A Portrait of the Artist as Place: Joe Dolce Reviews ‘Bluewren Cantos’ by Mark Tredinnick

Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick. Pitt Street Poetry 2013.

Both of our mouths
Can fit upon this flute I carry.

-Hafiz, ‘I Saw Two Birds’

blue wren cantosIn the notes, to Mark Tredinnick’s Bluewren Cantos, he remarks, ‘I’ve rarely written a poem into which a bird did not want to fly and there are equally few into which those dear to me did not want to wander.’

Birds fly into forty-five of the sixty-two poems in this collection of verse and there are twenty-nine personal dedications.

Reading Bluewren Cantos is a most rewarding challenge. Love, sexuality, spirituality and bucolic meditation twist a lovely braid. To seriously open this book is to take a hike in poetic Country with an enthusiastic and observant guide. Unexpectedly, Leonard Cohen, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, JS Bach and Seamus Heaney trek along beside you. The result is a good and colourful picnic, in true Hafiz style.

In one of the shorter poems, dedicated to his daughter, ‘Lucy and the Maple Leaf’, we get a glimpse of the creative bond and love of words between father and child:

…………………………………….It is late
Autumn, a Saturday, and the maple by the house

Has begun to drop its fiery leaves like hints (hot
Tips) at winter’s feet. She holds one out for me: a paw
Print in a child’s hand, a slightly death that stole a small girl’s heart.

Make it a poem, she says. But I take the leaf and draw instead
A shape for memory to fill, some lines for love to learn…

The music in the above poem is reminiscent of the sensibility in Elizabeth’s Bishop’s, ‘Sestina’. There is a lot of music in Bluewren Cantos. After all, birds have been known to sing. (I think they were the first.)

The term canto itself, while a measure of division in a long poem, can also refer to the highest part in choral music, the canto firmo, the melody line forming the basic of polyphonic music.

A quiet flutter of Emily Dickinson also floats through Tredinnick’s forest of a book. From her opening introductory epigraph: ‘I am…small like the Wren’, the tone of mindfulness is set for the journey. But the Emily that inspires these poems is much different that the one that Billy Collins poetically undresses in his poem, ‘Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes’:

The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Mr. Collins clearly has some untoward zoological intentions for our little wren. But in Bluewren Cantos, she alights on a different branch:

…that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself –

also whispering, into ‘The Thing With Feathers’, Hope:

…so that I mighty sit here in a frayed linen shirt and weathered
Jeans a foot above the tide and wonder how I’m meant to live…

In the massive 297 lines, and 18 sections of ‘The Wombat Vedas’, which won the Newcastle Poetry Prize, in 2011, a simple key to unlocking the poem lay in these brief confessional lines:

We fought, you and I, when I left. And I drove down here as if all the way back
Into some old autistic childhood. But now, my bags unpacked,
…………………………the fire burning, and a three-quarter moon
Edging out of the dark hills behind, loneliness grows slender and stretches out beside me,
……………..and the night is a sackful of stars.

His bags are unpacked, his loneliness has grown slender and for the next few hours we stretch out beside Tredinnick as he surrenders to the common praeternatural available to us all.

Many of the longer poems, in Bluewren Cantos, are pastoral mediations. They flow together like parts of one infinite extended work in which verses could well be interchangeable.

George Seferis once wrote about the poetry of CP Cavafy:

“…the work of Cavafy should be read and judged not as a series of separate poems, but as one and the same poem…. and we shall understand him more easily if we read him with the feeling of the continuous presence of his work as a whole.” (On the Greek Style)

One emerges from a sustained reading of Tredinnick’s Cantos with this continuous presence of his work as a whole.

In the epigraph to the Bluewren Cantos title poem, he quotes Jack Gilbert’s ‘Trying to Write Poetry’:

There is a wren sitting in the branches
Of my spirit, and it chooses not to sing.
It is listening to learn its song.

Has Emily’s little bird also flown into Gilbert’s tree? Tredinnick says later:

I learn slowly, but the birds teach me distance and delight,
The knack of being here and elsewhere at once. The more I dwell, the less I know for sure;
I live in a state of habitual confusion, like Berger, a man who’s lived in love
A long time now. In art, as in love and weather, one’s mind is (in) one’s body again.
One is, for a time, a place. Painted by bluewrens.

