with the poet’s usual precision. This gets you thinking about the phrase and sets you off on a hunt for alternative interpretations. It’s unlikely that the line refers to some physical obstacle such as some form of temporary fencing that prevents a walk-by. So, by a process of sounding out the phrase you come to see that it can be taken in a different way. The quiet Zen context signalled by the word “koan” also suggests a metaphysical framework within which the phrase could be understood in a way that makes better sense, both aesthetically and intellectually.

The triggering is of a different order in the poem ‘On Being Sculpted’, in which Jackson exploits the ambiguity contained in a question. Will I ever be finished? the speaker asks, as he does his best to stay still for the artist at work. The poem has already made the artistic context clear, so we know that his question means When will this sculpture of me be finished? In this case the meaning is perfectly adequate, and yet, perhaps prepared by other questions in The Thin Line, we can’t help recognizing the fact that the line may mean more than the immediate context requires it to say. It may be that the process of art-making exposes the subject to his own sense of inadequacy. The phrase also reverberates with Jackson’s larger existential concerns about human capability and his refusal to accept that what we are is somehow set in stone.

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Like twins who enjoy swapping identities, Jackson tests the attention of the reader, especially with regard to the creation of meaning and the interpretation of key ideas across the course of this collection. The first line of ‘The Machine’ reads “you’re allowed to unplug yourself”. Coming as it does in the shadow of the title, we are led to read this line as if it referred to the speaker as human machine. The implication is thus one of dehumanization. However, the verb unplug may serve as a metaphor for suicide, a reading triggered by another ambiguity inserted undemonstratively into a poem about trees: “A dense stand of centuries-old redwoods, / the young, keen among giants. It’s the dead I admire most —” . However, as the poem progresses, we learn that the speaker is being examined by some kind of medical device and that, because he is frequently examined in this way, his familiarity has won him the right to disengage himself without assistance. Both meanings “work”, but one operates locally within the context of the specific poem, while the other suggests intertextual linkages between different poems within the collection.

A final example involves the idiom “the doctor will see you now” from routine medical discourse. This sounds perfectly natural in English, but Jackson detects its potential for ambiguity. In ‘Government Hospital for Women and Children’, he writes about mothers-to-be waiting for their appointments in an open courtyard, “talking of family, money and politics”. The ambiguous line Most of them will be seen today is manipulated just a fraction (the omission of “by a doctor” and the use of the passive voice is enough to put us on the alert) to literalize it and to introduce the larger topic of social visibility into the text. These impoverished women will briefly emerge from the anonymity of their lives to become visible to official representatives of the society they inhabit. At the same time, the phrase reminds us that the women and the immense practical difficulties they face in their lives are ignored for the most part by this same society. Again, intertextuality helps to prepare us for such a possibility. In an earlier poem, “Desensitised”, we have the lines “Clear-faced young doctors / tap and frown through research as I pass. / I am still waiting for someone to ask me / for my family history, to take off my shirt.” Here, the poet-librarian goes about his work in a state of professional invisibility. Surrounded as he is by doctors, however, he half-expects one of them to take an interest in his condition (Jackson suffers from severe spinal curvature), and to finally “see” him — as a noteworthy medical case in the first instance, but also as a fellow being occupying a shared space.

Bodies

The title ‘We Are All Flesh’ provides the most simple statement of how Jackson conceives of the human body. One basis for human community, he insists, is the fact of our carnality: we are, all of us, flesh and blood. This shared carnal reality is explored at the end of the poem ‘The Future of Genetics’:

. . . as the house lights come up on us.

We can’t help but gaze at each other’s arms
and faces. Lights shine and turn on the surface
of our eyes. We are all strangely alive.
All our very good questions are answered

confidently. At the exit, a metallic tree
of coathangers, a sign disclaiming
responsibility. We lift our heavy coats —
the hangers chime.

