Who is Kent MacCarter? Pam Brown launches ‘Sputnik’s Cousin’ by Kent MacCarter

Pam Brown launched Kent MacCarter’s Sputnik’s Cousin (Transit Lounge, 2014). Thursday 7th August 2014 at Gleebooks, Sydney.
Gig Ryan’s Melbourne launch speech for Sputnik’s Cousin can be found here: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/05/19/a-luna-park-of-treasures-gig-ryan-launches-sputniks-cousin-by-kent-maccarter/

Sputnik's-Cousin-cover-for-publictyOn the desk next to my computer there’s a handwritten question on the back of an envelope – “Who is Kent MacCarter?”. It’s a reminder that I should find out more about “Kent MacCarter”. I know him mainly via email – first, as an executive at SPUNC – the ‘Small Press Underground Networking Community’ and then as editor of the inclusive online poetry review, Cordite. So what do I discover?

Kent was born in Minnesota and lived in various places in the US, studying with the late great Thom Gunn and with Karen Volkman at the University of Chicago. However, and I’m not sure of the dates, Kent decided to ditch his original career-pursuit of poetry writing and became, at first, an extra in various tv sitcoms and eventually landed his first big screen job playing a disoriented and seasick passenger on a cargo freighter full of thieves and smugglers travelling across the Pacific to Melbourne, in the popular B-grade adventure film Direct Tui.

His minor acting roles include a deck grunt on a flounder trawler off the coast of Homer, Alaska in Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s Murder Most Fishy; as a fudge packer in a confectioner’s ‘shoppe’ on an Island in Michigan in the period drama Too Sweet Immediately; as an aspiring athlete working as an espresso cart barista perfecting short blacks at Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium in Shorty Gets Sporty and as a mild-mannered mutual-fund accountant planning an inside job in Swank Swindle, filmed entirely in the vault of a converted bank. As his acting career began to wane, Kent, ever diverse, took up teaching English on the education black market in Siena, Italy.

Eventually though he returned to work on writing poetry. Kent has said – “the word ‘work’ has a loaded negativity to it, an assumed arduousness that isn’t necessarily applicable to a given event of ‘work’. When I’m writing in the evenings, if asked, I’ll say that ‘I am working’. I have certainly put more time and effort – altogether more work – into most pieces of writing than I have, say, mowing the lawn, migrating online content, editing an essay or searing a kangaroo fillet appropriately without overcooking it. These are all acts of work. Some are pleasurable, some not so much…”

So with this amplified biographical context and some idea of his attitude to writing I feel ready to start reading Sputnik’s Cousin.

It’s a collection of highly kinetic, fantastical and sometimes discomfiting poems that don’t seem to have struggled too much – in fact they seem to have relished their release from Kent’s untrammelled consciousness and on to a page. The distinctions he makes about ‘work’ colour a general approach. And an aroma of seared kangaroo meat like summer bushfires like tram-stop tobacco wends its way into the first section of the book which is called ‘Smoke Odes’.

The first poem ‘You and a Clandestine Getaway’ has a note indicating it’s written ‘after John Forbes’. When I see ‘after so & so’ accompanying a poem I always wonder about its various interpretations – is it an emulation or a trace or what? Every poem written in Australia since 1998 is, after all, ‘after the late great John Forbes’. So I guess, in this case, ‘after’ indicates that the poem’s influenced by reading John Forbes. The poem does remind me of Forbes’ well-known poem ‘Monkey’s Pride’ (http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/forbes-john/monkey-s-pride-0458010/reviews/john-forbes-monkey-s-pride-5):

….I am a balloon that floats around
bumping into suburbs
where a cowboy appears from a bookcase
……………riding on a bottle of pills.

Here in Kent’s poem it’s a holiday-gone-luoco in Brazil that has a wanton agency similar to the Forbes poem.

………………..You holidayed with

a lover who slid down
an out-of-town waterfall between
brushy gropes of real banana
leaves and nematodes
into he lagoon
manipulated by should and pumice
upside-down a cachaça punch
belted twice
in your throat.

These things can happen in ‘he lagoon’ apparently.

It’s a giddying beginning and it looks as if I’ll need some recovery time in between each of the poems up ahead.

Hardly anything in these poems is explicit or totally topical yet everything matters, one way or another. Kent lavishly blends nouns and verbs as he simultaneously elongates perception and bends imagery into unexpected shapes that become fluid and multiple. He works in an eccentric register, rarely staying still. Just as you think you know where he is, he makes another turn, queering the idea and making it strange. What seems eclectic to me probably seems logical or straightforward to him. This plasticised language emits from a kind of poetic glossolalia – like this chain-smoking editor’s riff –

………..This is to say: my breaths are baited. Equipped. Falling low
in ampersands and loops like inserts from Australian Women’s
Weekly in this autumn of renewal – stent! – the battery of tests
……………………………….is a cyclone scooping coastline
toward Leviticus – a shaky hallway menthol smoke and gastric wind. Design:
cock out calligraphy. Smock. A catheter of Winnie Blues.

There are also some wistful remininscences

I was
Michigan Under 10s Regional Kite Flying Champion

A real dandelion in boxing gloves

but everything moves on, or moves – like vibrations or tremors just below a surface – there’s no time or place for wallowing here.

One freely espousing or wildly riffing poem – ‘Light Foxing’ – is presented sideways on the page.

There’s a suite of poems that comprise a kind of homage to the late 1920s jazz composer, cornet player and pianist Bix Beiderbecke, who drank a lot and died young, at only 28.

The way his trumpet did you
………………..sideways in the head –
fleeter than Art Deco or a cheetah
hunt

The poems accompany ‘Bixology’, an album of twenty five recordings made by Bix Beiderbecke mostly with his group the Wolverine Orchestra.

Half-diminished 7th chords
The way Bix croaked
……………kicked on the lights
The way that coronet drank
……………his noggin to dropsy

Speaking of Art Deco, there’s a nice homage to Melbourne’s Nicholas Building. Another ‘Melbourne’ poem written with Fiona Hile memorialises the painter of dayglo-edged suburbia, Howard Arkley, who died of a heroin overdose in 1999 (can it be so long ago?).

This is poetry in the time of gamers – action poems, altered pantoums, free verse, hyperrealism, enlivened prose. There’s a cast of eccentrics like Harry Houdini the escapologist, Ms Pac-Man (the tranny we’ve all been waiting for), Kathy Acker, Terry Gilliam and others. Use of form never intrudes on the content, and the two longer prose pieces slow the pace a little so you can gather your breath and get ready to run on.

The second of these prose pieces, ‘Pork Town’, is magical realist. It’s a nightmarish satire of meat-eating Melbourne that chronicles the fortunes made and lost in 19th century abbatoirs and bacon factories around Northcote, Preston and from Williamstown to Collingwood and Flemington. There seemed to be a plethora of bloody institutions. The story is haunted by spectres – a doddering old man who regularly and openly craps on the public footpath and an encounter with a, quote, ‘humungous fucking … thing … bucking at me like an electrocuted steer.’ It’s a big sickly menacing dismembered penis. This is a disturbing and powerful piece of writing that could turn anyone vegetarian.

To continue more calmly – Sputnik’s Cousin also has copious idiosyncratic references that lead the willing reader to diverse research. I looked up plenty of things from the botanic term ‘anther’, to ‘moriawase’ (a Japanese combination platter), to ‘cenozoic’ (a geologic era 65.5 million years ago) to ‘binturong’ which is a bearcat – a lumbering hairy creature that gains an hour of freedom by escaping the Melbourne zoo and appearing in one of Kent’s poems.

Spanish-speaking linen, abseiling window-washers, a Chihauhau named Taco, a monastery in Macedonia located in ‘woop woop’ – these poems celebrate an aberrant poetry practice and a kind of audacious individualism. No algorithm could produce these poems, they’re constructed beyond the normative and seem to be definitely made by a person who really celebrates all things rogue.

At the very beginning of this happily unpredictable book, possibly in memory of his early forays into acting, Kent has chosen a quote from Arthur Miller which seems a good note on which to end my ramblings – “Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”

Author’s note: the biographical details relating to Kent MacCarter’s suspended acting career are yet to be verified.

