Kaleidoscopic Jigsaw Puzzle: Amy Hilhorst reviews Courland Penders: Coming Home by Ronald Corlette-Theuil

Courland Penders: Coming Home by Ronald Corlette-Theuil. Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd 2014.

courland penders, coming home imageMichael Dransfield is somewhat of a legend in Australian poetry, self-mythologised as a ‘ghost haunting an old house’, and retaining widespread popularity more than 40 years after his death. His poems blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy, as he wrote of LSD trips, mad wards, and created ‘Courland Penders’, a country mansion conceived partly by memory and partly by imagination. Working within such elastic borders of fact and fiction, Ronald Corlette-Theuil’s Courland Penders: Coming Home places Dransfield’s work in the context of suburban school life, a childhood environment shared by the author and his brother. This original and unique angle in Dransfield scholarship situates the poet in the ‘real’ world of Australian cultural history, yet maintains a creative and at times speculative flair.

Courland Penders is the first book-length study to pay detailed attention to the quasi-real, quasi-fictitious house. By treating it as an important cultural symbol, Corlette-Theuil respects Courland Penders and by extension, respects Dransfield. The first chapter challenges accusations that Courland Penders was not real, arguing that the mansion is an integral and authentic part of Dransfield’s – and Australia’s – literary heritage. The author eloquently dismisses those who called Dransfield a ‘bullshit artist’: ‘a curious judgement to pass on the inventions of a creative writer’. (19) His admiration for and interest in his subject seems to seep through this book, a tone to be welcomed by Dransfield fans. Keeping with the spirit of the 60s and 70s, Corlette-Theuil often adopts a playful, humorous style that builds on Dransfield’s anti-establishment, anti-bureaucratic sentiments.

Chapter Two, ‘Images’, analyses the Courland Penders poems in depth, comparing poetic strategies with techniques in visual art, music and film. Like Dransfield, Corlette-Theuil’s knowledge of art and literature is broad, and his criticism enriched by his ability to note subtle allusions. Poems are unpacked in a way that opens and expands reader’s interpretations without limiting them. Poetic lines are weaved throughout Dransfield’s personal narrative and biography, which intersects and overlaps with Corlette-Theuil’s; they lived in the same town and went to the same school. Corlette-Theuil’s extensive research and attention to detail is at times so thorough that it becomes a little dry; at one point he acknowledges the ‘rather arid exposition of detail’. (46) Readers interested primarily in Dransfield’s poetry may find themselves lost in paragraphs of teachers’ names and schoolyard geography, wondering how these facts fit into the book’s argument.

As with many posthumous biographies, some speculative leaps are necessary, and are often consciously foregrounded. A few chapters in, it seems that this book sits at the intersection of biography, academic criticism, memoir and even creative non-fiction. With a finger in so many generic pies, and with the depth of research supporting it, one gets the sense that Courland Penders could have been developed into four or five separate books in discrete, self-sustaining forms. The assemblage works, however, and in knowing Dransfield personally, the writer has a personal advantage over other Dransfield researchers. Corlette-Theuil can recognise places and people in the poetry, making Courland Penders a valuable contribution to our understanding of Michael Dransfield’s oeuvre.

There are instances in this book that are a creative delight, such as the analysis of ‘Courland Penders’ as a code in ‘descending paradigm’. This code poignantly reduces the name to ‘our land ends’, to ‘our lad pens’, to ‘our end’, to ‘O D’, a chilling reminder of the cause of Dransfield’s death. Sometimes the book errs on the side of gossip (not of itself a negative), and it will be useful to scholars interested in the symbol of the house, architecture, and the Australian Gothic. Corlette-Theuil hasn’t merely read on and around Dransfield, but in tracing his literary influence has considered French fiction, British theatre and Skadic poetry. A particularly stimulating chapter is ‘Names’, which is entirely concerned with the etymology, history and phonic associations of the titular country house. In all, Courland Penders is soundly researched, and presented with genuine enthusiasm. Building on existing scholarship by the likes of Livio Dobrez, Patricia Dobrez, and John Kinsella, this book is an important piece in the ‘tantalizing kaleidoscopic jigsaw puzzle’ that comprises Dransfield’s poetry and life. (141-2)

 – Amy Hilhorst

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Amy Hilhorst is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia, researching the relationship between poetic language and representations of psychosis in the work of Francis Webb, Bruce Beaver, and Michael Dransfield. Her own poetry has been published in Writ Poetry Review and in Trove Journal, and she has read as a feature poet at Writ Poetry Review, Sturmfrei, and Voicebox. Amy currently teaches in the English & Cultural Studies discipline at the University of Western Australia.

Courland Penders: Coming Home is available from http://www.austinmacauley.com/author/corlette-theuil-ronald

Ten Years on an Island by Philip Roberts – The Beginnings of Island Press

Island Press was founded by by Canadian poet, musician and (then) Sydney University lecturer Philip Roberts in 1970. In 1979 Roberts returned to Canada and gave Island Press to Philip Hammial who ran it by himself until  1993 when it was transferred into a Co-operative. This year the Press celebrates 45 years as an active poetry publisher – probably making it the longest running poetry press in Australia. It is celebrating its birthday on Saturday 3rd October at 3.30pm at the Harold Park Hotel in Sydney with with readings from Island Press poets, & the launch of the latest poetry books from Philip Hammial, Christine Townend and Roberta Lowing.

The following account of Island Press’ first ten years was written by Philip Roberts after he left Australia and was originally published in Poetry Australia Issue 74-75, 1980. Rochord Street Review thanks Philip Roberts for permission to republish this article

The Island Press Co-operative website can be found at  http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

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island logoI started Island Press in 1970. It was an act of defiance, in a way. I had been ordered back to bed for a month after a relapse of suspected incipient multiple sclerosis, but instead set out from the neurologist’s rooms to Dolphin and Hannan on the outskirts of Parramatta and bought a Jewel treadle platen press and six fonts of Garamong type. During that month, not only did symptoms of my supposed ailment disappear, never to return, but I became a printer, a traveller of the Gutenberg galaxy, with all its miraculous reality.

I had always been fascinated by print and printing. When I was two I picked up an “error” of spelling in my own name (on the label of a bottle of Phillip’s Milk of Magnesia). Not many years later I was “printing” books on an ancient typewriter, and “binding” them on my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine. (This is not good for the needle, I was later informed.) I recall that the magic of the transformation from flat sheet to openable book was my principle source of pleasure. At high school I was editor of the annual Retropect’s first printed (as opposed to mimeographed) edition, and went on to become the editor of two undergraduate student publications (one, The Acadia Athenaeum in Nova Scotia in 1959, and the other the Jesus College, Oxford, Dragon a few years later). I became a professional, so to speak, during a couple of frustrating, and, ultimately, dull, years as a sub-editor in the chaos of Reuter’s Central Desk in Fleet Street. I also sub-edited and ghosted on the side. Correcting printer’s proofs was a common task for me.

Moreover, I had friends with an active interest in printing. An undergraduate friend at Oxford, David Bridges, had a small Adana Press, on which he planned to print (but only got as far as proof stage) my renderings of four Anglo-Saxon poems (these ultimately appeared in Crux, my third book). Also at Oxford I met Robert Graves, then Professor of Poetry. Early in our Friendship he presented me with three books he had printed with Laura Riding at their Seizin Press. The first, the smallest, was An Acquaintance with Descriptions by Gertrude Stein. They had printed this in Hammersmith, and Gertrude had had to sign bits of numbered paper in Paris and then post it back to Hammersmith to be stuck into the books. The second and third had been printed in Deya, Mallorca, where Robert still lives. They were To Whom Else by Robert himslef (he was very apologetic about the quality of the poetry in this) and Laura and Francesca by Laura herself.