One is, for a time, a place. This line, for me, is the heart of Bluewren Cantos. And Tredinnick’s unique poetic vision.

JS Bach, my favorite composer, fugues along in the background in four poems, ‘Wombat Vedas’, ‘A Day at the Desk’, ‘Thing With Feathers’ – and in ‘Partita’:

…………………….Bach, you say, turned music
………………….into speech. He taught heaven how to walk, the gods
How to talk, on earth.

I’ve always viewed Bach as the fifth New Testament prophet – only arriving a millennium later. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – and Johann Sebastian. Not simply Christian, but a mystic of the highest order. How else to understand a devout Lutheran who also created a choral masterpiece for the Catholic Church (the B-Minor Mass) that was so flawed in liturgical structure (but O so magnificent in Spirit) that it was utter heresy for any Roman Catholic clergy to even consider presenting it in its time. Hence why it was never heard until one hundred years after Bach’s death.

Mark Tredinnick

Mark Tredinnick

Bach lifted the Word to a place beyond Words. Even beyond Prayer. Christian scripture might arguably one day become as much top-shelf myth as befell the fate of the Greek and Roman gospels but the musical Testament of JS Bach will continue to remain vital and alive for as long as human birds sing.

And Bach, as mystic, is completely comfortable in Tredinnick’s country beside his other mystical poet Friend, Rumi.

So why did Mark Tredinnick title this particular collection of poetry Bluewren Cantos? As he says, ‘You don’t find the birds, they find you.’

Let’s step into the Grand Aviary of Poetry for a brief moment.

The Bird has replaced The Rose, star of ye olde Romantic times, as the most accessible metaphor in modern poetry. Charles Bukowski had a sensitive ‘Bluebird’ that he kept hidden away during the day. The bird wanted to get out but Charlie poured whisky on its head and blew cigarette smoke into its beak. He only opened the cage door when people were asleep because, as he admonished it, ‘You want to screw up the works? You want to blow my book sales in Europe?’

The bluebirds in Bluewren Cantos don’t drink or blow smoke rings and they don’t shuffle on perches. If they can be said to be metaphors, they are free-range metaphors. They soar, swoop and hunt – and sometimes simply sit still and ignore image-hungry poets until the poets tire and go home.

Fowl have been flying in poetry for a very long time. In classic Chinese, you find: Screech owls moan in the yellowing Mulberry trees, and A single wild goose climbs into the void, in the work of Tu Fu. A crowing cock wakes me like a blow, in Lu Yu, and the oriole is not to blame for the broken dream of a Bygone Spring, in Chu Shu Chen.

Wallace Stevens wrote about the (lucky) thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. And the blinding dazzle of his gold-feathered bird, singing in the palm at the end of the mind whose …fire-fangled feathers dangle down, seems a natural soulmate for Tredinnick’s lightning-strike kingfisher:

‘Catching Fire; or, The Art of Sitting’

……………………..for Judith Beveridge

………………………….As kingfishers catch fire,
…………………………  .dragonflies draw flame.
……………………………………….– Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Mid-afternoon, I look up from my desk to see
A kingfisher alight in the water poplar.

For ten blue minutes she sits wrapped in
Her sacerdotal self, murder on her mind,

And I watch her steal her own silent show, doing
Nothing, immaculately, among the silver leaves.

Until, as if my eyes had pinned her, the instant
They drop, she flies: the stillest bird

In Christendom reaches escape velocity faster
Than I can find a pen. And I’d like to learn

To sit so still and to disappear so well, my body
Become a famished thought, my mind become a world.

I think Tredinnick’s understanding of stillness, and its relationship to action, is the focused and coiled spring of a Shaolin White Crane master.

WB Yeats imagined not a natural bird, but one of ‘hammered gold and gold enameling… to sing to the lords and ladies of Byzantium’. I wonder if Yeats’ wind-up bird also was intended sing for the poor and disenfranchised, who probably weren’t allowed anywhere near Byzantium? (Except, that is, via the back street dens of Coleridge’s laudanum-laced pleasure domes.)

Robert Adamson, the most bird-watching poet in Australia, in his book, The Golden Bird, clearly nods his beak to Yeats’ but pessimistically, in the way he writes about the poet in the title poem:

……………When his heart
stopped, did he believe
it would transcend him:
gold-foil wings hovering
over the void…

Now as far as I can figure, Yeats’ budgie was fashioned of ‘hammered gold and gold enameling’, not ‘gold-foil wings’. More significantly, it certainly did transcend him, or else we wouldn’t be talking about it now.