– Pam Brown

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Pam Brown is a practised professional amateur. Her latest book is Home by Dark (Shearsman, 2013). She has been and continues to be a contributing editor for various magazines and sites including Overland, Ekleksographia, Jacket, Rubric, Polari, Jacket2, PennSound, Fulcrum, and VLAK and is currently editing ten booklets for Vagabond Press – the ‘deciBels’ series. Pam blogs intermittently at ‘the deletions’ http://thedeletions.blogspot.com/

Sputnik’s Cousin is available from http://www.transitlounge.com.au/index.htm#SputniksCousin

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The Ultimate Commitment: The Poetry of Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas and Robert Harris by Robert Adamson

The Poetry of Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas and Robert Harris – a lecture delivered by Robert Adamson, CAL Chair of Poetry at the University of Technology Sydney on Thursday 27 June 2013.

I. Michael Dransfield

I’m the ghost haunting an old house, my poems are posthumous.’ Michael Dransfield

Dransfield's first collection of poetry: 'Streets of the Long Voyage'.

Dransfield’s first collection of poetry: ‘Streets of the Long Voyage’.

Before talking in detail about his poetry I want to give you some idea of what Michael Dransfield was like in person. Here’s a description of Dransfield in the 1970s by Rodney Hall: ‘Michael was tall and thin with a long neck and small face. He appeared to have been equipped with feet a few sizes too large. And yet there was a grace about him, not just the charm of his personality, his generosity and talent for friendship, but a touch of physical radiance also. He had that essentially youthful quality of being at the same time gangling and personable. Perhaps the two most lasting impressions were of his fine hands and his sweet smile under a downy dark moustache. When he grew excited and shed the mock-­ American incoherence of hippydom, he spoke beautifully.’

I was close friends with Michael and spent many hours with him and his partner Hilary Burns. Visiting them when they lived in the ‘cardboard cottage’ Balmain and ‘The Loft’ in Paddington. When Michael turned up at 50 Church Street, Balmain, the house where we edited Poetry Magazine, he knocked on the door and introduced himself. He told me he had just finished a manuscript and wondered if I might publish it. He said he could write twenty poems in a night, but at the time, I didn’t believe this. It was around midnight when he asked, ‘Oh man, can I sleep on your floor tonight? ’. David Rankin who was sharing the house said, ‘Why not use the couch’.

It wasn’t long before I learned that he could indeed write many poems in a day. Some would turn out to be keepers, however this ability to create spontaneous lyrics wasn’t as much a gift as a handicap, the way facility can be for some artists. He needed tough and critical friends around him but I don’t think he was ready for the critical part. He returned the next day with a manuscript and submitted 20 or so poems to the magazine. I read them and thought there were a quite a few poems that were good enough to publish. My co-­editors, Martin Johnston, Carl Harrison-­Ford and Terry Sturm weren’t so easily impressed, but they eventually agreed to publish some of Michael’s tighter, less romantic poems. The first one we published was:

Ground Zero

wake up
look around
memorise what you see
it may be gone tomorrow
everything changes. Someday
there will be nothing but what is remembered
there may be no-­one to remember it.
Keep moving
wherever you stand is ground zero
a moving target is harder to hit

Looking through back issues of Poetry Magazine and New Poetry, I must say the editors’ decisions made a lot of sense, Michael’s poems continue to read well after 40 years . There are major poems like ‘Geography’ and ‘After Vietnam’ along with fine lyrics like ‘Mosaic’ and ‘Environmental Art’.

Rodney Hall, his editor, claimed Dransfield was one of the few contemporary Australian poets to have “a genuine popular following among people who do not otherwise read poetry”. Hall was poetry editor of The Australian (1967 to 1978) and published many Dransfield poems in the literary pages. Bronwyn Lea, poetry editor at the University of Queensland Press, Dransfield’s publisher, said his books sold more than the other titles in their poetry series. It’s forty years since Dransfield’s death at the age of 24. His books are still widely read and discussed. He wrote almost a thousand poems during his short life. There were five books published posthumously, including the Collected Poems and a ‘Selected Poems in 2002 by John Kinsella. Also the excellent extensive biography by Patricia Dobrez, Michael Dransfield’s Lives remains relevant.

We look for influences when trying to understand where poets come from. Michael Dransfield absorbed the usual ones for his time, Tennyson, Swinburne, Coleridge, contemporary Americans like Alan Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, the French symbolist poets, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Another poet who had an influence on Dransfield , often overlooked, is Salvatore Quasimodo. A Nobel Prize winning poet who died on the 14th June 1968 in Naples. Michael made a note of this in his diary at the time. A poem was eventually published in The Australian : ‘Death of Salvatore Quasimodo’, Dransfield was 16 years old when he wrote this poem.

Death of Salvatore Quasimodo

Scattered symbols in the garden;
leaf-­statues murmur like conspirators,
a grasp of grass-­stalks
reaches over the ground;

shattered visions of summer harden
and the turbulent
shiver of wind
will pound at any door.

Homage is a presumptuous gentility
to offer—how may it
replace the loveliness of being,
of being in a resolved species.

The Sicilian,
who gives veins to link agreeing
areas of sundown, has a new poem
but not a tongue to say it.

These lines make clear how self-­aware Dransfield was, : ‘Homage is a presumptuous gentility to offer—how may it replace the loveliness of being’.

He uses Quasimodo’s tight compacted forms as a way to help cut back on rhetoric. Another early poem, ‘still life with hypodermic’ adopts the Italian’s skeletal forms. This poem seems in its pared back way, to describe terminal addiction— but it’s for shock value, demonstrating a fine balance between skill and imagination.

still life with hypodermic

It’s alright for a while.
Then
bliss becomes need
and enough is insufficient.
You make the run,
it’s cool for a while.
But
insufficient eats you out
you start to
fall over
until eventually
you can’t get up.
That’s what they call
terminal addiction.

Referencing the hypodermic in a still life sets up the interior of the poem as a shooting gallery. However the next two sections of Streets of The Long Voyage contain some of Dransfield’s best poems. The poem that mentions Schubert is tellingly sub-­titled ‘an invention’. However, it’s one thing to compose an invention including conceptual references and Schubert’s name and another to write a poem that imagines its author as a terminal addict. Some of the best early poems, imaginative landscapes, seem more powerful than the early drug poems because they ground themselves in some experience from the world around the poet in suburban Sydney:

ascension

weightlessness
a study in time
begin horizontally
on planes of light
waking among empties
in a gutter somewhere
climb past street level
using your eyes as scaling-ladders
to capture every rooftop.
Then lasso a wild bird, something free,
even a gull. Higher than Everest
you spill out among rainy hours into chasms of breathless sky
unattainably far from the moderns who, accustomed to miracles
of science, no longer look upward.
When you come to a world
tell who ask that your business is living in artspace;
teach them that to fly means
rising slowly from the depths, with a vision of
some eyelid saint, like Lucifer, and as beautiful,
but still with this aura of distance and perception
to isolate him from the predators.

Dransfield often writes in this, seemingly easy manner, some of his poems have such a light touch it’s easy to dismiss them as being lightweight. His lines are carefully wrought, each line gets progressively longer like broken iambic pentameters,

weightlessness
a study in time
begin horizontally
on planes of light
waking among empties
in a gutter somewhere
climb past street level
using your eyes as scaling-ladders
to capture every rooftop.
Then lasso a wild bird, something free,

until we hit line eight, then there’s the halting rhythm of ‘using your eyes as scaling-ladders/ to capture every rooftop. Dransfield’s slightly surreal, deliberately askew image introduces the poem’s message, in this case to ‘to isolate him from the predators .

‘lines for a friend, 1948-1965’ was written for Michael’s closest school friend, Robert Falkenmire, who died at the age of 16 from leukemia. An event that was a trauma for Dransfield. Three years later in a diary entry of September 1967, the day following his own 19th birthday, Dransfield wrote ‘Robert Falkenmire would have been 19 today’. According to Patricia Dobrez, later in the same month, Dransfield was troubled by suicidal thoughts. He wrote to Shapcott and appears to blame himself: he saw good and evil separated into two camps, the dead and the living. Michael was alive, while his friend was dead: Dransfield felt that he was the unhallowed and unworthy one.

lines for a friend, 1948-1965
‘Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath.’
Tennyson

Over before you knew it,
misdiagnosed and done for,
you became some ashes a little plaque a case history;
paintings you did are lost, also your poems,
nothing but ashes in a wall of dead is left.
You will not see again the way
the morning sun floods down O’Connell Street . . .
perhaps you are the sun now;
perhaps not.

Childhood was the salt edge of the Pacific,
was the school under the old trees;
soon they disposed of you.
I went to the funeral you and I were the only two
there really the only two who knew the gods had gone;
death and morning the only two,
damned because poets.

Over before we know it,
we pack our lives in souls and go
out with the tide the long procession
the ant the elephant the worker the child
even those doctors who stood around will die sometime,
their money cannot buy them out of it.
We know what is to come a silence teeming
with the unfinished spirits good and bad,
and how we’ve lived determines what we’ll be
next time around, if time’s not buried with us.