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Finally, in 1969 my first book of poems, Just Passing Through, had been handset and printed by a young couple of poets in Canada, Sean Haldane and Marnie Pomeroy. Their Ladysmith Press was on their farm in Ladysmith, Quebec, near Ottawa. Their interest in printing was entirely coinci dental, but it was a boost to my own—redoubled when I discovered in later correspondence from Canada that both Sean and Marnie had known Robert well. This led to a lively exchange of correspondence between Ladysmith, Sydney, and Deya, the main topic of which was printing.

Having edged the new Jewel into our laundry up by the road at 9 Bayview Street, Lavender Bay, in Sydney (an act for which I was later—over a year later—to be evicted), I now had no clear idea of how to proceed. I had a few books, including a rat-gnawed Victorian manual given to me by Mr Edwards of Edwards & Shaw, Sydney, publishers of many fine collections of Australian poetry, and was able to distribute my founts into their respective cases, but I still was unable to print even a single line. One day, a stranger, a bass guitarist on his way to a session in a neighbouring flat, stuck his head into the laundry where I was wallowing in despair. It turned out that he was also an apprentice in printing at Sydney Tech. In an hour and a half he had taught me virtually everything I have ever needed to know about basic printing (I have to assume that I am still ignorant of many of the finer points), enough to think of doing a small book of poetry. I never thought of printing anything other than poetry.

I already knew a few Sydney poets and one or two others in the other cities of Australia, and the idea came to me of doing a small booklet, with one poem from each poet, the copies to be sold or else given away, and the proceeds to be equally split between us. One of these poets was David Malouf, a colleague at Sydney University, where I taught. He suggested a few more names. Eventually I ended up with 22.(These were Robert Adamson, David Campbell, J. M. Couper, Bruce Dawe, Robert D. FitzGerald, Rodney Hall, J. S. Harry, Gwen Harwood, Martin Johnston, Geoffrey Lehmann, David Malouf, James McAuley, Roger McDonald, Les A. Murray, Geoff Page, Philip Roberts, Thomas W. Shapcott, Vivian Smith, Andrew Taylor, John E. Tranter, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and Judith Wright, for the record). The guiding principle was that each poet had to choose his or her best poem written during the previous year. Hence the significance of the position of the apostrophe in the title chosen for the anthology: Poet’s Choice — many choices, perhaps, but each of them singular.

This new enterprise needed a name, especially if we (by now I had taken up referring to Island Press and myself together as “we” rather grandly) were planning to sell books and open a bank account. I had a block of land on Scotland Island, and had been planning to build and move over there in a year or two: “Island Press” seemed the right name. The fact that I ended up instead in Bundeena, in the Royal National Park south of Sydney, did not seem significant enough to cause me to change the name later, especially as it so well fitted my personal picture of myself as isolationist. I even drew a printer’s device, waves surrounding a book: the book as island.

So I set out, armed with my new name and a sheaf of contributors’ mss., with a pile of brown-paper parcels of newly cut paper from B. J. Ball, each sheet the size of a two-page spread of the finished book. Then the fun began. I cannot possibly go into the minute and painstaking attention to detail that printing demands. One thing, however, the bass guitarist had told me, and the most important: be ready to resort to anything to achieve the best. Arm yourself with talcum powder, chewing gum, hairpins and rubber cement. Even the newest and most sophisticated Japanese offset press won’t give perfect results without a lot of prior fiddling-around and even witchery-pokery. The tao of printing is attained during the make-ready stage if it is to be attained at all.

The cover of Crux by Philip Roberts. Island Press 1973

The cover of Crux by Philip Roberts. Island Press 1973

The business of typesetting is printing’s most time-consuming aspect. You stand there, hour upon hour, holding a metal composing-stick in your left hand, your right fingers fumbling endlessly among the 89 compartments of the case, picking up the desired piece of type, turning the character end around to face you, and then checking the face itself to make sure it’s the right way up, three operations to be repeated for each letter. It is gratifying to discover your fingers becoming quite used to this new routine, to the point where you no longer have to consciously consider the whereabouts of any particular piece of type. Next, each line of set type must be adjusted for spacing (happily, this is not a major problem in poetry, where the right print margin is seldom justified, or lined up evenly), then a one-point lead is dropped in and a new line begun. After five or six lines are set (this could take up to 15 or 20 minutes) the whole load is manoeuvred gingerly out of the stick and onto the “stone” (a sheet of thick glass, in my case) to sit level until the whole two-page spread is complete and in place, surrounded by other pieces of metal and wood (“furniture”) and locked up tightly with two expanding clamps (“quoins”). (By now I also had a whole new vocabulary to play with.) After the whole thing is clamped into the press, with all errors of typography and spacing now in the past, the process begins. A spin of the flywheel, a stomp on the treadle, and away she goes, with stops only to replenish ink or paper. Each sheet is placed on the platen by the right hand, and removed after printing by the left hand as the right is on its way over with a new sheet. You have to keep your eyes open to make sure none of the type is clogged, or that the rollers don’t need more ink.

For me, the printing was the most enjoyable and relaxing part of the process. Friends used to call and marvel at my furious energy as I treadled away, clang-clang went the ratchet escapement of the circular ink plate, kerthwoosh went the two ink-sticky rollers across the plate then down over the type itself and back, just instants before the mighty jaws of the platen and bed crunched shut on the paper. One summer afternoon I cracked the knuckle of my right middle finger while diving for a piece of paper that had slipped down while the press was closing. I should have known better. I came to later with a lump on my head (the cement floor of the laundry) and a finger that has never been quite the same.

It used to amuse me, at these times, that so many of my university and other literary acquaintances, who prided themselves on their knowledge of books and even gave WEA courses on communication, had never thought about the final part of the printing process—the distribution, or putting-away, of the type afterwards. They often appeared amazed, watching me at work, to see that once you take a piece of type out of its compartment and use it, you must clean it and put it back before you can take it out and use it again. But in fact, this was the easiest, and fastest, part of the process: with a copy of the newly-printed sheet before you, you don’t actually have to look at the type at all while you distribute.

I have no idea how long Poet’s Choice 1970 took me—many weeks longer than I had first imagined, I’m sure. I used to spend all my free hours at the press, on the weekends, in the evenings, and whenever else I could find time. What makes Phil print? people were wondering. The flexibility of my time table at the university was a great advantage, though I did encounter some negative reaction over this from my immediate superior, and in general felt rather unsupported by the upper levels of the English Department, whose fodder is, after all, books, and particularly books of poetry. In 1976, when I gave up handsetting, I offered my press and type to the English Department but was told they had no interest in acquiring a press. Presumably they feel that students interested in bibliography should travel to Oxford to study letterpress printing, as generations have already done.

A detail from Crux by Philip Roberts, drawings by Margo Lewers. Island Press 1973

A detail from Crux by Philip Roberts, drawings by Margo Lewers. Island Press 1973

From this beginning the Press just grew. Poet’s Choice 1970 was the first and only book from the Jewel press under my operations: I sold it to Michael Dransfield the following year (1971), and replaced it with a somewhat more sophisticated machine, an Arab treadle with adjustable platen. (The Jewel’s adjustments were made by adding or subtracting single sheets of the news paper I used for platen packing.) Michael got some Times Roman type (I think because it was more workable than my own Garamond, where founts are pretty limited), and printed a small book of poems for his father. I never saw the book, but I have a commemorative sheet we printed the afternoon we moved it over to his place in Paddington and got it working.