Will Adamson’s own metaphoric fowls follow Icarus’s fate down or continue to enchant in two hundred years? (i.e. if a mechanical bird perches in a tree and there is no one there to wind it, does it still sing?)

Photograph - Southerly 23/8/2013.  Speaking of love - Blog post by  Mark Tredinnick  (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/2013/08/23/speaking-of-love/)

Photograph – Southerly 23/8/2013. Speaking of love – Blog post by Mark Tredinnick (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/2013/08/23/speaking-of-love/)

Xenophanes originated the word anthropomorphism to describe the perception of a divine being in human form. Anthropomorphism is present in all religious teaching and mythology.

But one of the inherent dangers of over-projecting human characteristics or psychological states into birds and other animals – known as abstract anthropomorphism – is its reverse state – dehumanization – the tendency in times of extreme crisis or desperation to view humans as nonhuman objects or animals. What that renowned ornithologist, Jung, might have called the Shadow-wren.

I remember once pulling a cuddly doe-eyed possum by its tail from the eave of a bush house and watch it transform from a cute Disney child’s toy into the Bride of Chucky in five seconds, whipping around and carving four long gashes in my forearm. And it pissed on me as well. I think the same possum must have visited Tredinnick, in ‘Tough Love: a Deconstructed Sonnet’:

It’s so much easier to show kindness, I find, to a possum
Around lunchtime the next day. . .
It’s so much easier then than it was at three am when the possum pulled,
For the fourteenth time – like a lover exchanged and all the locks changed –
At the wire you’d nailed over the only way into the home it had mistaken,

These past five months, for its own: your ceiling.

Deities can also be persistent territorial predators, and even Muses get horny and peckish.

‘Rainforest Bird; or, on Looking Over Someone’s Shoulder at the Photograph of a Hindu Carving in an Inflight Magazine’

Love is an abject goddess.
……………………..She’s a sculpture of beatific hunger,
All one’s wanting petrified, quickened by chisel, and left out to think about it
In the rain. Love is a wretched beauty, and her round breasts trine
……………………..her second mouth, and moss grows
Between her fingers. Her demeanour is serene, but soon
Her proverbial arms are all over you,
………………and her green tongue flashes
Like a rainforest bird across your breast, again and again and again.

Surfacing in some of Mark Tredinnick’s work is a tendency toward what a close friend of mine, an English teacher from McGill University, once admonished me for doing myself – always looking for an Absolute. A definitive experience from which one might, finally, be able to say: That’s it. Full stop.

Harvesting absolutes is a signature of the endearment of Tredinnick’s style but also tends to be somewhat predictable at times.

In the brilliant and well-deserved Montreal International Poetry Prize 2011 winning poem, ‘Walking Underwater’, he writes:

…moss deckles the edges of the oaks and firs,
Which hold out stoically inside the sweetest excuse for day-
Light I’ve ever seen.

In the Bluewren Cantos, he kingfishes the Absolute in ‘A Day At Your Desk All Along the Shoalhaven’:

…And you knew you’d never spend
A better day alive again on Earth.

‘Sulphur-crested Sonnet’:

The white bird high in the crown of the elm is a better idea
Than any you’ve had all day…

and ‘Half Moon in Late September’:

…there’s a half moon like half
An answer, as much of the truth as anyone can hope to catch.

I am reminded of the adage: do not question too much the Meaning of life; but Live one’s life so that it has meaning.

Thankfully, these poems do both. They are continually asking: what am I here for? But in the asking, they answer the question: the creating of the beautiful verse that is the core part of the kind of Living that gives his life meaning. Bluewren Cantos is a sparkling journal of ecdysis for Tredinnick – and anyone else who wants it.

It is possible to imagine
Love that ends as beautifully as it began.

– Mark Tredinnick, ‘It is Possible to Imagine.’

Tredinnick often summons the Beloved – an intoxicating image I first discovered in the poems of St John of the Cross:

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved.

Christ was the Beloved of St John’s poems, the true source of his Bride’s longing.

Martin Luther King Jr spoke of peace on earth as ‘the Beloved Community’.

Rumi said:

The real Beloved is your Beginning and your End.
When you find that One,
you’ll no longer expect anything else.