Dransfield’s family enrolled Michael at Sydney Grammar School. Within a year or so, he started collecting prizes for his poetry . He did a lot of reading outside the school’s requirements, one book that made a big impression was Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’, He writes about it in his diary: ‘ it was then my mind came into its own, and the analytical thought processes, though limited at the time and concerned with injustice, rather than greater concepts, began to grow and flower. It was then that my poetry began to improve and to become more than a mere pastime. It was my true voice, and I taught myself to speak, and to sing.’

Dransfield enrolled as an Arts Student at the University of NSW. He started to attend folk music venues around the Sydney and became friends with Pip Proud who had a hit single and an album at the time. Maybe this is where Michael got the idea of making a living from poetry, if it could be done with pop songs, why not poetry? Dransfield was ahead of his time in his decision to be a professional poet. What poet in this country before him tried to make a living from poetry alone? In his early years Les Murray, around the time of Dransfield’s first book, was employed at the National Library with translation work. Something Les said recently would have appealed a lot to Dransfield: ‘Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment.’ Before Les Murray, Henry Kendall comes to mind, though in his case being a professional poet wasn’t a choice, Kendall found it difficult to hold down a job but through his poetry he found supporters. The question is multi-layered. The acting out of the role of ‘poet’ is a complex business, it can be seen as a rebellious act, or as John Forbes once said, it can lead a poet into a position of becoming a ‘socially integrated bard’. In the 1950s and 60s established poets hardly mentioned their employment, even on the backs of their books they pared away personal details, you’d be lucky to come across their hobby or sport.

His poem ‘Like this for years’ deals more realistically with the idea of poetry as a profession, it speaks of attitudes many Australians have towards people who themselves a poet. There are similar concerns in a poem written by Hart Crane, from his home town Akron, Ohio in 1921, Crane wrote:

The stars are drowned in a slow rain,
And a hash of noises is slung up from the street.
You ought, really, to try to sleep,
Even though, in this town, poetry’s a
Bedroom occupation.’

Hart Crane’s lines are the reverse of Michael’s bravado. Being a poet in Australia could easily be seen as the ‘ultimate commitment’—firstly there’s no money in it, secondly to call yourself a poet in some quarters would be to engender ridicule. When Hart Crane wrote these lines about his home town he was 22 years old, the same age as Dransfield when he wrote ‘Like this for years’:

In the cold weather
the cold city the cold
heart of something as pitiless as apathy
to be a poet in Australia
is the ultimate commitment.

When y’ve been thrown out of the last car
for speaking truthfully or mumbling poems
and the emptiness is not these stranded
endless plains but knowing that you are completely
alone in a desert full of strangers

and when the waves cast you up who sought
to dive so deep and come up with
more than water in yr hands
and the water itself is sand is air is something
unholdable

you realize that what you taste now in the mornings
is not so much blood as the failure of language
and no good comes of singing or of silence
the trees wont hold you you reject rejection
and the ultimate commitment
is survival

Dransfield’s first volume was published in 1970, the second in 1972. I can’t help thinking in hindsight, he should have waited another year before publishing a third book. He might have caught up with himself, and not tripped into his next phase as a ‘drug-poet’. However, a few months after The Inspector of Tides was published in 1972, Sun Books, released another volume of Dransfield’s work entitled Drug Poems. I remember thinking this was a mistake in terms of the feedback it would create for Michael. The publisher was determined to cash in on the alternative culture of the times . The overall production of the book was cheap, as opposed to the economical yet sleek design of the UQP paperbacks. Don Anderson was the only critic who had something positive to say about it:  “They are hard, clear, disciplined, fully realized poems, which add to his already considerable reputation”.

I believe Michael Dransfield took a wrong turn when he decided to play out the role of the drug poet. Dobrez writes in her first chapter : ‘ we witness the ‘Imagineer’, with one eye turned towards the waiting journalists and critics, surreptitiously manufacturing his own myths: the ‘poet who dared to be different’; the poet who was a traditionalist and a rebel, member of a fantastic patriciate and a man of the people; the poet of the ‘drug world’ who lived ‘in the underground’; the passionate social critic; a sublimely deluded younger Francis Webb; someone ‘terrifyingly close to genius’.’

Tom Shapcott used the phrase ‘terrifyingly close to genius’ to describe Dransfield in his influential 1960s anthology Australian Poetry Now. This was immediately ridiculed by Michael’s peers and followed him for the rest of his life.

Michael Dransfield became addicted to the role he played as much as he did to any substance. I think he was a born poet but his gift wasn’t up to the role he asked of it.

I wrote these lines in an elegy to Michael in 1974:

I see the hours we once walked through
those lived-in hours, spread across the tide,
we asked for a rotten deal and that’s what we got.
Beautiful, ineffectual rebels of an imagined sky,
We searched among the long dead for the living:
Shelley, Blake: they were the harder stuff.
That idea of ourselves as poets was an addiction
more terminal than any opiate the chemists could refine.

Dransfield wrote his thousand poems in less than ten years. Many written in his teenage years. There are other fine poems that I haven’t mentioned, I wanted to concentrate on different aspects of his work— his technically facility, his imaginative reach and the almost magical lightness of touch that allows a translucence to shine through his lines, light that penetrates the often dark subject matter. His most successful poems are lyrical sequences such as ‘Geography’, here’s a section of it, part III —which is a good poem to end on:

In the forest, in the unexplored
valleys of the sky, are chapels of pure
vision. there even the desolation of space cannot
sorrow you or imprison. i dream of the lucidity of the vacuum,
orders of saints consisting of parts of a rainbow,
identities of wild things / of
what the stars are saying to each other, up there
above the concrete and the minimal existences, above
idols and wars and caring. tomorrow
we shall go there, you and your music and the
wind and i, leaving from very strange
stations of the cross, leaving from
high windows and from release,
from clearings
in the forest, the uncharted
uplands of the spirit

The envelope containing the last letter that Michael Dransfiled sent to Robert Adamson. The letter is now held by the National Library

The envelope containing the last letter that Michael Dransfield sent to Robert Adamson. The letter is now held by the National Library (image supplied by Robert Adamson)

Dransfield

2. Vicki Viidikas

condition red

Condition Red – Viidikas’ first collection. UQP Paperback Poets No 18. 1973

Vicki Viidikas was born in Sydney 1948. (The same year as Michael Dransfield.) Her parents split up when she was a child and her mother moved to Queensland where Vicki went to school until she was 15. She came to Sydney and studied art for a year, took a series of casual jobs as a waitress, then employment at Abbey’s bookshop near Sydney Town Hall. She started writing at sixteen and never stopped. Writing became her passion and her life. She was a pioneer as a young female poet in the pre-baby boomer generation of predominantly male poets in Sydney, the first of us to be published in an established journal. She was 19 when her first poem was published in Poetry Australia. Vicki was one of only three women to be published in the University of Queensland Press’ initial paperback poets series of 20 books.

Robyn Ravlich produced an hour-long documentary on Vicki Viidikas for the ABC program The Open Air in 2005 : Feathers/Songs/Scars along with a program on Vicki’s writing for Poetica. In her introduction, talking about the Balmain writers of the sixties and seventies, Robyn says, ‘Vicki Viidikas was one of our best writers whose light burned bright and early, whose incisive wordplay illuminated the condition of women defining themselves in and out of relationships. She remains a vivid presence in absence, Vicki was a free spirit then and her poetry reflected it.’

Vicki Viidikas published four books, Condition Red (1973), Wrappings (1974), Knabel (1978) and India Ink (1984). During her writing career she traveled widely through Europe and India. Vicki lived in India for more than a decade, where she wrote poetry and a novel and studied the cultures and religions. She continued to write prolifically through the eighties and nineties, right up until her untimely death on the 27th November 1998. She was 50 years old.

Her writing records her search for freedom and her quest for belief. Also her preoccupation with hard drugs and other dangerous experiences she encountered along the way. Freedom was central to Vicki Viidikas in her life and writing. She strived for freedom on her on own terms and saw it as a right that had to be imagined and fought for, something to be renewed each day as it was lived:

This is from ‘Letter to an Unknown Prisoner’ a late piece written in 1990.

So even as her Israeli friend took to sea on a battleship, she wrestled with asps and profanities, she bargained with the anarchy of her soul, she tried every distraction and sensation to quieten her troubled dreams; no stopping of armies, no pardons for prisoners who’d be loaded up by the cops, no mercy for the murders of boat refugees, no saving of forests or the nurturing of different languages— Nothing but tolerance would change the course of her winds … Freedom, to unlock denial; freedom, that incorrigible weapon.