From then until the end of my hand-setting days I produced nine further books, a total of 10 in all. Aside from the annual Poet’s Choice, which went on selling well each year, chiefly by mail order, I did four individual collections: End of Dreamtime by Kevin Gilbert in 1971; Ithaka by Martin Johnston and Crux by myself in 1973; and Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson in 1974.

The use of artwork introduced a theme that became common to many of the Island Press collections. Martin Johnston’s perceptive translations from modern Greek poetry, Ithaka, included drawings by himself and Nevill Drury, now a high prophet of extrasensory phenomena and sci-fi. My book, Crux, had drawings by the late Sydney artist Margo Lewers, a good friend from my first days in Australia; she also designed the cover. And Robert Adamson’s Swamp Riddles, which I would now submit as my best piece of printing, had a cover by Robert Finlayson. This cover was a real headache—Adamson had asked for Efanta cover board for the paperback covers. I had never printed on paper with this finish, and, much to my consternation, discovered that my usual black ink (regular jobbing variety) refused to sink into the paper or to dry. We even baked some of the sheets all night in the kitchen oven, to no avail. I finally had to buy a whole new order of cover stock and have a professional printer do the job. So my best book is not wholly mine, at that.

Poet’s Choice 1975 was my last hand-set effort. By now the press itself had become physical drudgery. I hate to think of how many hours during those six years I spent balancing on my left foot while my right treadled up and down, four times for each impression, multiplied by 25, 30, or even 50 for each two-page spread in the book, multiplied (again) by 250, 500, or even 1000 for each copy of the final run. I was developing curvature of the spine and varicose veins in the left leg. It was getting to be a drag. I grumbled and threatened to chuck it all in, but in the end continued to allow myself to be persuaded (by other poets, mainly) to continue publishing even if I gave up printing the books myself. The deciding factor was the IBM typesetter, a kind of glorified “golfball” typewriter which produces pages of print ready, via photographic plates, for an offset press. So I could continue to do the typesetting, at vastly increased speed and comfort, while a commercial printer did the less exciting work of mass production. I soon hit upon Southwood Press in Marrickville, Sydney, a small, sympathetic, and generally competent printer and binder, and found that life as a publisher could be bearable.

The first of the IBM jobs was Poet’s Choice 1976 (its cover is disingenuously a crude facsimile of the old Poet’s Choice cover, done just before I dismantled the press forever, and looking more rustic than anything I had ever printed myself). The move into mechanisation which this represented was a big step. It meant losing a number of bibliophiles and rare-book collectors as standing-order customers. On the other hand, I was now able to print, in a relatively short time, a range and diversity of poetry which I could never have managed in the old handset days—books by Philip Hammial (since July 1979, with his wife Karen,, joint owner of Island Press), Ken Bolton (a past editor), Andrew Taylor, Michael Witts, Keith Shadwick, Andrew Huntley, Denis Gallagher, Kris Hemensley, and Jan Harry.

Cover of Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974

Cover of Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974

Running a Press this way means you can decide on a book and have it out in as little as six weeks—impossible for a large publisher. Moreover, you can give your poets and artists encouragement to plan all aspects of the book themselves—cover design, page layout, page area, illustrations, decorative typefaces, and so forth. I feel that Island Press poets have been, on the whole, happy with their books (though one of Brandon Cavalier’s memorable ink drawings for Michael Witts’s Sirens got printed upside down, a fact not too many readers seemed to pick up).

Most of my other energies in running Island Press (aside from the continual chores of correspondence, order-filling, and account-keeping) have been devoted to running negotiations with two agencies: the Book Bounty Section of the Business and Consumer Affairs Department, which, up to the end of this year (1979), refunded one-third of the actual cost of production of any book in Australia, provided it fell within certain guidelines of length, print run, etc. Unfortunately, this bounty is now being phased out, and small presses will now find it harder and harder to survive. The other was the Literature Board of the Australia Council, formerly the Commonwealth (of Australia, that is) Literary Fund.

The Literature Board scarcely needs introduction here. Its function is to apportion allocated funds from federal revenue to poets and other writers so they can continue their labours without starving (even though, as has been known since Larkin, “no one actually starves”), and to publishers so they can continue the otherwise financially unrewarding job of publishing the above-mentioned Australian poets and writers. In the C.L.F. days, the tricky bit was getting onto the official list of approved publishers. Usually this meant showing proof that you were capable of producing books which would elicit some (preferably favourable) critical attention. In spite of a great deal of reluctance on the part of the C.L.F. to consider an Island Press application seriously, I got nowhere in four years. I had a strong ally in this struggle in Alec Hope, and I remain grateful to him for his support, which culminated in our recognition just prior to the death of the C.L.F. and the rise of the newly-created Literature Board (Australia Council).

Although my relations with the Board have at times been less than cordial, I nevertheless look upon its participation in Australian writing and publishing as a good thing. All correspondence with the Literature Board, along with all other Island Press letters, mss., printers’ proofs, and other papers, is now housed in the archives of the National Library of Australia.

So far I have written as though I had been mainly alone in my labours. This is not true. From the earliest I had the strong support of a number of friends, of whom the chief of these, may her name live forever, was Norma Crinion of Sydney. Norma, long a behind-the-scenes worker in Sydney’s “alternative” publishing scene, had secretarial and accounting experience, and was so enthusiastic over the inception of Island Press that she volunteered to become its full-time secretary, accountant, and public relations manager. Unpaid for any of this, she continued her work for five years, on two different periods handling all the business affairs of the Press for many months while I was overseas. I occasionally later used to come upon a carbon copy of some letter she had written to an enquiring customer or to one of our contributors. They are invariably full of warmth and wit, and often elicited paragraphs of appreciation from her correspondents in return. I can never thank her enough for her help and support during the early years.

Other friends aided during certain periods of the Press’s history. My old friend Robert Brakspear, colleagues Stephen Knight and Don Anderson, Ken Bolton and Anna Couani (who edited the Gallagher and the Hemensley books respectively) gave freely of their time and energies. Poet John Millett, a trained lawyer and accountant, was always available for legal and financial advice when it was needed. Encouragement has come from every quarter, including from my dog Jason, who was just a pup on the day I first printed, is still with me now, a printer’s devil of ten years’ standing.