First, there is the rediscovery of human physicality in the exposed skin-surfaces of faces and arms. Then, there is a kind of guilty re-covering of this physicality — an effort to efface it — which the putting on of “heavy coats” seems to indicate. Our coats are our social clothing, our public personas; our collaboration in the suppression of the fact that we are all flesh is signalled by the sinister chiming of the coathangers. At the same time, the hangers function as metaphors for our mutual separateness: we hang differently, but we all hang.

Our common fleshliness is also the source of an inter-connectedness that goes beyond the borders of species. Two poems describe Jackson’s encounter with birds. In ‘A Language I Didn’t Know I Spoke’, he describes one such meeting: “The silk of his black breast, / his eyes rivets of rust-red, wings / suddenly arms folded to barely conceal / something obscure we have in common”. The creature in this admiring depiction is briefly anthropomorphized (wings become arms), but, in turn, the speaker is eagle-ized (at least, I think it’s an eagle) when he tries to answer the bird after it has called him with a sound “like a stone being dropped into a small, deep pool”. The poem doesn’t really probe the nature of this “something obscure”, but it yields the image of the thin bridge that gives the collection its name. The body seems to hold the key to this bridging or crossing over into the intimate presence of others. At the same time, this bridge is also the poem, the embodiment in language of the poet’s inter-communication with other lives and other things.

This bridge imagery is echoed in the description of a mundane railway platform, the setting for a second encounter across the divide of species:

The chick began to panic when
I lifted him with our hands

to place him underneath
the nearest tree on a patch of dry grass,
as the train arrived, early for
once. I came back to check on us.

– The Empty Platform

The startling use of “our” ands “us” here dissolves habitual boundaries between human being and fledgling in the eyes of the speaker. The usual distinctions no longer apply: they are empty. This emptiness may refer to the Buddhist idea of the Void, a formless potential source for all actual forms. Elsewhere in The Thin Bridge Jackson expresses an interest in Buddhism, but that does not mean that it provides the sole overarching explanation for his insights. In this case, the solid materiality of the suburban platform as well as the stress in the opening lines of the poem on corporeality — “Straight away, he made the skin / of my thumb, genitals, eyelids / no longer belong / only to me” — also allow us to read the poem in another way: that it is the shared heritage of vulnerable flesh and blood that inclines the speaker to regard the plight of the chick with compassion.

It is important to make it clear that Jackson has no wish to reduce human beings to anatomy. The Forensics Museum at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok may be full of specimens of “the bodies we are becoming”, but the sight of an exhibit of smoker’s lungs is something “only our innards recognise” (“Forensics Museum”). Here, the physical body is a very alienating thing. His idea of strange aliveness is an aspect that does not equate only with our biological organism.

Jackson approaches this issue of the inter-penetrating body and its affiliations obliquely in a poem called “The Rope”. The explicit topic of the poem is Christian asceticism:

When I was a boy, fluttering
and swooning secretly in what the lace
and smiles in catalogues implied,

I hadn’t heard of Saint Simeon.
Those pulsing boundless moments
had no room for thought or history.

He binds his body with rope, so
tight the worms are drawn to the flesh
and begin to feed. He is smiling,

even when the other monks unravel
the knot, peel the cord from his skin,
expel him from their family. We

have such strange and beautiful bodies,
such bones and folds and eyes
that catch the light. Me, I braided

the red ribbon from a Bible, the nerves
that burned beneath my cool skin,
and a thread I still can’t identify.

Where is he now? Pacing
the shifting dunes within us, unaware
only the sand can dissolve the rope.