It’s included in the recently published book ‘Vicki Viidikas ‘New and Rediscovered Martin Edmond has written a very fine review of it in the latest Mascara Literary Review (http://mascarareview.com/martin-edmond-reviews-vicki-viidikas-new-and-rediscovered-2/). He notes Vicki’s use of the phrase ‘incorrigible weapon’ and says it’s ‘a weapon that she seems to have used, both in writing and in life, in every possible manner she could devise’. Edmond picks up on some important aspects of Vicki’s writing and describes it perceptively: ‘the lack of self pity, even of regard, is both bracing and disconcerting’ and that ‘this brave, reckless, honest, insouciant, hyper-aware voyager, discloses herself primarily as wound or, less surely, scar.’ Edmond goes on to say he was not surprised to find her in the later stages of the book, ‘describing the country of addiction from the point of view of an insider, a long-term resident, and ultimately someone who will find it impossible to leave. There are many kinds of addict and many reasons why people become addicted; one, certainly, is that heroin is a great salve of mental pain’. Thinking of Edmond’s final point here, it’s interesting to look at the poetry Vicki wrote before heroin. Here’s a stanza from ‘Cracked Windows’ one of the poems in her first book, written in a relatively stable period of her life,

…………Back there somewhere
the treacherous head has stored its history,
that innocence of not knowing
has changed beyond repair, mirrors
refract a thousand meanings
…………The head distorts what it can’t bear

Those lines were written before she wrote ‘Punishments and Cures’ a poem she thought of as a breakthrough, it draws from the experience and the trauma of a woman being raped. When I think back over my long friendship with Vicki, it seems to me this was a wound that didn’t really heal. Being raped at a young age became more than a wound, or even a wound that healed as a scar, it became a source of hidden rage that lasted a lifetime. Here’s the poem :

Punishments and cures

1.

Did you want me to bungle,
should I have trumpeted about landscapes
buckling overnight . . .

Knotted your head into ribbons
laced with my memories?

Should I have raved and gone dramatic
should I have asked you for pity?

I would have hated you then —
I would have told what you already feel

2

Don’t ever give me
a raincoat for Xmas,
because rain is external
and Xmas doesn’t matter

Antiseptic would do the streets good,
but don’t talk about prisons — we know
they are no use . . .

Some things are born funnels
without any minds — what do we do about those?

Do we issue T.V.s and dark cells,
what do we do when the rain hurts?

3

You see he twisted
a broken bottle at my throat,
his head an empty funnel
the inside rusted — something
too human to be recognized.
Next morning his V.D.
still throbbed beneath his sex . . .

We can’t punish what isn’t there

I cant thank him or hate him,
get him put back in jail
for doing what he did before

4

There was running through bushes
that had faces and trapdoor hands,
feeling my breath waft off,
as if it would never come back

What can we do about funnels?

Rust is impossible to scratch off
and did he cure his V.D.
that priceless souvenir
he needed so much to give me?

Perhaps it’s true what he said,
that all women are ugly . . .

One feels that
when you become a four letter word,
and afterwards, there’s some private festering
not always cured by a doctor . . .

Maybe I shouldn’t have cried the first time,
and maybe I shouldn’t have pleaded the second

Vicki thought a lot about what she was doing formally, she read widely and absorbed the writers she found interesting, she learned from the French Symbolists, English Romantics, the modernists, various New American Poets and even the Surrealists, however she was always careful to retain her own style. Vicki wouldn’t let her work be reduced by these aesthetics or any combination of them. She often said she made use of her subconscious imagination as much as raw experience. Some of her prose was creative reportage, she wasn’t convinced by the purely imaginative. One of the most passionate arguments I ever had with her came about when I quoted a line by Wallace Stevens: ‘The imagination, the one reality in this imagined world’. Vicki thought this was incredibly limiting whereas I thought of it as liberating. She had things to say about life as she had experienced it, and Vicki was determined to write about those things.

When she first started writing Vicki said she wasn’t aware that what she was doing was writing poetry. She thought she was writing down her problems so she could work them out. The only poet she knew well at that stage was Gerard Manly Hopkins. She left school so early she had to educate herself, gradually she set exercises in reading for herself—she collected new words as she encountered them, then wrote down the words and their dictionary definitions in notebooks . She shared poetry through her husband, the painter Robert Finlayson, who gave her books that they discussed together. Then through her work in the bookshop purchased more books of her own. She gradually moved from prose into free verse, her first poems were rather didactic and tightly written. She gradually incorporated irony, hyperbole, black humour and a kind of surreal whimsy. Here’s a poem that uses her formal skill, it’s laced with irony and catches her intelligence in full flight, it’s called ‘They Always Come’

When they have taken away
the childish laughter and dogeared books,
peeled off the last mush embrace,
given the girl
her lipsticks, hair rinses and pills

When they have poured back the drinks
as long as empty deserts,
returned the spurs to the one night stands,
taken off the overcoat
and riddled her bed with song

They’ll find
a mirror smothered in lips,
a vacant room with stale cigar ash,
an unpaid bill for a Turkish masseur,
a woman’s glove by a handsome typewriter

They’ll see
charleston dresses of the mind
with their fringes running like blood,
a list of men’s names
from childhood to eternity,
they’ll dig the very fluff from the floorboards,
examine the stains on the manuscripts

Which drug did she take?
Which pain did she prefer?
What does the lady offer
behind the words, behind the words?
Their criteria will be:
so long as she’s dead we may
sabotage and rape

Vicki published her first poems during the period Germaine Greer was publishing in Oz magazine. Greer published The Female Eunuch in 1970 . Vicki Viidikas published Condition Red, her first volume of poetry with the University of Queensland Press, in 1973. Vicki was beyond radical politics by this stage and on her own journey. One of her first attempts at writing a longer sequence of poems, had the working title, ‘A Woman in Search of The Holy Grail’.

Preparing for this lecture I went back through all her books and re-read them. The recently published Vicki Viidikas New and Rediscovered contains much previously unpublished work, along with properly edited selections from her best prose. I have always had a high opinion of Vick’s poetry but it came as a shock to realize I had underestimated her prose. Her prose turns out to be her poetry. There are some truly exceptional pieces in this book; ‘The Chimera’ and ‘A Modern Snow White’ are unforgettable stories, it’s easy to agree with the particular comment made by Christina Stead on the book’s jacket, the phrase is: ‘Tremendous talent’.

Vicki Viidikas. (Photographer unknown).

Vicki Viidikas. (Photographer unknown).

3. Robert Harris

A portrait of Robert Harris by Spooner which appeared in The Age on the 16 April 19931993.

A portrait of Robert Harris by Spooner which appeared in The Age on the 16 April 1993.

Robert Harris was born in Melbourne in 1951. His mother died of heart failure when he was six years old, his childhood was made difficult and his schooling disrupted. At 18 he enlisted in the Australian Navy to further his education . Harris was discharged in the early seventies and published his first book Localities when he was twenty two. After attending poetry readings at La Mama he became involved with Overland magazine of which he eventually became the poetry editor. He married and came to Sydney in 1974 where he became involved in New Poetry, the magazine I was editing at the time. Morry Schwartz published his powerful book Translations from The Albatross during this period. It was Robert’s first attempt at writing a book of poetry as a living-composition, with its experimental poem sequences and the linking ballads. Translations from The Albatross was beautifully illustrated by Garry Shead.

The book that followed this was The Abandoned, a luminous volume of dark music, a book I cherish and think of along with Francis Webb’s The Ghost of The Cock. At the beginning of the section entitled ‘Complex of Abandonment’ Robert Harris placed a quote from St John Perse: ‘They called me the Dark One, and I dwelt in radiance’ in his poem ‘Going the See the Elephant’ he alludes to an abandoned child.