I can hardly conclude this reminiscence without mentioning that band upon whose very existence Island Press has -depended for its survival—the poets, contributors of poems and of whole collections. In general, I think I have been lucky in hitting it off rather well with most poets in Australia, usually being an observer rather than a participant in the frequent feuds and other hostilities that characterise the scene, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. (The Canadian poet Margaret Atwood was told it was just a way Australian writers had of enjoying themselves.) That old war-dog, Roland Robinson, had bad feelings towards me, so I had been told for years by other poets who knew him. One day, at a function organised by Walter Stone in the city, I met Roland face to face for the first time and told him my name. He stared at me in amazement for about five seconds, then said in tones of deepest sincerity: “What a difference it makes to meet a person!” Other poets have shown bad feelings at not being “invited” to contribute to Poet’s Choice, even though the “invitation only” rule was dropped after 1975 when I stopped hand-setting. (In 1976 and 1977 I advertised nationally for poems, on the understanding that I would make the final choice of the “best” poems submitted. Since then, poems have reached me chiefly through word of mouth, or through the efforts of previous contributors.) Moreover, and this must always be the fate of any editor, I am continually being taken to task for my final selection for Poet’s Choice—one poet likes only poem A and rejects the rest of the book, another likes only poem B, and so forth. It seems pointless to suggest (particularly to another poet) that one is after something representative, some thing catholic even, as far as possible, something for everyone—and that any one reader will probably not warm to more than a few of the total chosen. Of all the poems in the ten editions of Poet’s Choice which have appeared since 1970, I have been entranced by only five or six at the most (Purely as a matter of record I could name David Campbell’s “Hotel Marine” (the complete version, which only we printed), Robert Adamson’s “Action would kill it/ A Gamble”, Roger McDonald’s “Incident in Transylvania”, Michael Dransfield’s “Saying Grace”, J. S. Harry’s “what if the big blue day”, and Judith Rodriguez’s “Eskimo Occasion”).The other poems were chosen for other readers, and just as no single one of them has been universally praised, so no single one of them, as far as I know, has been universally deprecated. Perhaps what has surprised critics most is the large proportion of “unknowns” being published for the first time, particularly in 1977 and after.

A detail from Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974.

A detail from Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974.

The poetry scene during the past 10 years in Australia has been particularly lively and exciting. The period of the birth and development of Island Press has paralleled such notable events as the launching of UQP’s Paper back Poets series, the opting-out of establishment publishers Angus & Robertson and others from all but the “safest” poets, the burgeoning of a plethora of small magazines and presses, and even the founding of a Poets’ Union. I also recall with pleasure such events as the annual Balmain Reading (a whole chapter could be written on this movable feast, first held in 1967 and going on to the early 70s) and innumerable other poetry readings —in the city, in the country, everywhere.

It occurs to me at times that the poet is undoubtedly reading the particular poem aloud for the first time ever, that the actual sound of the poem comes as a surprise, even to the poet. There is a widespread ignorance of the fact that the primary appeal of poetry is its sound. Poets growing up under the Olsen-Creeley-Duncan aegis of Australian verse in the mid-70s often tended to overlook this.

This might also seem an opportune time to unload a few remarks on the general divisiveness of poets. As an immigrant, a creature of another (and I think gentler) culture, I was spared much of this misplaced energy. At times, keeping track of the feuding and fighting, who was in and who was out, the Melbourne-Sydney axis, the various personal animosities (sometimes resulting in physical violence) called for more time and attention than I was able to give, particularly with my foot on the treadle and my hand in a type case. Consequently, while I was often the last to find out about such things, I was also pretty safe from direct attack. At one stage I remember gazing at some passing clouds (we were meeting on a lawn) and praying to be delivered from the poets of Australia. I pictured myself lying in a small boat five miles offshore. Who anywhere else but here could have the slightest interest in these people and their problems?

In the second half of the 70s we have witnessed an ever-increasing willingness, on the part of Australian poets, to ape all that is supposedly trendy and fashionable overseas. More and more, “overseas” comes to mean the United States, and, even then, only selected pockets of that vast and polyglot population. The rise to importance, in the Australian poetic consciousness, of any particular American poet will almost certainly be the result of a British publisher’s decision to distribute this American poet in the UK and the old Commonwealth (including Australia). In this way, Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan came to light here only after London publishers had already “pipped” them. The recent rise of the late Frank O’Hara and the New York/ Bolinas school of the 50s and 60s as a supposedly viable inspiration for the 70s in Australia (the time lag is expectable) may be attributed to the same process. I complained to Phil Hammial (by birth an American) about this recent trend. “Did you ever look at Francis Webb?” he asked. “Pure Hart Crane.”

My interest as a publisher has always been in the poem, not the poet, in the continual search for that so-rare piece of work that makes you see the world, or a part of it, in a radically new way. Without the actual, tangible success, the birth of some real poem, the words “poetry” and “poet” are like clapperless bells. The publisher’s staying power is directly proportional to his optimism and faith that new work of power and originality will con tinue to be written. His object is to bring that work to its readers as efficiently and effectively as possible. A perfect poem with no readers, like Waller’s rose, is of small worth. Bestowing the regularity of print upon it, like putting a frame around a painting, shows that it is at least to be taken seriously.

– Philip Roberts 1979

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Canadian Philip Roberts studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, taught English in Spain and worked for two years as a sub-editor for Reuters. He moved to Australia in 1967, taught English at the University of Sydney between 1967 and 1979, when he returned to Canada. Roberts was poetry editor for the Sydney Morning Herald from 1970 to 1974. Roberts founded Island Press in 1970.

Reviews of Island Press books on Rochford Street Review:

The Island Press Co-operative website can be found at  http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

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“Perception and Memory”: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Empty Your Eyes’ by Robert Adamson

Empty Your Eyes by Robert Adamson, Vagabond Press, Sydney, NSW. 2013.

empty your eyes“The eye altering, alters all”, Robert Adamson quotes William Blake in the front of his new chapbook Empty Your Eyes, a line that characterises the poet’s work as his perceptions have matured and developed throughout his career. From the startlingly raw prison poetry in the early books to the romanticism and the stunning reflections on life on the Hawkesbury River in the multi-award winning The Clean Dark, Adamson has seen many things in his life most of us never will and expressed them through his poetry beautifully.

Published as part of Vagabond Press’ impressive “Rare Objects” series, Empty Your Eyes captures the essence of Adamson’s expert command over the lyrical that has been the basis of much of his reputation.

I see this chapbook as one of perceptions, which range from those of a young Adamson to an older, more mature Adamson.

Birds fly and life on the river runs through some of the lines, people walk and speak, though we also see the poet return to his early influences such as Saint Augustine, who’s Confessions Adamson first read while incarcerated. This is a brilliant poem spoken in Augustine’s voice narrating his decline into sin:

‘Living alone, Una took
wild honey daily
an attempt to ease her pain.

There’d be no healing for anyone.
Her absence was my wound-
A slave to lust, I took

another mistress’

 -(‘The Confessions of Saint Augustine’)

Adamson also reflects on several figures he knew as a young poet in the sixties, such as Charles Buckmaster and Michael Dransfield, as well as the works of other contemporary Australian writers such as Sonya Hartnett.

The Buckmaster poem is particularly moving, focussing on The Great Auk magazine published by Buckmaster briefly as an outlet for unpublished poets writing outside of the conservative mainstreams. It also serves as a tribute to a talented poet who never saw a long career, following his death at 21 in 1972:

 ‘…Charles spoke of auk bones
discovered in Florida, fragments put back
together by the Archaeologist of morning, the kingfisher
of poets. Charles wrote for the lost forest,
and opened new pages as he
walked the streets of Melbourne.’

 – (‘The Great Auk Poem’)

The personal nature of this poem, as well as ‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’, written upon years of reflection and calling on Adamson’s friendships and interactions with both poets, are an important contribution to the history of Australian poetry and the study of the so-called “Generation of ‘68”. We see how Adamson’s perceptions have changed since the sixties and seventies, and I believe there is almost a subliminal questioning of how the views and works of the likes of Buckmaster and Dransfield may have altered, had they not been swept away so young.

 ‘A lagoon reflects low sky-
clouds seen are clouds
as seen-words open
their shells in his brain-’

– (‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’)

Rereading this poem brought to my mind something Adamson wrote recently about Dransfield in a lecture he gave where he said: “I believe Michael Dransfield took a wrong turn when he decided to play out the role of the drug poet”. (http://www.rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/01/28/the-ultimate-commitment-the-poetry-of-michael-dransfield-vicki-viidas-and-robert-harris-by-robert-adamson/)

It is difficult to disagree with Adamson on this, as Dransfield would have likely altered his views and ambitions as he developed and matured as both a poet and a person. Luckily, we have been able to see Adamson enjoy a long and sustained career in comparison.