Here the body is subject to restraint. Saint Simeon’s self-mortification is aimed at suppressing our physical nature for the sake of a divine ideal. For this reason, he becomes for Jackson an image of denial, an image that possibly still haunts many of us in “the shifting dunes within us”. Unlike the saint, the poet here strongly endorses the body in all its strangeness and beauty and, rather than binding his body with rope, tries to harness its “braiding” powers with two other strands of identity, the traditional spiritual outlook of the Bible together with a third mysterious element that is neither sensual nor theological. In the conclusion to the poem, the central theme of binding oneself — an idea that implies fixity — is dispelled in favour of a dune-like interplay of wind and sand. Our essential strangeness, the poem suggests, is alive in this mutability. At the same time, the image of the peeling of cord from the skin resonates with Stephen Potter’s description of poetry in Steps to Immaturity as something that is “alive all over, like skin, being part of a person”. Poetry can, in its own way, help us to divine a greater intensity of living.

*

When writing gets stuck in convention it can become like Saint Simeon, a paradoxical exponent of bondage who attempts by this eccentric tactic to prove his uniqueness. In The Thin Bridge, Jackson takes a different tack, seeking liberation from fixed ideas about what it means to be human — and to write this freedom. This in turn is reflected in his realization of the shape-shifting nature of questions and his attentive listening in to the ambiguity that resides in idioms and ordinary phrases. Without mystification, he attempts to come to terms with our mysterious talent for making connections. In this endeavour, he is assisted by the image of the thread. It appears in the opening poem ‘What’s Possible between Us’: “Spider / it is almost terrifying to me — suspended / only by the work of your own body. / Too often, I surface with handfuls of air, / thinking the connecting threads were within.” The thread thus becomes a link, an in-between-ness that works against the isolationary impulses of the egomanic personality. It reappears in the DNA “strand” —

Each DNA strand, if unwound, would span
a metre and a half. We’re quietly impressed

and think of knitting, of surgery and love . . .

– The Future of Genetics

— a fibre that Jackson characterizes here as a “span” that can be “spun”. A variation on this theme occurs in a detail from one of his Indian poems: “A roadside cart has caught / her sari — one stray yellow thread / unweaves itself behind them, as the bus / takes them away” (‘Government Hospital for Women and Children’). For Jackson, poetry is a matter of teasing out these various threads across our bodies, threads that shed light on both our fellow inhabitants on Earth and our enigmatic embodied selves. This process also results in the creation of tautly crafted poems.

It’s strange that the phrase “She is capable of anything” in English can have such a strongly negative meaning. Hence Jackson’s first question, and one that remains with the reader long after the book has been absorbed: Who knows what we’re capable of? And here there is no doubt that the question is a call to knowledge.

-Simon Patton

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Simon Patton soldiers on, living with his partner, two cats and Sealyham the Terrier near Chinaman Creek in Central Victoria. He translates Chinese literature. The essay “Translating Yu Jian: Encounter and Transmission” appeared in the Australian Poetry Journal (4.2) and versions of two of Yu’s poems co-translated with Tao Naikan were included in Southerly (74.3).

The Thin Bridge is available froim http://whitmorepress.com/titles/

An eclectic tour de force: Mark Roberts reviews Famous Reporter 43

Famous Reporter Issue 43 Published by Walleah Press, PO Box 368, North Hobart Tasmania 7002.

There is always (or at least almost always) a scene of sadness around an impending death. Friends and families wonder how they will cope, how things will change, how they will be able to fill the gap……it is much the same with literary magazines. Some go out in blaze of glory while others hang around for far too long, dying long slow lingering literary deaths. Of course there are also those magazines that you miss even before they are gone – and the famous reporter is firmly in that category.

Fr 43, which was launched in late May 2012, was the last issue with founder and long time editor Ralph Wessman at the helm. There will be one final issue but it will be edited by Dael Allison and Michael Sharkey. After that silence…….

Ralph Wessman, talking about his years editing famous reporter, recalled a conversation he had with Ken Bolton where Bolton claimed that “a magazine renews itself, its vitality, by finding a course and sticking with it through thick and thin on a particular aesthetic, political [whatever] direction” (https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/07/25/getting-excited-by-the-writing-wanting-more-of-it-ralph-wessman-recalls-25-years-as-editor-and-publisher-of-famous-reporter/). While Wessman admits that he found this notion persuasive, he points out that the famous reporter has moved in the opposite direction, towards the eclectic.