Going to See The Elephant

An elephant dances by itself
……………………………Toes to toe, the foot across
More than chains have completed the ring
………………though here, on an evening of the circus
……….the deaf performer under the skin

……….Toe to toe, the foot across
……by rhythm
………………tireless

………………………as a heart’s

as an elephant’s
………………dancing by itself

……….there’s no harm at all but the harm
no damage done but the damage

……….& children ride that Ella-funt chained in
circus,
the welders are clapping like madmen in their coffins
Deaf to a withheld cardiograph
An elephant dances by itself
………………Where two people are there are doubtless two
elephants dancing by themselves

………………the children who point Small elephants
dance inside them

The great leaves flap and do hear darkness instruct
……….them
……..and the great leaves flap enacting first
instruction,
the stanza’s initiator whose thought is thunder
……..striding
the Sandman’s seven-league-booted conspirator
……..striding

……………………………….toe to toe, the foot across

sway —

…………..deaf to fascistsi blowing fire

and that madman who spoke of ‘the cream’

none of them nor I was there in the Company carpark
An elephant dances by itself
& haunts me and is different from
the consciously bantering nurses or
obedient realism

There is only the man there who sees the showering
spectrum revolt
the Plant like a great florilegeum burst
apart before everything ebbs.
A dolorous thing on an evening of the circus
If an elephant stops dancing

Harris refers to a ‘withheld cardiograph’—to me this suggests a metaphoric mention of his mother’s heart failure: especially when followed by the lines ‘the Plant, like a great florilegeum burst/ apart before everything ebbs.’ The subject of this poem could be the representation of a six year old Harris with his mother watching an elephant at a circus. Especially with the word ironically spelt out as Ella-funt, and the final lines : ‘A dolorous thing on an evening of the circus/ if an elephant stops dancing.’

Robert Harris’ poetry takes a hard look at human suffering caused by social and economic disparity. He worked all his life at physical jobs, from undertaking (actually carrying corpses) to digging graves. At one stage Harris and John Forbes worked together as furniture removalists. An entry in Robert Harris’ journal records this period of his life:

‘I don’t mind working, yet I have to say that during the present recession, I’ve had three jobs which were not unionized and they have all been hateful. And you work, you work for people who are friendly and people who distrust you. And the people are your job.

A woman who refuses a driver a glass of water one hot day. People who feel guilty about the fact that you’re doing physical work for them, and people who misinterpret the load so that, at the end of an already long day, you’re confronted with a stove, all right. It was cast in Philadelphia in the last century and is well above every legal limit for any human being to carry. I’ve been working for 20 years and I’ve been sacked twice. I don’t mind work. The job drives out all inclinations to write. There’s nothing to do when you get home but try to get over it.‘

In the mid eighties Robert received a Literature Board Fellowship to write a book of poetry . He spent this precious time in a small town on South Coast of NSW where he did some of his finest work. It was during this period he became acquainted with the Yuin people who lived at Wallaga Lake, here’s one of the poems:

Wallaga Days

2.15pm Vic’s discharged from hospital
with eighty kilometres to hitch-hike home,
with a couple of smokes, nearing fifty.

The road climbs out of town around
Mumbulla mountain and onto the windy plateau.
If you stop for him you find him far along it,

walking towards the purple hills.
The cars that pass him float across the rises.
The day is open as a palm and glitters.

6.30pm Eileen and Joanne are in Tilba
playing pool with a couple of whites
and Teddy and Frank from Deniliquin,

they’re visiting for a couple of weeks
Eileen explains in the back bar
reserved for tentative friendships

like these. Everybody does his best,
there are a couple of good cues,
there is another bar you mustn’t go in.

11.00pm or some time thereafter
poking along the river’s floor
comes torchlight. Behind it wait

spears at bow and stern,
behind the spears are memory,
fire bedded on pebbles in bark canoes,

behind the fire torches, men.
In the rocking boat that hunts for a knife
is an eel around a spear, hissing.

The ending of this poem works in a similar way to the Francis Webb’s poem ‘The End of The Picnic ‘, where the poet sees Cook’s longboat as the ‘devil’s totem’ gliding silently across the bay, taking us back through time to be alongside the Aboriginal people on the shore at La Parouse as the English planted their flag. Harris takes us back even further to ‘the rocking boat that hunts for a knife’—before knives existed here. The final two stanzas turn the poem slightly and it tilts into a complex bend of thought.

During the same period on the South Coast he wrote the book A Cloud Passes Over containing several provocative religious poems, these were a breakthrough for Harris and opened up new territory—he cuts loose old affections and sees the world very differently from this poem on:

Isaiah By Kerosene Lantern

This voice an older friend has kept
to patronise the single name he swears by
saying aha, aha, to me.

The heresy hunter, sifting these lines
another shrieks through serapax and heroin
that we have a culture.

These are the very same who shall wait
for plainer faces after they’ve glutted on beauty,
a mild people back from the dead

shall speak the doors down
to the last hullo reaching the last crooked hutch
in forest or forest-like deeps of the town.

Those who teach with the fingers and answer
with laughter, with anger, shall be in derision
and the waiting long, and the blue and white days

like a grave in a senseless universe.
I believe this wick and this open book
in the light’s oval, and I disbelieve

everything this generation has told me.

A Cloud Passes Over was a breakthrough in terms of recognition. It was published by Angus and Robertson under the editorship of Les Murray. Judith Beveridge has written this book contains ‘some of the best religious poems written in the last 50 years.‘

In 1987 Robert Harris was confirmed as an Anglican and, in 1990, he was parish delegate to the Synod. After reading A Cloud Passes Over, Fay Zwicky, who has always been a tough critic, gave the book her blessing— ‘His acceptance of the Christian faith was obviously no easy jump from scepticism to certainty’, and as she read she discovered ‘you become aware of profound intelligence at ease with its quest and sure-footed in its isolation.’ Coming from Fay Zwicky, this meant a great deal to Robert and reassured him he was taking the right direction with his continuing work.

Robert made several trips to Europe and one to America, he sought out places and libraries where some of the writers he loved had lived. With his wife Jennifer he took a walking tour and they went by foot from Germany to the U.K. Later he returned to London to study the life of Lady Jane Grey. Harris spent many hours in the British National Library and the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford. He spent time checking out the Tower of London where Lady Jane Gray had been incarcerated before she was beheaded on the block. He published Jane, Interlinear & Other Poems with Paperbark Press in 1992; it received glowing reviews and Peter Craven wrote that he considered Jane, Interlinear a masterpiece, ‘Jane’ went on to be shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize and it won the Victorian Premier’s poetry award, the C. J. Dennis Prize. There was great range in this book and Robert’s prosody was at its height: his striking wit and depth of thought ran through a thirty poem sequence for Lady Jane, and the poetry in the rest of the book was alive with his intelligence. Robert’s engagement with language was also evident in this work, each word in every line mattered to him. His years of study informed his verse with discipline and music.

Harris had discovered compelling content that suited his flexible new line. The sequence is complex and it is difficult to represent in part but I have chosen this section here because it’s brief and can stand on its own.

XXIII: In Anne Boleyn’s Garden

Bullinger, .inter alia,….purslane…….flowers war. As pink’s
warned: you are likewhere taller..becoming an English word

it is magenta……….between the petalsinterplay of flowers
greets Jane’s eyes..and herself, that……with the mind

Apartments to………..marchpane to dread………..expelled from
prisoner’s quarters,..Excluded from discourse,time. Put out

to meditation on……not the weightless…..until, resigned,
the swinging steel,exchange we make,..we take the garden

that we leave behind……….hardly sad,………..makes us grow
Botany may be dry, it’s…..only differencesacute, as though

they were ouselves….and strangely to ..Returning, ..we can
still clung, freely……..us, and apart……..name .flowers:

pelletary-by-the-wallforget-me-not……….heart.
and maiden’s blush…….camellia,..bleeding

Less than year after Jane Interliner & Other Poems, won the Victorian Premier’s Poetry Award, one night our phone rang. I knew by my wife Juno’s response that it was not good news. I just wasn’t prepared to hear that Robert Harris had been found dead from heart failure in his apartment. Remember that mysterious line in the poem ‘Going to See The Elephant’? Where someone was “deaf to a withheld cardiograph” maybe it was a similar congenital defect to his mother’s heart condition. Robert Harris was just 43 when he died.

Two weeks before his death Robert had dinner with us at home on the Hawkesbury River. It had been a wonderful night and as he left he handed me a new poem. Here is ‘Don’t Feel Sorry About It’ I believe it was one of the last poems Robert Harris wrote, if not the last poem:

Don’t feel sorry about it, if you remember
blue Darlinghurst nights like particular quilts
a generation of painters saw
before we arrived there, or found ourselves

deciduous as apple trees. Don’t feel sorry
for our poverty, or I’ll report the mirror winks
like a man with bad teeth who has laughed
at all who dislike poetry. Be less than sad

on the day that you hear the news I fell,
they’ll nose you out, the generous, curious ones.
then rest assured that I will never tell
who left her pee in glasses overnight.

Don’t be sorry so much ambitious verse
groveled in the cities where we lived
only say for me I walked an older road
where poetry was rare and hard, and, frankly, good.