I think Adamson’s work in Empty Your Eyes would rival his very best, showcasing poems that preserve people and places, and even through the eye altered by time, he breathes life into that which has passed. The Dransfield poem, built on excellent imagery, is a lovely portrait of a young poet living for poetry, finding poetry in each waking thing. In it, Adamson references things such as James McAuley and ‘the loft’ where Dransfield lived with his girlfriend.

Prose poems open and close the chapbook, the title poem written after French poet Pierre Reverdy providing a brilliant note to end on.

“The Suffering has ended. Empty your eyes, a new era begins” writes Adamson as if in the present, but concluding by reflecting on a child in the early trappings of life:

‘on the far ramparts, a boy
with a thousand dreams, cries because he feels he is ugly.’

– (‘Empty Your Eyes’)

Through all of his changing perceptions over time, Adamson has remained an exceptional poet, and there is a certain solitude found in this book, as if he sees all things now in a clearer light.

A beautiful (though only slim) volume of lyrics, we are fortunate to have Robert Adamson, one of the finest and most interesting Australian poets we have produced this century.

Empty Your Eyes is a rewarding book and a fine addition to Adamson’s impressive bibliography.

– Robbie Coburn

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Robbie Coburn lives in the small farming district of Woodstock in rural Victoria. His first full collection of poems Rain Season was published in 2013. He is well into a second book. For more go to: http://www.robbiecoburn.com

Empty Your Eyes is available from Vagabond Press: http://vagabondpress.net/collections/rare-object-series/products/robert-adamson-empty-your-eyes

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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

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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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Practicing for the Novel: Lyndon Walker reflects on Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe

Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe. UQP 2012

There will be many far more informed reviews of this book than mine. Josephine is currently the darling young thing of the Australian Literary scene – something which must be good to experience in the first blush of flirtation with the literati, but can carry a sting in the tail if one doesn’t follow through and fulfil one’s young promise. I take note of my housemate’s initial response sometimes. She declared: “I noticed it on your couch and picked it up and started reading but was quickly bored. It didn’t hold my attention.”

So, to a certain extent, she (Josephine) reminds me of the poet Michael Dransfield in my own younger days. Michael had a lyrical gift and became a cult figure in Australia when he died, but that left him at the mercy of more boring lives who lived longer to write more and they punished him and his writing for the hype being larger than the eventual worth of the writing.

So let me go out on a limb and say that in many ways this offering from Josephine is a slight book. It reminds me of practice paragraphs at the writing workshop. They’re good for refining craft but I would not be rushing them into publication. If you go to a writing workshop in the US and make some connections then you are bound to get published in some local mags in the US. This causes reverence in cringy little Australia sometime. However…in my opinion, if her editors really loved her they would have waited for more substantial or coherent material.

For me this looks like “practicing for the novel” – but that does mean that I and many other of the 5,000 literature reading Australians are waiting for the novel. And the much praise coming to this little book will prepare the way for a good acceptance of the novel. The risk of course – it better be good – or that loving adulation could turn as sour as all get out as rapidly as milk in the sun. In the end it is like swept up notes from the floor of a writer. They are better than the average scribble but they are certainly not substantial. Keep in mind, this is only one opinion in the face of many at the moment.

– Lyndon Walker

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Lyndon Walker Is a Psychologist, Psychotherapist, Educator, Writer and Poet living in Melbourne. He has five published books of poetry and was awarded the Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry in 1996. He is currently working on two novels.

Tarcutta Wake is available from UQP http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1206/Tarcutta%20Wake

“Who was Michael Dransfield?” Robert Adamson revisits ‘Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography’ by Patricia Dobrez

Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography by Patricia Dobrez reviewed by Robert Adamson.

Robert Adamson originally reviewed Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography in The Australian Book Review in 2000. While this article is based on the originally review, it has been completely revised and rewritten so that very little remains of the original article.

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

Michael Dransfield was a prodigy whose life was cut short. When he died at 24 he had already published three books of poetry, since then another five volumes have eventually been published. By the time UQP released his Collected Poems in 1987, Dransfield’s reputation had grown, his poetry had been discovered by a broad readership, and his Collected Poems became the best seller in the entire series. Although his first book Streets of the Long Voyage appeared in 1970, when Michael was 22, he had been writing poetry from an early age.

Michael’s life became mythic and his reputation obscured his poetry. This 600 page biography Michael Dransfield’s Lives by Patricia Dobrez might be the place to look for what we can know of the reality of Dransfield’s life and work. Dobrez asked “Who was Michael Dransfield? ‘Did he himself know the answer to this question?” How does his poetry stand up after 39 years? His work is popular among young poets and has been highly regarded by three generations of poets who are now well established. His books have sold consistently over the years, and in 2002 a new selected poems was released, Michael Dransfield: A Retrospective, introduced and edited by John Kinsella.

There is a vast body of research behind this biography. Dobrez had access to Dransfield’s correspondence and papers, and she interviewed his family, friends and fellow poets over a long period of time. Here are lists and dates, the letters and plans for a future sketched on scraps of paper and envelopes; an archaeology through layers of time, facts and memory. There’s the infamous incident when Michael was invited to the Adelaide Writers Week by Geoffrey Dutton, but then when he was told that A.D. Hope would be appearing on the same program, Michael refused to go. This book is in honor of Michael Dransfield and his ‘lives’ but he is still not turning up for the literary festival. I thought knew Michael quite well for several years and yet after reading this book found myself wondering just how well I knew him after all.

Dobrez’s generous quotes from Dransfield’s work give the biography much of its energy, written in a jump-cut style which carries the narrative along swiftly, when it’s not cluttered with theory or quotes from other writers. At times Dobrez employs language that fogs up the clarity of both her own prose and the lucidity of Dransfield’s poetry. In the chapter ‘Age of Aquarius’ Dobrez quotes from the poem ‘Island’

there is no real thing.

none of these things is real.

he takes another book from the shelf,

glances, puts it aside, jabs a

needle in his

arm, listens to the wireless, kills it

with a touch.

there is no real thing.

he rises, and the face of the mirror empties.’

The sparse language, and short lines are insisting: ‘these lines’ are not real either, this is not confession, it’s poetry’. Dobrez, however, comes up with this interpretation: ‘It is as if enveloping post modern technocratic society were conspiring to rob its members of the real, so that relief might come through artificial channels, the mass media, or books, or drugs,’ what Dobrez misses is that poetry itself could be for Dransfield yet another ‘artificial channel’. He didn’t write in the ‘confessional mode’ that was so popular at the time. (In 1967 Sidney Noland’s portrait of Robert Lowell adorned the cover of TIME magazine along with a story about ‘confessional poetry’.) It’s always misleading to look too closely at the poetry for clues about the life. Dransfield can be flexible and witty, he can swing from symbolist to dada in one line, or from lyric to parody in a poem. He can easily mix the whimsical realism of Jacques Prevert with the sarcastic rhetoric of Gregory Corso.