A measure of this eclecticism can be seen in FR 43. The issue opens with 11 pages of haiku edited by Lyn Reeves . FR is one of the few journals in Australia with a dedicated haiku section with a dedicated haiku editor. This concentration on haiku began in 1993 and ends with this issue as there wont be a haiku section in the final issue. The tradition and concentration on haiku has paid off for FR with some very fine pieces in this edition. Perhaps my favourite in this issue was from Leonie Bingham:

in the doorway
of the osteopath
spring leaves

The contrast between the distilled lyricism of the haikus and James Dryburgh’s essay, ‘Chico’s Story’ which immediately follows the hakiu section, is, at first glance, almost confronting. ‘Chico’s Story’ is an account of a refugee from El Salvador who fled form his country during the US backed military crackdown during the 1980’s, finding a new home in Melbourne. Years later he returns to El Salvador and finds a country still trying to come to terms with its past. This is a powerful essay on a number of levels – having spent the 1980’s following the struggles of the Latin American people in countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, there was something very familiar about ‘Chico’s Story’.  It is the account  of a conflict and of a refugee program that many of us have forgotten. At the same time it reminds us that the terror and repression which drives people to leave their home and seek refuge is still very much with us and that we should be learning from the past not pretending that suffering and repression is not part of the 21st century.

FR 43 also contains a wide range of poetry from both new and established poets (if not new, at least poets I was coming across for the first time). I was particularly pleased to find a wonderful poem by Judith Rodriguez, ‘Sayings of my Mother’, which explores notions of memory triggered by scanning old photos into a computer and blowing up the images:

Decades crumble to a night in the zippy thirties:
off the road and over the small-scrub plain
skitters his Willis, jibbing at burrows and tussocks,
headlights jumping, hoyed rocks, rabbits playing games.
All the lighting we can manage won’t hold the image
galvanic , the freckled print, a blur, Dad’s face.

It is a measure of the success of the eclectic nature of FR that the poetry in this issue can move easily from Judith Rodriguez to Les Wicks without blinking. Wick’s ‘Eight Words to a Life’ moves through a life in eight sections: ‘ Rot, Slink, Stroke, Strike, Stuck, Shiver, Squat and Give’. It is an ambitious poem, ranging over decades of English history, from post war docks to Thatcher’s Britain, ending with almost despairing acceptance of how a life half lived is not living up to expectations:

Nothing turns out like our clever plans
termites build & destroy
we too are argute toys in havoc.

There are some other very fine poems in this issue: Emma Rooksby’s ‘Red bloodwood’,  Margaret Cambell’s ‘Rained-in’, Michael Sharkey’s ‘Nothing for granted’, Pete Hay’s ‘The Duck’s Guts’, Bronwen Manger’s ‘ Few are Immune’ (is it just me or is there a hint of an early Gig Ryan about this poem?), Lucy William’s ‘paper aeroplanes’,  Cliff Forshaw’s ‘Lat. 43 degree’, Margaret Bradstock’s ‘Weedy Seadragon’s, Shane McCauley’s ‘Idyll’, Ben Walter’s ‘Dolerite’, Dael Allison’s ‘House’,  Cecila White’s ‘Breath’ and  Cameron Hindrum’s ‘Leaving an island’ were my personal highlights. But the best lines in FR 43 must go to Kimberley Mann:

My kiss is a noun
Yours is a verb
We need to talk

Grammar of Us

The diversity of the poetry in FR43 is matched by the four pieces of fiction. Mark O’Flynn’s ‘The Phone Rings’ is a disturbing account of an Asian man, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, or understand. Alone in prison he is listening to recordings of phone calls made to his house, searching for the piece of evidence that he was convicted on in order to mount a defence. The more he listens the more confused his past becomes. Solid relationships, marriages begin to blur- “the ominous years ahead are shedding their meaning like a snake’s skin”.