Robert Harris (right) and Robert Adamson at the launch of Jane Interlinear at Adelaide Writers Week 1992.'  (photo by Lynn Hard)

Robert Harris (right) and Robert Adamson at the
launch of Jane Interlinear at Adelaide Writers Week 1992.’ (photo by Lynn Hard)

– Robert Adamson

——————————————————————————————————–

Robert Adamson is one of Australia’s leading poets. He is currently The CAL Chair in Poetry in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney.

Michael Dransfield

Vicki Viidikas

Robert Harris

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Enjoying the Reading Ride: Pam Brown Launches ‘Boom’ by Liam Ferney

Boom by Liam Ferney. Grand Parade Poets, 2013. Pam Brown launched Boom at the Summer Hill Hotel on 11 August 2013. This speech originally appeared on Pam’s blog http://thedeletions.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/boom-by-liam-ferney-published-by-grand.html

BoomI had read the first eleven poems in Boom before they were collected here. In 2011 they were published in a neat chapbook called – how ironic is this for a poetry title? – Career. I don’t want to sound totally naive, but I didn’t know for certain whether ‘first eleven’ meant something sporting though I had an inkling it did. So I actually looked it up – of course, it’s a cricket team. Sport is an important component in Liam Ferney’s poetry. A sports fan is happy being part of a crowd and in fact probably really enjoys the metaphysics of mass companionship so I think it’s reasonable to say that Liam is not primarily driven by individual subjectivity. But reading his poetry I deduce that neither is he blinded by latest-literary-fashion-following tribal poetry behaviour. Perhaps living in Brisbane protects him from any such competitive, impenetrable and rarefied stuff. In other words, Liam probably gets enough of a dose of competition from being a competition spectator so his poems can remain characteristically distinct from a poetry mob.

However, there are influences and, rather than replicating them, Liam synthesises his influences. Among others, there are traces of the wonderful contemporary sonneteer Ted Neilsen, the bold vim of the adventurous 20th century-modernist travelling poet Frédéric-Louis Sauser whose well-known pseudonym was Blaise Cendrars, and, especially, the critical wit of the exceptionally vital and original twentieth-century Australian poet, John Forbes.

In fact Liam and his friend, poet Jaya Savige, read poems from John Forbes’ last book Damaged Glamour each day for a week during Liam’s visit to Jaya at the poets’ flat in Rome in 2007. Jaya told me in a recent email he is “certain [that way back in 1998-99] no teenager in Qld at that time, and few before or since, had read as much contemporary Australian poetry as Liam had.” He also told me “Liam’s first reading was in fact at the ‘Warana Festival’ – before it became the Brisbane Writers Festival (!) – WHEN HE WAS 14!!”. Jaya went on to say “he was probably the most informed teenage poet of his generation in his state, and in hindsight, one of the most serious, committed teenage poets Queensland’s ever had.” By his early 20s “Liam knew everything there was to know about contemporary Oz poetry, especially the 68-ers.”

The first group of poems in Boom were written in South Korea and the blending of images and the sensuality of a hectic city is everywhere in them – like the poem ‘sign on the dotted line’ where many things are happening as the poet, drink in hand, watches tv and reports the goings on

chase the fishmonger’s asthmatic truck
clogging the warren’s chambers
susan sangsters lounging on the hoods
of hyundais ajumma lugging cardboard
ajeossi stoop smoking mild seven(TM)
scooter delivery kim chi and pizza boy
sideways under a truck a michael bay hero
when you consider it skynet only considers itself
so we say to the fish go forth and conquer
they prosper on the fourth floor of the flophouse
propped between the bathhouse and the driving range
after the funeral they confirm it you were always
better than your caste there is no substitute
 for thinking
but abc asia and soju come close

Please explain? Okay. Google tells me a couple of language things – ‘ajumma lugging cardboard’ – ‘ajumma’ in Korean is a middle-aged woman, ‘ajeossi stoop smoking’ – ‘ajeossi’ is a middle-aged man. Michael Bay, as you know, is a high budget special effects action film director (he made Pearl Harbour, Armageddon, Nightmare on Elm Street and so on). The scooter accident where the boy dies must be horrific. It’s all, together with Susan Sangster, a jumble of images in real life and on tv – the poet is drinking ‘soju’ -a Korean liquor that’s a bit like vodka.

So you get the general crazy language mix and copious idiosyncratic pleasures of Liam’s poetry. It’s often a kind of freely-associated speedy world-travelling word salad of tumbling imagery and is exciting to read.

the subways empty for the quarter-final
while the postman is kept busy with dispatches
bullfights and canals from the melted western front

post-it notes flapping on the microwave:
you are your own cinema verite
all the rushes make the test screening

towards the denoument is a flourish – another sporting reference –

lennox lewis stops mike tyson in the eighth
and you invent an answer to your inadequacy
a postdoc thesis on rollercoasters and bliss

– (Say Anything)

Liam’s abbreviations, Korean and other languages-other-than-English terms, and colloquial acronyms will keep your search engines busy. For example, in ‘Expecting Turbulence –

HMRG ( heavy metal? I don’t know) Deep in my heart First chance I get I’m SoCo mofo (U2??) – JDAM’s first,/questions second – I think I’ve decoded that part – ‘Joint Direct Attack Munition or smart bombs first / questions second’

So although it can be puzzling figuring out some of these especially particular references, the poems provide so much imagery, humour, comment and movement that you can probably skip deciphering and enjoy the reading ride.

The same goes for the cricket references, hardly any of which I ‘get’ but that didn’t stop me from thinking along and chuckling with Liam. But for actual cricket fans I’m certain it has many rewards. It’s a local genre – the North Americans have poems about baseball, Liam includes cricket.

but the lights go out on us
as lazily as a midwicket poke in the annual boxing day game
michael slater has never known such a tragedy

– The Secret Life of Them

and in a different poem –

The High Court straight drives its ton
with the panache of a Bill Lawry knock,
tipping its bat to the bored crowds
swatting at flies with cultivated indifference.
Wiping the leather & green off their creams
they decide the occasion calls
for a bleary barbie on the banks
of Lake Burley Griffin.

– Ode/Deakin

The poems also critique the shallowness of our fast-fix lives and are sometimes imbued with nostalgia for a better version of contemporary urbanity in the boom-time years and their myriad distractions –

that was the eighties nobody stayed for the dailies

– Think Act

and in an early millennium poem: – he asks “who says the naughties can’t be fun” (riffing on both ‘nought’ – zero and ‘naughty’ – wicked) :

rather than celebrities the glossies give us notorieties
the gossip in the weatherboard suburbs
is as periodical as a cold sore
the pleasant machines
in the bourgeois estates
get whacked on irony and debt
play prime time remote control keno
if it comes up rove everybody wins

– The Secret Life of Them

These poems are crammed with ideas and popular culture like zombie movies, all kinds of songs, all kinds of movies, 1940s films’ wholesome romantic misadventurers like Andy Hardy and Jimmy Stewart as well as the previously mentioned Hollywood action movies. There are many places, cities, odd behaviours, politics, food, language, there’s daily news, tv characters, spies, artists and more.

There is also much humour and occasional ironic self-deprecation as in quips like this one –

I learned surrealism
from travelling exhibitions
then did my best to forget it
hoping I could come off
easy and casual
like terry towelling hats
or cold beer.

-some nights the heat

and other funny failure lines like

my saison en enfer & the get rich schemes
evaporate like colonial best intentions
or foraging all over town for Vegemite’

– Seoul Survivor

Sometimes Liam’s poems also display formal characteristics. ‘Day of the Robots’ is a pantoum or a villanelle (they’re similar forms) – I think it’s a pantoum – here are the middle quatrains –

An early riser’s athletic mystery
determined by a detective’s defective method.
An embedded cultural reference
weaves the fabric of R. Mutt’s famous joke.

Determined by a defective detective method,
the curbside lunch, meat pie and Coke,
weaves the fabric of R. Mutt’s famous joke,
trademarked like a familiar sentiment.

The curbside lunch: meat pie and Coke;
a checkout chick’s smoke break lament
trademarked like a familiar sentiment:
kitsch is truth as we know it.

In ‘No Room At The Inn’, Liam’s lines of thought take the reader from definite impressions of Blaise Cendrars, he opens with a quote from the trans-siberian prose – we know we’re momentarily in Paris, and then, with a turn that’s similarly visceral to Cendrars’, we are suddenly in an exotic east or in a suburb

where our stomachs rattle like cathedrals
shuddering shocked earth of an invading artillery advance.
Over a breakfast of champagne sherpa-ed from the Crimea,
……….Siberian pastries and unlikely fruit,
we expect good things to happen to good people:

and further along –

Sometime later, after the long early dark,
with the help of a hitchhiking tundra tamer
…….we’ll shunt out of the station with a long march
of Chinese commerce boxed for trade in Ulan Bator.
Finally, a fan belt snapped on some post-industrial Leichardt’s Kombi,
as we slide our best silk stockings into place
that cough, more welcome than tubercular,
…..tolls the glory of our departure.