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

Based on a reading of the poetry this biography gives the impression that Dransfield was a heroin addict, and it’s true he used drugs, he certainly smoked dope and tried acid and pills but there’s no proof he was addicted to heroin. Dransfield was never charged with using or possession and yet when he died the newspapers reported his death was from an overdose of heroin, this was not correct, no substance which may have caused his death was identified in the autopsy. Dobrez reports that the coroner’s ultimate finding on the cause of death was ‘acute bronchopneumonia and brain damage.’ In a later entry in ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’ Dobrez adds an even more curious note: ‘The coroner found that his death followed a self-administered injection of an unknown substance.’ This makes sense when one considers the fact that Dransfield couldn’t have afforded a serious heroin habit. He hardly worked other than on his poetry during the last two years. In Dransfield’s company of friends there was much experimentation with prescription drugs like Mandrax and tranquilizers, where the tablets were crushed and cooked in a spoon, filtered with cotton wool and then injected intravenously. The ‘mystique’ of the hypodermic and the vein was practiced in circles where there was no money available.

I believe there is as much fiction in Dransfield’s ‘drug poetry’ as there is in the ‘Courland Penders’ work, where Michael explored his imagined ‘aristocratic’ family and their inherited mansion, although I find the drug poems much more convincing. Dransfield loved pretense and outright fantasy and used both in his life and poetry. He invented a world for himself that he could retreat to when he wanted to live an imaginary life. Dobrez calls this particular ability of Michael’s ‘Imagineering’, and it’s woven through his existence. Imagineering, even though it sounds a bit clunky, is a good word, portraying the sense of Dransfield as he attempts to steer his future onward as a poet. His talent for self-promotion was as strong as his talent for writing, don’t be fooled by the hippy vagueness, underneath the theatrics there was a steely deliberation. Dransfield embroidered everything with his imagination, his correspondence, conversations and even his relationships. His existence wove in and out of reality, and many who weren’t poets found it difficult to tell what was real or imagined (in fact, there were many poets who also found Michael’s ‘imagineering’ hard to take.

The second collection: ‘The Inspector of Tides’

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 knew I was looking for poems to publish. He said he could write several poems in a night and I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t long before I learned that he could indeed write several 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. He needed tough and critical friends around him but I don’t think he was ready for them. He returned the next day with a manuscript and submitted it to the magazine. I read through it and thought there were a quite a few poems that were more than 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 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, after 40 years Michael’s poems continue to read well. There are major poems like ‘Geography’ and ‘After Vietnam’ along with fine lyrics like ‘Mosaic’ and ‘Environmental Art’..

‘Drug Poems’.

I read this biography by Pat Dobrez alongside Dransfield’s Collected Poems—I must say this book was more compelling to read now than it was when first published in 1999, especially in terms of reassessing Michael’s work—as one reads you are compelled to re-read the poetry. Dobrez conjures a simulacrum of Dransfield by determination and a dogged scholarship that opens out the poetry to be reassessed in its historic context. In Streets of The Long Voyage and The Inspector of Tides the poems seem more accomplished and innovative than I remember. There’s a lightness of touch, he made strokes with words like a painter, I kept thinking the most attractive feature of Dransfield’s work was its open lyricism. There’s an ease of movement that only comes with much consideration of form and practice. Dobrez quotes Felicity Plunkett who writes that Dransfield’s poetry makes a determined ‘appeal for the right to a fluid subjectivity’ and this quality adds to the apparent ease of his work. Along with the English Romantics and the European poets he loved, Michael had absorbed lessons from Don Allen’s New American Poetry. By 1971 much of his best poetry was written in an open field style he adopted from the Black Mountain school. He was interested in crossing the styles of the French Symbolists with the New American poetry. ‘Byron at Newstead’ is another of his poems we published in Poetry Magazine, in the final stanza he evokes lines from Mallarme’s letter to Henri Cazalis, May 14, 1867 : where Mallarme says that he had almost forgotten what the self was, that he needed to see himself in a mirror in order to think. Here’s the final three lines of Dransfield’s poem:

to be a poet

what it means

to lose the self to lose the self

‘Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal’. Dransfield’s fourth collection which was published after his death.

Dobrez points out that 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. 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 to a poet into a position of becoming a ‘socially integrated bard’. In the 1950s and 60s established poets hardly mentioned their employment, on the backs of their books they pared away the personal details, you’d be lucky to come across their hobby or sport.

These lines from Dransfield’s poem ‘Like this for years’ are often quoted by young poets as evidence of Michael’s courage, as a challenge and an example, especially the final couplet:

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

This poem goes beyond the idea of poetry as a profession, it speaks of attitudes many Australians have towards a person who might call themselves a ‘poet’. It reminds me of similar concerns in these lines written by Hart Crane in his home town of Arkron in 1921:

‘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.’

Voyage into Solitude – The first posthumous volume of uncollected work edited by Rodney Hall.

Hart Crane’s lines are the reverse side of Michael’s bravado. It’s true that to call yourself a poet in Australia can sometimes be the ‘ultimate commitment’, firstly there’s no money in it and 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’.

Dransfield’s first volume was published in 1970, the second in 1972. I feel 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 the ‘drug-poet’. However, a few months after The Inspector of Tides in 1972, Sun Books, released a volume of Dransfield poems entitled Drug Poems. I remember thinking the title was a big mistake in terms of the feedback it would create for Michael. The publisher was determined to cash in on the times, as a book it was packaged to slant towards the sensational. There was a head-shot of Dransfield that bled to the edges of a poorly designed cover with lime green pop lettering. The overall production was cheap, as opposed to the economical design of the UQP paperbacks. Drug Poems, even with Geoffrey Dutton hyping it to the skies, was poorly reviewed or ignored at the time and only sold a few hundred copies. Don Anderson was the only critic who had something positive to say about it, ‘ They are hard, clear, disciplined, fully realized poetry, which add to his already considerable reputation.’ Dobrez comments on Don’s language ‘To have one’s poetry acclaimed as ‘fully realized’ was, of course, to receive the Leavisite imprimatur for mortal adequacy.’

The Second Month of Spring – The second posthumous volume of uncollected work edited by Rodney Hall.

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Up until Drug Poems Dransfield had a charmed run with his editors and publisher.  Tom Shapcott guided him through the process of publishing and editing the first book, reading several manuscripts, cutting poems then editing a shape for ‘Streets’. Rodney Hall, as literary editor of the Australian, published many of Dransfield’s finest lyrics on a regular basis and this helped gather Michael a following. Then came Shapcott’s important anthology, Australian Poetry Now, a book that contained a large selection of Michael’s poetry, where Shapcott referred to Dransfield in the Introduction as being’ terrifyingly close to genius’; creating a backlash of course, but nevertheless good publicity.

Michael offered both manuscripts, Drug Poems and Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, to my publishing venture, Prism Books. I advised him to cut poems from both books and create one volume. I also suggested the poems could do with some tightening up and re-drafting. This didn’t please him at all, in fact he threw a tantrum and stopping talking to me for a month. Dobrez notes the disagreement between us at the time but doesn’t include the details. She does however quote Max Harris, he was not at all impressed with Dutton’s promotion of Dransfield as a ‘drug-poet’. Harris thought the

The Rodney Hall edited ‘Collected Poems’.

book’s presentation was corny and wrote in his newspaper column, ‘If Michael Dransfield achieves major statue from among the pack of younger poets, the stimulus to his writing and the recognition of his developing talent will have come from the restlessly enthusiastic squawking in the market place by the incurable Dutton’.

When Drug Poems was launched at the Adelaide Writer’s Week in 1970—the year Ginsberg was invited—junkies thought it was a joke and anyway didn’t have money to spend on a book. Ginsberg was friends with William S Burroughs who knew drugs and how to write about them. Readers of Burroughs could see through Dransfield’s work. Younger readers were more easily persuaded. Dransfield included the rigmarole of recreational shooting-up, along with details picked up on the street and described the rituals of heroin addiction. There were several powerful poems in the book and this is what upset the local literary set who didn’t know about heroin and its sleazy world.