Early Persians believed that poetry was a subtler vehicle than prose for approaching the ineffable mystery that was beyond words. The Orientalist scholar, Dr. W.M. Thackston, noted that Sufi poet, Hafiz, ‘sang a rare blend of human and mystic love so balanced that it was impossible to separate one from the other.’ (Hafiz also, unfortunately, in contemporary usage, means ‘memoriser’ – someone who knows the Koran by heart – something he was apparently able to do.)

There was another practical purpose in the Middle Ages for veiling God with the cloth of Beloved, Lover or Friend. It made it difficult to censor poetry for unusual mystical ideas that often fell outside of the traditional constricts of Islamic Canon.

In ‘Hell and Back (Again)’, Tredinnick introduces another brief confessional key to unlock the invigoration in ordinary miracles:

After a weekend low, under which I wandered, hardly able
To decide where, I made a poem, as if it were a decision
That made me.
……..And now, of course, the weather has turned
Out for the best, and love is a garden in the city, fashioning
Flowers out of light.
……..I am the fish in the Beloved’s stream again.

Returning to the mundane, however, can often take its toll. In ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, while lost in the contemplation of the flight of one flock, he almost annihilates another:

………………………………..They pray
By spreading their wings and falling into
Their lives. Each flight a book of common

Prayer. And at dusk I got another chance
To try my hand at grace. Driving, it must be said,
A little too fast, thinking a little too hard,

I almost took out a family of ducks, crossing
The road from the suburbs to the swamp,
One parent ahead and one parent after,

Six little ones strung in dactyls between. And
Even song would not have saved them, had my foot
Not pedalled then such a sudden and purposive prayer.

Insightful, very funny – and a memorable parable.

In his notes at the end of the Bluewren Cantos, he offers the complete lovely Emily Dickinson quote, a fragment of which first opened the book:

Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote to Emily Dickinson in 1892 asking for a picture. She replied, ‘ Could you believe me without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves. Would this do just as well?’

If we were to ask for a portrait of Mark Tredinnick from Bluewren Cantos, one that we too could believe, perhaps we could say ‘vast like the Beloved, with eyes, like moonlight left on the water, after a low flight, singing up poetic Country.’

Would this do just as well?

-Joe Dolce

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Joe Dolce was born in Painesville, Ohio, USA in 1947 and moved to Australia, 1979. His poetry has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2014, was shortlisted for both the Newcastle Poetry Prize 2014 and the Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize 2014 and he won the 25th Launceston Poetry Cup. He has poetry, essays, song-lyrics and photographs have been published in Monthly, Southerly, Canberra Times, PEN MELBOURNE, Quadrant, Australian Love Poems, Meanjin, Etchings, Overland, Cordite, Little Raven, Contrappasso, Voltage (US), Not Shut Up (UK), Tupelo Quarterly (US) and Antipodes (US).

Flowing Lines and Hypnotic Melodies: Jean Kent launches Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick at the Newcastle Writers Fesrtival 2014

Bluewren Cantos is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/mark-tredinnick/

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The Art of Regional Living: Christopher Pollnitz launches ‘The Hour of Silvered Mullet’ by Jean Kent

The Hour of Silvered Mullet by Jean Kent, Pitt Street Poetry, 2015, was launched by Christopher Pollnitz at at Cardiff Library on 11 April 2015.

Kent silverJean and I go back some way, to when the Newcastle Poetry Prize was the Mattara Poetry Prize, and I was coordinating it for the first time. Over the decades we’ve never had a cross word, though on her part there have been kind, perceptive, discriminating words.  They’ve been the words of a friend and a very fine poet, whose latest collection of poems—the seventh, counting selections—it’s my pleasure to launch today.  Once I might have plumed myself with having ‘discovered’ Jean, but it’s not true.  I can claim to having been the first to publish the poems of the South Australian poet novelist, Peter Goldsworthy, but I wasn’t the first to publish one of Jean’s.  And there is a larger truth to tell.  Editors and reviewers don’t ‘discover’ poets.  Good poets discover themselves.  Good poets who have long, productive careers—poets like Jean—go on discovering new and larger selves from the multitude of their influences and experiences and memories, and from the stories they hear of others.