Boom is Liam’s second collection after Popular Mechanics was published in 2004. In a recent interview he was asked “How long do you generally spend writing an individual poem?” He replied – ‘Five or six years. The initial composition generally only takes about fifteen minutes (I write short poems) but the polishing and tightening and drafting can take years. One of the reasons I am able to balance a demanding professional career and poetry is the fact that I write predominately short, experimental lyric poems which I can scribble off in a lunch break or in the couple of free hours I get an evening. If I was writing The Iliad I might struggle to find some balance but I’m not.’

These poems, although carefully constructed, never appear laboured or contrived. They move as easily as songs.

A few years ago Liam was ‘Cordite Poetry Review‘s editor. He edited a feature of newly-written Ern Malley poems. I think that was a demonstration of his light-heartedness – his ability to be genuine while not taking things too seriously.

There is much more in the collection but I hope I’ve given you some idea, a sample of the multivalent range of Boom. Liam’s is a punchy, a-d-h-d-y, original poetic energy that is steeped in urban imagination.

The final poem ‘K61: Beijing – Kunming’ – is a vivid diaristic record that transits various locations – China, Brisbane, the UK, Nigeria – and several years. Here is the final part of the poem –

now slipstreamed it’s five o’clock fireballs
like a marshmallow forgotten on a twig
the villages are all dank water anonymous toil
bicycles with bent spokes they reduce pollution
for the olympics piped flutes harp in my eyes
i will wake to mountains or plains
& twenty-four hours to go

The last line of Liam’s bio note, which is also the last line in the book, says ‘His passion is life.’

To quote from one of the poems –

and it is true that flowers are better than bombs

– Heartbreaker

Peace & Lerv – here’s Liam Ferney……

– Pam Brown

————————————————————————————————–

Pam Brown recently edited Fifty-one contemporary poets from Australia for Jacket2 where she is an associate editor. She has published many books including Dear Deliria (Salt, 2002), True Thoughts (Salt, 2008), Authentic Local (SOI3 Modern Poets, 2010) , a pocket book of ten poems, Anyworld (Flying Island, 2012) and a booklet, More than a feuilleton (Little Esther Books, 2012). Her latest collection of poems, Home by Dark, has just been published by Shearsman Books in the U.K. Pam lives in Alexandria, Sydney and blogs intermittently at http://thedeletions.blogspot.com/

Boom is available from http://grandparadepoets.com/

Punchy Twisting Lingo: Gig Ryan reviews ‘Career’ by Liam Ferney

Career by Liam Ferney Vagabond Press, 2011.

This review is based on Gig Ryan’s launch speech for Career which was delievered  at   Melbourne Trades Hall on Saturday July 9, 2011.

Liam Ferney’s second book, the chapbook, Career, weaves all kinds of punchy twisting lingo into poetry – influenced by the fact that this was written while living in South Korea, hence the punning title. When surrounded by another language, one becomes acutely aware of what is peculiarly English, and untranslatable – “in the fugitive drizzle a thoroughbred gallops / across the cabbie’s fake timber dash” (‘Think Act’). The influence of John Forbes pokes through many of these poems – in his use of simile, for example, but Ferney’s poems follow their own crazier, more abstracted, path. If there is resolution, it is in the exhaustion of pouring every cranky crumby accoutrement of contemporary existence into these poems: his poems are not littered, but bejewelled, with the insistent shouts of everyday life – the songs, the TV shows, the movies, journalism, current affairs – “post-it notes flapping on the microwave: / you are your own cinema vérité soap opera” – all  laid out in poems tailor-made for aficionados of Korean alcohol and cigarettes, Italian zombie movies, acronyms, and abbreviations of all kinds:

when you consider it skynet only considers itself
so we say to the fish go forth and conquer
they prosper on the fourth floor of the flophouse
propped between the bathhouse and the driving range
after the funeral they confirm it you were always
better than your caste there is no substitute
for thinking but abc asia and soju come close…   

(‘sign on the dotted line’)

Underneath much of the humour, there’s nostalgia for a lost paradise  “that was the eighties nobody stayed for the dailies” (‘Think Act’) – as also in Duncan Hose’s One Under Bacchus, where the quest for some higher metaphysical truth is always stymied. The constant critique in every adjective and verb implies an alternative:

Where drifters suit up for the army while they dish out
free money at the sandstone graduation & I make do
with bushwalks..etc…

and

the prospectus of delight was a myth
similar in scope to the lone gunman theory
or the story of a bunyip nicking cattle”

(‘Seoul Survivor’).

There’s a recurrent ‘taking the piss’, ‘taking the mickey’,  a perpetual self-deflation, of laughing at one’s own expectations/aspirations/dreams before anyone else can – maybe this satirising ourselves first is peculiarly Australian, or perhaps simply the postmodern condition. “I learned surrealism / from travelling exhibitions / then did my best to forget it” – that is, we bear the weight of past culture that’s distant in time and place to us in a comparatively traditionless New World. Having seen via CNN the murderous results and mostly the collapse of the pompous British and American empires, so an evangelical high seriousness is one we avoid (though you wouldn’t know this leafing through some recent yet timeless literary mags).

show up at the temple and it’s mug’s luck: priest out to lunch.
This life is on fire & some kid has buggered the extinguisher.
Get down low & go go go, Alice’s carbon monoxide opera,
the second rate tragedy sends me asunder
a Ramsay St. fault line, an Australian Dostoevsky:
The Bloody Idiot.

Saturday’s Typhoon

Another thing I admire in Ferney’s work is that’s he’s not afraid of overdoing it with deliberate battering consonance and alliteration as in the opening lines of the first poem ‘Think Act’:

still a prima donna maradonna soars
the hand of god seems as unlikely as hess
the sick swan descends sans plan and
it’s easy to get marooned behind the lines

say goodnight to itaewon’s bum fluff

There’s also an underlying theme of varying types of masculinity to be consulted, admired, or measured against, Mike Tyson, Mark Waugh, pizza boy – and the book’s title, Career, perhaps emphasises how these types of Aussie masculinity don’t seem to fit with poetry, or maybe it’s as if the fact of writing poetry is going to be enacted like a prize fight –

that’s how
you get suckerpunched:
using bigger & bigger words
…………………………
as if somebody had tattooed
a scrabble player’s aesthetic
over poetry’s flexed bicep”

Crumpled Elegance.

But it’s this tension, this conflict, that drives the poems – and the first poem’s title ‘Think Act’ also draws attention to this fake conflict between action and reflection, that is, the poem is the act of thinking, and is both thought and action, as tough, as noble, even as pathetic, as any other.

But there’s also a quieter more reflective tone in some poems, as in the almost classical ending of the final poem, ‘Expecting Turbulence’, as the poet flies out of Seoul, reflecting and summarising his travels:

Nothing left but Brando, Malden and a fugitive KAL ticket,
when they say no more Tennessee soda pop
the leaves on the peninsula melt red in the coming cold,
we’ve swapped maps on the in-flight distance demonstrator
and this land, my memories of you,
close like the year in the days after Christmas.

This seems to update Oscar Wilde’s aphorism from The Picture of Dorian Gray “Art is not the reflection of life, but the reflection of the spectator.”

Liam Ferney seems to be wrapping himself in everything that’s western, pointing to the distance between himself and a foreign culture he can’t truly participate in, but only observe – the poems as a shroud of consciousness necessary to assert one’s existence in a crowded foreign place, that allow one to write an identity, and these poems certainly achieve that distinction.

Art/poetry becomes a weirdly permeable chain-mail – or even a cyclone fence – where identity forms against the alienation of the foreigner.

– Gig Ryan

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Gig Ryan is Poetry Editor at The Age newspaper (Melbourne) and a freelance reviewer. She has published numerous books including New and Selected Poems (Giramondo, Australia, 2011); Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, UK, 2012); songs with Disband, Six Goodbyes (1988), and Driving Past, Real Estate (1999), Travel (2006).