I believe Michael Dransfield went astray when he decided to play out the role of the drug poet. Dobrez writes in her first chapter ‘So it is that, in the chapters which follow, we witness the ‘Imagineer’, with one eye turned towards 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 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’.

Who’s to know what he really took and what effect it may, or may not have had, on his poetry? His poems can as easily be read as warnings against heroin as Alan Wearne has noted elsewhere. Dransfield became addicted to the role he played; it was different at the time, even before Brett Whiteley came out as an addict, it was linked in Michael’s mind to pop culture along with the images of the French Symbolist poets and painters. A dangerous game he thought he was merely flirting with. He was a born poet and was still gathering his energies and skills, his roles and the ‘imagineering’ were youthful impulses that went out of kilter. In the end it was his lyrical gift came through for him, profound and timeless, as in his poem Geography:

(part III)

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

Michael Dransfield’s poem ‘The Change’, as it appears in ‘New Poetry’, June 1971. Thanks to Sam Moginie (http://moremeteos.tumblr.com/post/21412969278/michael-dransfields-poem-the-change-as-it)

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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.

Revisiting Dobrez on Dransfield: Adam Aitken on Michael Dransfield’s Lives by Patricia Dobrez

This is a revised version of an article first published in Australia Humanities Review in 2000. Note. The references to the Robert Adamson review of Michael Dransfield’s Lives refer to the original review published in ABR in 2000. The version appearing in Rochford Street Review has been completely rewritten.

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Michael Dransfield’s Lives by Patricia Dobrez (Melbourne University Press, 1999).

A peer and close friend of Michael Dransfield, Robert Adamson, writes in “A Prodigy Life”, an earlier review of this book:

A prodigy whose life was cut short – sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, fame, transgression, a great talent for both brilliant poetry and self promotion, set in the 60s. Dransfield has been all things to all people who read poetry. This six hundred page book will stir it up again. Who is Michael Dransfield? How does his poetry stand up after almost half a century?

I think it is not Dobrez’s ambition to answer the first question with any finality and quite clearly she hasn’t set out to be an authority on the question of Dransfield’s poetic abilities. The intended audience for this book seeks readers interested in an interesting life. This is not the kind of biography which defends the poetry in any formal terms, but the poetry is used to illustrate the life as a many mansioned room of intertextuality. The danger Adamson sees is that Dobrez puts too much store on the poetry as an illumination of the life. He writes: Dransfield didn’t write confessional poetry and it is misleading to look too closely into the poetry for clues that might reveal something about his life. He thought Lowell’s work in that mode was prehistoric. On the other hand, Dobrez claims among Dransfield’s great influences Sylvia Plath and the critic A. Alvarez, a strong proponent of confessional poetry. Either way, Dransfield wrote much poetry that does illustrate his life, though good poetry it may not always be. Dobrez finds that Dransfield pirated his own diaries for poems, and there is ample reference to real people and events.

Adamson reads Dransfield again and finds that his memories of the poet are not real: ‘The poet I knew in the late 60s and early 70s doesn’t seem as real.’ Felicity Holland’s review focuses on the biography as a detective thriller with no final revelation (HEAT 14, March 2000). She adds that ‘[p]lural biography is a rarity – biographies which ease contradictions and create an illusion of subjectivity are not.’ Similarly, Adamson re-inscribes Dransfield as a plural subject and an unreal memory – Dransfield was all things to people who read poetry, and his poetic practice was inseparable from his life:

Dransfield loved pretence and used it in his life and work. He was a true symbolist – he invented a life for himself along with his wonderful poetry. This imagined life (Dobrez calls it ‘imagineering’) was woven through his existence. He embroidered everything, including his correspondence and his conversation and relationships, with his imagination. His existence itself wove in and out of reality and other people who weren’t poets found it difficult to tell what was really happening in his life. (Adamson)


I would add Dobrez’s detailed and wide-ranging biography shows that Dransfield is and was all things to people who don’t read his poetry. The real value of this biography is in the way conservative Australian attitudes and standards of the late ‘sixties are revealed as one cause of Dransfield’s self-destruction; and the point is Dransfield didn’t commit suicide or intend to die from overdose. There’s no proof he wanted to commit suicide and in fact he died from septicemia contracted from a dirty needle he was using to inject morphine, which he was taking to alleviate severe pain caused by an accident. In short, to many he was a drug addict, a draft dodger, a university dropout and a hippy. No doubt, in Australia during the Moratorium years, to be any or all of these identities was an invitation to abuse and rejection, as in a sense they still are today. As a reaction and in a gesture of solidarity with the Left, Dransfield used poetry as a lyrical protest medium and he often wrote to protest. For support he therefore gravitated towards the Generation of ’68 community of small press publishers and writers.

But we must be wary of turning Dransfield into a poster boy of the Left, as he clearly sought approval from conservative poets like A.D Hope. Dobrez’s detailed research suggests that Dransfield was nourished by the loose and internally riven poetry scene despite its lack of funds for producing books for mass circulation – indeed a defining parameter was a cynicism about tying poetry to any form of capitalist profit-making or ‘professionalism’. But Dobrez shows that Dransfield was not a slave to counter-culture (which he mimicked when it suited); he wanted very much to be feted by the ‘establishment’ of the time, and if not adored by it, at least tolerated. Dransfield was delighted that one of his poems found its way into a school text. The slightly older generation born in the ‘thirties and earlier, whose leading lights were Tom Shapcott, Rodney Hall, R.F. Brissenden, Geoffrey Dutton and others, is crucial in generating the reputation that Dransfield needed to carry on being a professional poet.

Dobrez develops an Oedipal approach to explain Dransfield’s breakdown and lack of confidence in the face of older authority figures. Dransfield was too freaked out to launch his book at the Adelaide Festival, fearing that A.D. Hope would urbanely tear him to shreds in public. Dransfield was constantly unsure of how his Father and Grandfather – a Gallipoli veteran – would receive Drug Poems, and his craving for their acceptance may have added to the strain brought on by contradictory loyalties and generational differences. In fact Dransfield registered for the draft, though seemed to have only a vague idea why he did so. Dobrez ties in the psychology of such gestures with Dransfield’s fascination with his own family’s medieval roots, symbolised by a gruesome signet ring he wore consisting of a Turk’s head impaled on a sword.

Dransfield was acutely aware of what is called in ‘nineties parlance ‘marketing’. He had a strong sense of what was glamorous and saleable in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Through a description of parallel artistic activity in the music and visual arts scene, Dobrez shows that Dransfield wanted desperately to become the first Australian poet to become a pop idol. Perhaps his most destructive delusion was that he could control the mirror games of the market at that time. In order to sell his book Drug Poems at a time when all books had to be checked by the censorship board, he could project the image of the drug poet to a public he thought wanted to read about drugs and drug taking. The problem was that in 1972 his book didn’t sell, and in the end it was the Commonwealth Literature Fund that baled him out with a Young Writers grant. Then, as now, poetry by young Australian poets didn’t sell.