‘Leaving Kathmandu’ by David Francis is a short piece about departure and loss. A man is leaving Kathmandu, leaving his lover of five months behind. They both know that this departure is a leaving, an end, and there is, at least at one level, a sense of relief on both sides. But as soon as the plane takes off there is almost instant regret from the man “I saw the face of a drowning man who had missed the chance of a proffered life vest”. While not, perhaps completely successful, there is deep emotional undercurrent to ‘Leaving Kathmandu’, which is almost poetic and which makes the story stand out.

Jo Langdon’s ‘Paint’ is also, at one level, about the end of a relationship. This time the drama plays out inside the house as the narrator, the ‘I’ details how the other, the ‘you’ begins to change the rooms in the house by painting seas and landmasses,  then adding in clouds, before washing it clean and starting again. This time the other starts painting the interior of the body, the organs and bones on the walls of the room.

“…until suddenly I lost patience and objected……shouting fuck, this is like living inside a rotting corpse! You seem to consider this, picking at a scab of dried carmine on your wrist and nodding slowly….”

John Hale’s ‘Landscape of the Enemy’ is perhaps the most ambitious of the four pieces of fiction, it is certainly the longest. It is an interesting piece, well written and confronting. Set in the devastated German city of Hamburg immediately after the war, ‘Landscape of the Enemy’ is a shared memory of two people who meet briefly in the ruined city. The first section introduces the male character, whose name, we later learn, is Richard Dart. He is in a foreign town, browsing in a second hand bookshop when he opens a book on German Post War theatre and recognises a photograph of an actress. He knew her very briefly as a much younger woman.  The next section is his recollection of his his meeting with her in Hamburg just after the war when, as a very young merchant seaman his ships docks in the ruined city for 24 hours.  For the price of a block of chocolate he spends the night with her whensShe takes him back to the house she shares with her grandfather and mother. The final section recalls the same incident from the woman’s point of view. The title of the piece, ‘Landscape of the Enemy’, hints at the complicated power relationship which drives this encounter, the young male sailor, naïve, but on the side of the victor and the young street-wise woman, forced to be wise beyond her years in order to survive.

Beyond the creative writing we have to also acknowledge the non-fiction, both literary and non literary. I have already mentioned  ‘Chico’s Story’, but there are also a number of other pieces that fall under the ‘ Essay, memoir, miscellany’ category, one of the most interesting being Rick Haughton’s ‘Rebuilding Timor Leste Schools’.

There are also interviews with poets and activists – Peter Hay, Grant Caldwell and Melanie Barnes as well as number of launch speeches and reviews of poetry. All in all FR43 is a tribute to its long time editors, a kind of eclectic tour de force which highlights just how many bulls-eyes you can hit when you fire in multiple directions at once. But this is not quite the end we still have FR44 to look forward to before the FR printing presses fall silent.

– Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.

Famous Reporter can be found at http://walleahpress.com.au/past.html

Ralph Wessman remembers 44 Issues of FR https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/07/25/getting-excited-by-the-writing-wanting-more-of-it-ralph-wessman-recalls-25-years-as-editor-and-publisher-of-famous-reporter/

“Getting Excited by the Writing & Wanting More of It”: Ralph Wessman recalls 25 years as editor and publisher of ‘famous reporter’.

Shortly before the launch of famous reporter 43 in late May I asked Ralph Wessman, the founder and long time editor of the magazine, for some background information on the magazine. At the time my intention was to include this in a review of the final issue of famous reporter that he was going edit (the very final issue, No. 44, will be edited by Michael Sharkey and Dael Allison). What he sent me, however, was a detailed personal account of the history of famous reporter. In my view it would be a crime not to publish his account in full – so here (with a few minor edits) is Ralph Wessman on the 25 years he has spent publishing and editing the famous reporter…..