I could list you Jean’s awards and prizes and residencies to prove how many editors and judges share my high estimate of her work.  But what’s come to me reading The Hour of Silvered Mullet is that Jean’s reputation is now being established on how she puts together, not just shyly brilliant poems or poem sequences, but whole volumes.  In The Hour any one poem is played off against others in the collection, and each section of the book is in dialogue with the other sections.  I should like to discuss how her new volume, which puts together poems written over twenty years, returns to the themes of childhood and rural Queensland announced in Verandahs (1990), but makes these themes new; to discuss how The Hour doesn’t deal so much in the international perspectives of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks (2013), but still builds on them; and to discuss how The Hour is taking up and moving forward from both these volumes.  I should like to point out what gifts The Hour, and Jean and Kit Kelen’s regional anthology A Slow Combusting Hymn (2014), are to primary and secondary teachers in the Hunter Valley, who can now show local student readers and writers, look, this is how you write about the places that you know.  I should like to discuss The Hour as a book about education in the formal and informal sense—the “university of life” an earlier generation graduated from—about how fashions in and attitudes to education can change without damaging students forever, but how they can damage and inhibit too, and finally how some unlucky children are so abused and damaged as to be beyond education.  (For me ‘Chook-shed Child’ is the most powerful poem in the book.)  But instead I’ll do as I’ve been asked.  I’ll focus on how Jean has constructed this collection of twenty years, this book of The Hour that we’re launching this afternoon.

The volume’s first poem, ‘The Scent of Native Frangipani’, is a characteristic Jean Kent poem.  It’s about a living thing, a rain-forest tree or garden tree that happens to evoke a significant memory.  As the speaker walks through her garden, at evening after a day’s writing, a flower scent leads her in memory down the path of her mother’s garden, past her breathless father, to ‘a place where she [the mother] promised we’d be / “nearer God’s heart / than anywhere else on earth”’.  The place from the past might be Toowoomba or a smaller town further inland in Queensland.  The call of currawongs—in the last poem in the book that call is given words, ‘Come home now! Come home now!’—summons Venus or the Evening Star into the sky.  With the star comes the sense of a ‘shy . . . blessing’ that the scent and the memory have brought home.  And to me the pretty flowers of native frangipani seem to glow with new light.  The poem is one in which Jean is working out of her epiphanic method, using something familiar, common-or-garden, to fuel a trip into deeps of memory and feeling.

Jean’s epiphanic poems are too shy to trumpet what their matter is; but their matter is life and death, not just hints and intimations.  In a companion poem, ‘Under the Native Frangipani’, we learn that what has left the father breathless isn’t an allergic reaction to native frangipani; on the contrary, the tree was his favourite ‘bivouac’ in the Queensland garden, even when the bees whirred through it ‘like warplanes’.  What robbed the father of his athletic youth was war service in New Guinea, and the tuberculosis that came after it.  The father’s story is one his daughter has had to learn through old family letters.  The father’s stoicism wouldn’t allow him to speak of his suffering in life, but being nearer ‘God’s heart’ and being posted further from hospitals hasn’t necessarily been a blessing to him.  The second-last poem in the volume, ‘Native Jasmine for Jennifer’, is an elegy for a friend, but the title looks back to ‘The Scent of Native Frangipani’.  The Jenni whose elegy this is had a sassy taste for the fashions of the day, the 70s, and for whatever seemed chic, English or European then—Mary Quant, black mascara and pearl-pink nails to dip into the gold Benson & Hedges packet.  Sniffing native jasmine Jenni would always want to smell the exotic – lily of the valley.  It was Jenni’s wreaths of cigarette smoke rather than her penchant for oh-so-French lily of the valley that turned native jasmine, that ‘tough native creeper’, into Jenni’s ‘lilies of the valé’.  Jean’s epiphanies don’t cast haloes over everybody or over everything; but they show us possibilities of finding home where we actually live, and die, as against where we fancy living.  Jean’s home, Lake Macquarie, is her muse for much of The Hour of Silvered Mullet.