Dobrez brings in Fredric Jameson and Jacques Lacan’s ideas of the Gaze to reinforce her notion of Dransfield as a mass of contradictions: he was at various times and all at once the Imagineer, the purple Prince, the Troubadour, the Unrequited lover, the Edwardian squire, and the Keats of Hippiedom. All of these are well-known masculine roles in which the poet/Magus is in control of the Gaze and its object. But one of Dobrez’s most interesting chapters reveals Dransfield as a sympathiser in the house of a Female semiotic as practised by his lover Hilary Burns, a painter who specialised in childhood visions and the power of the Gaze. The period of life in a Paddington Loft and on various rural properties constitutes for Dransfield a growing female aestheticism, which was solipsistic and illusionistic but also a happy and creative period, during which Dransfield wrote his most enduring poems. Dransfield was also extremely close and relaxed with his mother and sister, in whose house he fell into a coma under mysterious circumstances.

In the end he became at least one of his projections: the Posthumous Poet. For me Dobrez’s text conjure the ultimate question: not how did he die, but what would he be doing now, if he had lived? Far from the notion of the drugged out hippie, Dobrez’s narrative shows Dransfield was developing life-preserving skills in a time of late-capitalism, and became adept at property speculation at a time suburban baby-boomers were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the ‘normal’ lifestyle choices of baby-boomerism. Dransfield’s rural experiment was a precursor of the ABC comedy series Sea-Change, Dransfield consumed ’60s culture better than anyone, and, according to Dobrez, this consumption included the re-appropriation of a ’50s dream of home. Dransfield’s well-known ‘Courland-Penders’ poems are a fabrication of an ancestral home haunted by ghosts and nostalgia for an aristocratic ideal. According to a friend, Richard Hopkinson, Dransfield ‘had visions of magical properties just waiting to be bought for negligible sums! He wrote to every country council in NSW inquiring about their next auctions’ (D, 436). In Dransfield’s postmodern scale of values, there was little difference between the visionary pleasures of drugs and the pleasures of living in a restored colonial mansion in Cobargo. In fact, they went together. However, despite one successful sale, the reality of real estate brought Dransfield down: a) the properties suffered problems with sewerage, wiring etc.; and b) Dransfield could hardly afford the mortgage. As Adamson asserts, the 60s is a decade no different to any other era ‘when poverty hovers above the rented Loft.’

Was Dransfield an operator? According to Dobrez, ‘he was ready to write advertising copy if the occasion called for it, as he was to write poems; he might have fitted very easily into an emerging commercial culture in which value is determined by image’ (441).

The main strain I have with this biography is that a life could be so contradictory and provisional, yet Dobrez’s discussion of postmodern theory never quite gets off the ground. This is a biography that constantly reflects on itself and invokes theory as a defence against those who expect biography to be recuperative/and or morally certain. I’m not sure if there’s too much theory, or too little. On the question of life’s provisionality I feel disquiet. Dransfield’s lives were labyrinthine and for Dobrez they are a proto-postmodern phenomenon. Why then has lifestyle/marketing theory become so functionalist? One expects a lifestyle to be consistent, otherwise its unmarketable as a ‘lifestyle’ in the first place. Whether or not one can or cannot close the narrative, I get the impression that there are mutually exclusive Dransfields vying for control of the biography, but the theory is too certain of itself, as if Dobrez was trying to fulfill the academic need to push a persuasive argument, like a PhD thesis that needs a closed conclusion. For Dransfield: case dismissed.

Much of Dransfield’s life can never be proved either way. Was Dransfield beholden to drug dealers in Crown Street? Was he stabbed in Kings Cross? Did a policeman really try to run him down on a country road? There was the talented and charming man Adamson remembers, never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he had been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete. This suggests a man who knew himself and what he wanted (i.e. the operator).

The other strain is the symptom of the unflinching way Dobrez details the ugly mind/body of Dransfield, the rejected man and lover, the velvet urinal, the pin-prick, the victim of multiple accidents with cars and motorbikes, who buys drugs to relieve pain. Adamson criticises the book for giving the impression that Dransfield was addicted to heroin. But Dobrez never definitively commits herself to this conclusion. This is theoretically consistent, for there is no final authority to say whether Dransfield was an addict. Still, it is annoying that this is repeatedly suggested. Perhaps the gap between the reality and the text should remain mysterious and unresolved, but as Adamson reveals, readers will continue to make judgements, whether moral or amoral, no matter how theoretically committed and fastidiously detached the biographer.

Here, biography of a celebrity risks becoming voyeuristic, as if the biographer and her readers were attempting to penetrate an exotic body. As readers we inhabit a morgue of illusion, rumour and lies. As a post-baby-boomer reading this, I also confront my own resentments and fraught relationship with my antecedents. I’m not sure I would have liked Dransfield the operator. There is Dransfield the prima-donna who reacts to an adverse review by threatening the reviewer with ‘a lead pipe / across your throat.’

I agree with Holland’s judgement of Michael Dransfield’s Lives as a work that takes no singular moral vantage point. It is not biography of recuperation, nor is it hagiography. It is however clinical when it needs to be, for example, the description of Dransfield’s manner of dying. It is as fair as it could be to Dransfield’s peers, relatives and friends. As Adamson testifies, it is a biography that is ‘successful in that, as one reads it, you are compelled by its narrative to reread the poetry.’ One hopes that readers will go on to do just that.

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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.

Michael Dransfield – 39 Years Dead.

Michael Dransfield is one of the enigmas of Australian poetry. When he died at the age of 24 on 20th April 1973 he had published three books of poetry (Streets of the Long Voyage, The Inspector of Tides and Drug Poems – though Drug Poems also contained a number of poems which first appeared in the first two collections). While he has conveniently linked to the so-called ‘Generation of 68’, looking back, like many other poets of that period, he does not fit easily into the commonly head notions of what the generation of 68 was all about.

The album cover for Robyn Archer's Wild Girl in the Heart.

I first came across Dransfield as a seventeen year old discovering for the first time that there was a poetry that was closer to the song lyrics I was listening to rather than the poetry we were being taught in High School. I discovered New Poetry magazine and the work of Laurie Duggan, Bob Adamson, J S Harry and many others. I also discovered Dransfield through the Robyn Archer LP Wild Girl in the Heart –an album were she put the poems of a number of contemporary Australian poets to music. ‘Outback’, in particular, spoke to the young left wing poet I then was. These were the days of yellow-cake shipments through White Bay in the middle of the night. Australia was no longer ridding on the sheep’s back, rather they were digging the ground away from under us – and Dransfield seemed to sum it all up in that single poem.

As a result I then hunted the two UQP paperback poet books he had released Street of the Long Voyage and Inspector of the Tides. In these books I discovered some of the most lyrical contemporary poems I had yet come across (I was, admittedly, coming off a low base). Poems like ‘Pas de deux for Lovers‘ and ‘Deuteronomy’ were a revelation and I spent far too long trying to replicate the style and mood of poems such as these. Then there were the slightly more difficult poems, including poems like Bums’ Rush which, even looking back over forty years, remains one of the best ‘drug poems’ every written in Australia.

Later I would track down the other books, Drug Poems I bought off a friend, Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal I found in a second hand shop in Canberra and the later Rodney Hall edited collections: Voyage into Solitude, The Second Month of Spring and the Collected Poems, I bought as they came out. I don’t have John Kinsella’s Selected Poems…some how I felt I had all I needed.

In retrospect what has stuck in my mind was the excitement that I felt when I first came across ‘Outback’ on Robyn Archer’s LP and Streets of the Long Voyage. This was the first time I felt real excitement on reading a book of poetry…fortunately it was not he last.

Mark Roberts

A non-exhaustive list of resources (articles and reviews) on and about Dransfield:

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.