The cover of issue 1 of the famous reporter.

I remember a conversation with Philip Mead some years ago where I tried to explain to him that my magazine was like an extension of myself – like being blessed with another arm if you want to put it in a physical context though that’s not what I meant – and Philip nodded in agreement and more importantly, understanding. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised but I’d forgotten at the time that Philip had been an editor himself – of Meanjin.

At other times I used to say that with my magazine I’d found a place to park my head.

The beginning

I had no idea what I was doing when I began The Famous Reporter, although I’d taken a small publishing step with a small newsletter distributed free throughout St Kilda – St Kilda Beat – for three years. Then a friend established a literary journal, On the Off Beat, a magazine of women’s short stories. The editor had the advantage of working with a printer, so it was a case of satisfying an aesthetic urge while on the job. I liked the results, I was both interested, and encouraged, I have to admit, to have a go at it too.

So I did …and began with my ex wife a short story magazine. In 1986 I sent off letters to writing groups and universities around the country seeking material and early in 1987 we had enough material for an issue that we typed up on our old typewriter at home. Ambitious, we had no idea of the practicalities of producing a magazine.

We had problems finding a name, famous reporter as a name doesn’t do much for me these days but it’s too late to change it. Shane McCauley – a West Australian poet I’m in touch with – once said that he didn’t bother submitting to famous reporter for years and years because he was under the impression it was a magazine publishing material in the crime genre.

We began by publishing 500 copies for the first couple of issues; I guess a lack of knowledge is a dangerous thing, offset by possibility of making the thing work. I’ve never sold 500 copies of an issue of famous reporter, a couple of hundred copies is the norm.

Issue 2.

I had little knowledge of Australian literature other than as a general reader, so for the first three issues the magazine we published only short stories. It wasn’t until the fourth issue that we began experimenting with other material – in that issue there were not one but three interviews – with John Tranter (http://www.the-write-stuff.com.au/archives/vol-8/tranter.html), Mary Blackwood (http://walleahpress.com.au/FR4Blackwood.html) and Georgia Savage (http://walleahpress.com.au/FR4Savage.html). Issue five saw a further three interviews this time with Hilarie Lindsay, Chris Mansell (http://walleahpress.com.au/Int-Mansell.html) and Garry Disher (http://walleahpress.com.au/Int-Disher.html). Issue 5 also contained the first couple of poems appeared in the magazine, the first by Sue Moss (http://walleahpress.com.au/FR5Moss.html), something I’d heard her reading in at an event Battery Point & the first piece of poetry I actively sought out. ‘I’ve’ dined out on that story’, Sue’s told me since. The other came courtesy of a wonderful public talk that Libby Hathorn gave in 1990 which she allowed me to use – and illustrating her conversation was a poem.

Of course more poetry – more poetry contributors – appear in the magazine now than anything else. I’m interested in poetry, fiction, essays, reviews and haiku. Arts Tasmania has funded the magazine since 1994, so we’ve been able to offer a little money to contributors

The launch for FR43 was held on Wednesday 30th May in Hobart. Usually a decent crowd turns up to famous reporter launches in Hobart, anything from thirty to ninety – but it’s different on the mainland. We’ve had launches in places including Melbourne, Adelaide – twice – Sydney, Newcastle [that was lovely] and the Blue Mountains. But the first time in Adelaide, when I took my son Jazz along with me, he was twelve at the time was interesting. I remember how Graham Rowlands and I tried lots of promotion, but on the night there were seventeen of us who turned up, including Jazz and me. However I tried Adelaide several years later, and had a great time, taking my other son Noah with me, a mad keen Aussie Rules supporter so holding a launch & taking my son to the footy was killing two birds with the one stone. We had an audience of thirty-five or so that night in Adelaide, and I managed to put to rest something that had been holding me back for years – my awe of Jan Owen. I’d been in awe of her poetry for years and I’d often think when a poetry submission turned up in the mail from Jan, why me? Why am I blessed? But I invited her along to the launch and she turned up and put me at ease so quickly, from memory it was along the lines of: “like your magazine Ralph, enjoying your launch, don’t particularly care one way or the other about your footy team tomorrow night but if that’s your bent so be it “… yes it was a very good launch for more reasons than one.