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For information on how to buy any Vagabond Press Book email them at contact@vagabondpress.net

Adam Aitken on The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries Conference

The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries Conference was held at Deakin University (Deakin Prime in Melbourne) on 12th and 13th of April 2012. Adam Aitken, who presented on “(un)becoming hybridity in my poetry”, looks back on the highlights of the conference. This account was first published on Adam’s blog http://adamaitken.blogspot.com.au/

Adam Atiken. Photo by Adrian Wiggins (www.pureandapplies.net/adrian)

The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries Conference was one of the best conferences I’ve been to. The conversations were lively, and there was a refreshing openness and willingness to understand the institutional limits of our thinking. The postmodern did its dance with the postcolonial in a good atmosphere that seemed free of the defensiveness and self-censoring that often occurs at such conferences.

One of the major debates has been the reasons for the demise of postcolonial study of poetry throughout the world, and the subsequent shrinkage of voices from the margins. But no-one came out and ‘blamed’ the postmodernists, no one blamed “po-co” theory for being out-of-date, but good critiques were mounted on the limits of these paradigms, and poetry as poesis or “making” (dare I say in Shelleyan terms the “Spirit” of Poetry) seemed to survive the machine that theorises it. (Or at least I didn’t feel overwhelmed by theory, but affirmed by the workability of bringing together of theory and poetry performance. It certainly allowed me a freedom to speak in ways I have been craving for years.)

To kick things off Peter Minter reprised his critique of the recent Gray/Lehmann battleship anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788. Minter argues that the project comes across as a “neo-colonial vanity project” that fails to achieve its claimed objective representation of Indigenous, ethnic and postmodern Australian poets; its fails to disclose its subjectivity, a point made already by David McCoohey in an early review of the book. Minter called the framing of the collection (by its introduction and its faux-Aboriginal emu-design cover pages) an example of nationalistic kitsch. One view is that whatever the quality of the selection, the canonising function of the national anthology represents a kind of management document for the archiving of a certain ideal Imaginary, one whose border are already belated and possibly out of date, an argument both Bridie McCarthy (“Border Protection: Neo-Colonialism and the Canon”) and Lucy Van (“‘Why Waste Lines on Achille?’: Tracing the Critical Discourse on Postcolonial Poetry”) touched on in their respective papers.

Minter’s figure of the archipelagic map of Australia swims for me, so rather than one island made of “empty space”, we are a constellation of geo-psychic centres scattered between the equator and semi-arctic latitudes. The desire is to connect these centres in a diplomatic way, through a poetics of relation and movement. Minter’s eco-poetic is complex and continually re-imagined and changing, and so far no national cultural “programme” or manifesto is offered to replace current Federal-State structures for the arts. In a sense, Minter’s Glissantian vision is antithetic to centralist bureaucratisation, is self-engendering and anarchic. (Should the participants in the debate over the direction of the ‘peak-body’ Australian Poetry take note here?)

The Eurocentrism of the academies was hardly apparent here (though the venue itself was pure High Modernist Corporate and rather neutral in terms of cultural markers of identity, but everything worked; and some of the conference food was “Asian”), and rather than merely accept any kind of approach as the “right one” for all of us, there was a thoughtful suspension (or muting perhaps) of the manifesto-impulse. That said, a certain participant confided in me that she thought John Hawke’s launch of VLAK, a journal produced by a coalition of Australian internationalists and expatriate Louis Armand, had a whiff of “cultural cringe”. Looking through the volume afterwards, I was impressed by how many Australian-based poets had a presence here, and rather than read this as “Australians going Euro-avant-garde”, I read a concomitant vector in which Australian marginalism and our own awkward multiculturalism and location hybridises the master signifier of “Europe” itself. VLAK is European, but the term already masks its own contradictions and the seeds of its own deconstruction and impossibility. VLAK comes out of Prague, not Paris or London or Berlin, and arguably it speaks of some kind of Eastern European marginality vis-à-vis the West, a marginality that invites collaboration with our own.

For everyone the challenge was to talk about Australian poetry as something that is still growing and negotiating its own relations to it own marginality, and to speak with/back to the grand body of European postmodern theory, to postcolonial traditions (the subaltern studies group, Latin American traditions, hybridity theorists and others), and to Asian-American literary studies, a kind of big sibling of a nascent Asian-Australian formation represented here by Tim Yu a leading theorist and Asian-American poet in his own right. As Michael Farrell’s quip about “marsupial consciousness” suggests, the organism is still semi-foetal and in need of many mothers’ protection, and it would be premature to champion any kind of eco-poetics or hybrid consciousness as the future terrain of our reading.

Ali Alizadeh offered a post-Marxist critique of how we over-determine identity in migrant and indigenous poetries, and, in a controversial reading of an Ali Cobby Eckermann poem, suggested that identity is virtual and operates as a kind of fantasy that obscures the material and eco-political conditions that oppressed subjects deal with. Arguing against that I suggested a way of reading identity in Butlerian terms, which sees identity as performative and constituted in the interpellative moment. We become who we are – gendered and raced – through self-identity, but also because we respond to the labels others put upon us, and the effects of language and of naming are material; identity is symbolic as language itself is a system of symbols with communicative and ideological effects; identity is not merely symbolic or virtual or to be relegated under macro-economic superstructures and ideologies, and there is a complex pre-ideological moment before identity is affixed, through language, on the body. But I argue that in the face of essentialistic racism we can hybridise those labels deliberately and disobediently through speech acts.

Maintaining a hold on Australian studies, the enthusiastic, warm, and venerable Lyn McCredden gave a brilliantly strong reading of the tropic traces of “Australian nation” (its status as a centring Imaginary) in poems by John Forbes and Ken Bolton. Opening up her own position to debate, she invited different readings. I suggested that she extend the study of nation in Forbes and Bolton to include their poems about other nations, European ones at that. McCredden’s main point is that however we try to break away from controlling discourses of nation in the popular imaginary (e.g. ANZAC, the Beach, Tom Roberts painting of shearers etc.) Nation and Nationalism Aussie style won’t go away and should not be ignored. Indeed poets need to address such a demotic in order to remain relevant as critics of the current neo-colonial regress in popular Australian culture.

Other notable papers included Michael Farrell’s reading of on the Neo-baroque in Michael Dransfield. Michelle Cahill gave a brilliant paper on the subaltern and the necessity, perhaps, to step outside the institutions that continually silence the subaltern. There was a good discussion of what the margin-centre looks like now in the Australian poetry scene, and how an Asian-Australian literary formation might address margin-centre formations. It was my own sense that good will exists towards the project of opening up the space with an Asian-Australian anthology, and many are looking forward to have more discussion of form and language in AA poetries.Tim Yu’s paper re-enforced a perception that AA poetry was invisible, and that in his own research he had begun to see that there was no easy parity between the two versions of AA – Asian-Australian was NOT an obvious kindred model of Asian-American literature.

Other great papers and performances included Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawers, “A migrant poet and the fine art of escapism”and Ania Walwicz reading “‘cut-tongue’-fragmentation, collage and defence”. Danijela’s story of how she overcame her own silence, and learned to speak of post-war trauma, was extremely moving and instructive. Her own sense of her own migrancy in Australia reminded everyone that being a migrant poet is subject to all sorts of limitations and expectations and impositions from the audience. Her own work, however, is both resistant and critical of what “migrant poet” means in the first place, and her life and work which is often surreal, playful, confounding, often transcends the limits of the framework imposed by managed multiculturalism.

A fitting closure was Ann Vickery’s wonderful paper on Juliana Spahr’s book Fuck You Aloha I Love You, a book very much about how a white woman negotiates cultural chauvinism in Hawai’i, and how the white female critic can respond to anti-white racism. In the face of hateful vilification, what responses are open to scholars to keep the debates and conversations open? How do empowered white scholars deconstruct their own cosmopolitan readings of the non-white, the non-cosmopolitan and the colonised on the margins? The ideas were familiar, but what moved everyone was Ann’s reading of Spahr’s poem and Ann’s “confession” that she felt guilty that she had neglected race in much of her scholarship. Awful silences occur in classrooms when race-talk becomes a divisive machine, a taboo subject, so if the military atmosphere is to be decommissioned, poetry like Spahr’s should be heard and conferences like this one need to continue.

Finally it was a great loss not to have heard Sam Wagan Watson, who was ill. I wanted very much to discuss how he saw hybridity theory and its limits, the subject of my paper. In defiance of much hybridity-theory’s need to “smash essentialisms” I am sure he would have given an impassioned description and defence of the essential at the heart of his identity and how his poetry configures nation, land, imagination, desire, and identity. A conversation for another time.

Adam Aitken

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Adam Aitken latest collection of poetry is the chapbook Tonto’s Revenge (Tinfish Press). He has just returned from three seasons in France and now lives in Sydney.