But you never know how they will go, which is why it’s not a bad thing to do to have a launch as part of a reading programme put on by local writer’s groups, which is what [haiku editor] Lyn Reeves and I did with the magazine in Byron Bay some years ago. It was the Christmas function for the writing group Dangerously Poetic, at Bangalow just a little outside of Byron Bay. And we had a dozen readers, people we’ve met along the way as both Lyn and I have strong links with the area, and we had an audience of over eighty people and we had a fine time.

The reasons for one’s involvement with a literary magazine.

I am somewhat moved by Ken Bolton’s argument, the premise that a magazine renews itself, its vitality, by finding a course and sticking with it through thick and thin on a particular aesthetic, political [whatever] direction. This is the opposite of the eclectic magazine, the opposite of something like famous reporter. I’m somewhat persuaded by Ken’s arguments, I admit. But then I look at what is possible with a magazine such as Meanjin which often used to focus on thematic pieces … This is a danger, of course, if you take on a topic which has little appeal. But over the years, in my opion, Meanjin has managed to publish exciting writers speaking on a range of issues, resulting in eminently readable and successful issues of the magazine. So yes, I feel the eclectic magazine has something to offer.

I don’t see that FR set out to ‘change anything’, it’s a case of simply getting excited by the writing and wanting more of it. There are various styles of magazine, some accept contributions only by invitation. I’ve gone the other way and accept through submissions and seek out the occasional article that I seek out, I do this particularly with reviews. The result is an eclectic magazine. That’s not to say that I don’t seek to question, what would be the point of writing if it didn’t?

Mistakes

Invariably you make mistakes. Would the process be worthwhile if there wasn’t the possibility for making mistakes, the possibility of scaring yourself silly by what you’re about to write or publish next….

  • interviewing Mary Blackwood for the magazine and losing the tape I’d made of it and having to return to interview Mary for the second time.
  • issue three, I typed it up in a computer software package but for some reason experienced difficulty getting the magazine to do exactly what I wanted so reinstalled the software package, thinking it would reinstall alongside the old one and I could copy my files across, I was horrified to find it installed over the old one and I lost my complete magazine, had to start again. I hadn’t saved any of the stories into word, simply typed them straight into the package.
  • Another terrible moment was the day Kris Hemensley, of Collected Works Bookshop in Melbourne, telephoned to say that he’d just received his copy of famous reporter in which I’d published a launch speech he’d made in Melbourne some weeks before for a Melbourne literary magazine, Salt-Lick. I’d sent Kris a proof copy of the speech before publication, he’d duly made a few changes only to find to his dismay that, on publication, the mistakes remained. I’d made the changes, but used the wrong version of the speech. This was compounded by the fact I’d be meeting Kris face to face in a week’s time when he was due to launch my own magazine.

The lovely moments

  • One of the lovely things is that every six months Lyn Reeves sends me the pages of haiku to go into the next issue, with the bio details of each contributor. I don’t have to lift a finger throughout the whole process, I think it says something for the possibilities for literary and publishing collaborations.
  • The time I interviewed Richard Flanagan and Pete Hay in my small South Hobart flat. Towards the end of the end of the interview I had to leave for the gents, when I returned I found Pete and Richard  still chatting, the tape recorder still rolling. I didn’t transcribe the tape till two weeks later to hear Richard telling Pete he’d won the 1995 Victorian Premier’s Award for his novel Death of a River Guide. ‘But you’re sworn to secrecy till October 20th Pete’, Flanagan went on. I suppose by implication I was sworn to secrecy too, it was a special moment.
  • Anna Bianke: one of the interesting things for me was that when I began the magazine I’d get a rush of excitement when a piece of writing came in from someone whose name I knew, and particularly, of course, if they were someone whose writing I respected. Well one day in the mailbox arrived a short story manuscript from Anna Bianke, of Launceston, and I was familiar with Anna’s work because I’d read several of her pieces in Overland. In fact her name was emblazoned across the front cover of Overland 101. You might remember, if you enjoy your magazines, that Stephen Murray-Smith who was editor of Overland at the time published a 100th commemorative issue, but found himself with so much exciting material that he the 101st issue became a commemorative issue as well, big and fat with lots of good reading. So the arrival of Anna’s manuscript meant quite a lot to me, and her story read with a delicate light touch, it was a beautiful piece of writing and I felt so proud to be able to publish and I suppose to some extent, to feel as if I really was some part of that great fraternity of Australian writing. It wasn’t until some years and perhaps some pieces of writing later, that Anna dropped me a line with an apology and an admission that for years she’d hid behind a pseudonym and that she wasn’t Anna Bianke of Launceston at all, but Stella Kent – playwright and fiction writer – of Launceston. And I’m pleased to say that my publishing relationship with Stella continues … only two or three weeks ago, she sent me an unpublished manuscript she’d come across, a poetry manuscript written by two young Northern Tasmanian students that simply blew her away … she wondered if any might interest me. ‘And if not,’ she added, ‘simply throw it away’. How wonderful is that, when someone with an eye for good writing takes the time to mail along something that moves them, how much simpler does an editor’s job become?
  • I think one of my highlights was to publish Pete Hay’s collection of essays some years back, Vandiemonian Essays. I’m a strong admirer of Pete and his work and it was an honour to be able to publish his book, just as it was to follow up with a collection of his poems three years later. There were 180 to 190 people at the launch of his book of essays – and what a launch it was! We sold 90 copies of the book at $20 each, I’d known there’d too many people in attendance to be able to cater for normally as I do with a famous reporter launch –  that is spend a couple of hundred dollars on light food, softdrink and wine – so I bought about five hundred dollars of various drinks – stubbies of beer, stout, softdrink – and sold them for cost price – and it was just so phenomenally successful.

And to the present?

I like the idea of continuing to publish. I’ve been using Lightning Source in Melbourne, a company with offices in the US, France and the UK and which set up in Melbourne last year. If you do the set up yourself, and provide your book in Indesign and with a cover that’s been Photoshopped – you can manage to publish relatively cheaply, so I’m giving it a go.

I’ve let my enthusiasm carry me away again and taken on probably a bit too much to chew, nevertheless I’m looking at producing several books later in the year, individual poetry books by four local writers – Philomena van Rijswijk, Anne Kellas, Susan Austin, and Cameron Hindrum. A book by Jill Jones, and a joint effort from Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow The Jones and Curnow/Brophy books are planned for August and to be available at the Queensland Poetry Festival where both Jill and Nathan are on the programme.

And once I’ve managed to fulfil the promises and half promises of my initial enthusiasm, I might slow down a bit and look a little more closely at the possibilities of wider publishing, of essays for instance.  And try to come to grips a little more with Dreamweaver and cascading style sheets so I can better promote and present the work of the writers I’m dealing with.

 – Ralph Wessman

A letter from Ralph I found inside my copy of issue 3.

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Ralph Wessman was the founding editor of the famous reporter and has been editor or co-editor of the last 43 issues of the magazine. He also runs Walleah Press whose latest publications include Fairweather’s Raft by Dael Allison and Undercover of Lightness by Andrew Burke. http://walleahpress.com.au.

The 44th and final issue of FR will appear late in 2012, edited by Michael Sharkey and Dael Allison. Unsolicited material (with the exception of haiku, which will not appear in FR44) is welcome, to:

PO Box 368
North Hobart
Tasmania 7002 Australia.