Lake Macquarie is not simply there as a setting in Jean’s poetry; the Lake figures for how it matters to those who live around it, for how fully they respond to and re-imagine it.  My favourite poem in the book is an all-but-dream monologue in the voice of a Lake-dweller, a teenager who identifies with my favourite bird.  ‘Morag and the Tawny Frogmouths’ would be a poem to take into a creative writing class, be it a primary, secondary or university class.  Morag, ‘Before she goes to sleep at night . . . likes to fly’; perhaps she does some flying as she goes to sleep.  Whichever, her flight is a frogmouth-eyed night reconnaissance of the Lake Macquarie region, from Wollombi to the Swansea Channel:

A full moon is rising, yellow as a frogmouth’s eye,
over Swansea Channel.  In the widening sky
Morag is wisped by memory vapours—
an Airbus to Europe, the whine and shatter of a Hawk jet
from Williamtown, the big-bellied grumble of a Catalina,

taking off from Rathmines.  The lake laps,
smooth as oil over its past, and all those morse-code flashes
turn into the hurricane lamps of campers,
down at the point at Wangi Wangi,
place of many owls . . .

Morag’s parents honeymooned here, eons ago.
And her grandparents are still just an owl-swoop
over the gold-shingled water tonight.  (22-3)

Much more than a cartographic survey, or a reference to Les Murray’s ‘The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song-Cycle’, is going on here.  Morag’s night flight is a self-delighting discovery of herself in the local and family history of the Lake region.  As she flies, she gathers into herself knowledge of her place, its people’s livelihoods and aims, their dreams and fears.  If Morag’s people do not speak to her in their dreams, still the model being adapted is Dylan Thomas’s great radio play, Under Milk Wood (1954).  In Jean’s poem there is no Welsh eccentric like Mr. Waldo, the barber and herbalist who can cure everything on two legs or on four in Llareggub; instead, there are two Vietnamese dentists, living on one of the Lake’s bays in a flimsy weatherboard that doubles as their surgery.  When their drills start up, the walls of the surgery quake, much as the cabin of the refugee boat did when they were fleeing Vietnam.  Jean’s rendering Thomas’s play into Australian circumstances, Australian social history and Australian vernacular completely transforms it.

Jean Kent

Jean Kent

In Thomas’s classic poems, like ‘Fern Hill’, everything from the farm of childhood is enhaloed in epiphanic light; in Under Milk Wood everybody from the seaport of Llareggub is soused with maritime bawdy and slap-happy domestic farce.  By contrast, in a Jean Kent poem, even when it aspires to a revelation of ordinary grace—‘Smudged Grace’ as Jean calls it in one of her defining poems—the focus of the poem doesn’t release us from ‘the nightmare of history’.  Jean’s epiphanies are more grounded than Dylan Thomas’s.  Morag, as she comes in for landing, hears ‘the tangled ghost whispers of Lithuanian and Polish / floating up from the abandoned migrant camp— / from a garage near the aluminium smelter—her friends / trying to be the next “silverchair”’ (25).  There’s no disputing the Baltic and Slavic states’ contribution to the nightmare of history during and after World War II.  Migrants couldn’t shake the nightmare off, a psychological bruise that runs deep in many families.  If it sounds snobby or precious of me to list Silverchair among these very real nightmares, let me declare with regional pride: my daughters played in the same band as Silverchair, that’s to say The Junction Public School band.  To my way of thinking, even a cover or copycat band, striking out along the same line to find their own sound, is a marker worth including in a poem that maps regional values and nuances.

Jean’s poems about life in small towns or satellite regions mostly look to the positives or compensations of such a life-choice, but she doesn’t underestimate the disadvantage of living outside a state capital.  She makes a telling aphorism, in “Old Haunts,” out of the economic risk of life on the provincial margins:

All the little towns of childhood are off the highway now.
Like pockets we have turned out of ourselves
they lie, forgotten . . .  (18)

In the narrative sequence ‘A Broken Engagement’ she makes satire of the oppressive small-mindedness that can smother young hope in a small Hunter Valley town, ‘wombat town’ Gayleen calls it.  When Gavin and Gayleen call their engagement off—at age 22 Gayleen is left on the shelf in Wombat Town—the gossip is so often aired it’s stale in a day: ‘it sounded like just another title / at Video Ezy; just another lost statistic at Centrelink’ (42).  Out of her hairdresser’s apprenticeship now, Gayleen is looking for talismans on which she can hang an identity, touchstones which will assure her she has an inner life.  But none of it surfaced during her week with Gavin in Surfers, and in Wombat Town inner life is not required: so ‘I go to the Travel Bureau in my lunch breaks / I collect London, Paris, America, Antarctica . . .’  There is something loveable about Gayleen’s self-deprecating image of herself at the close of the sequence—the ‘one wombat [in town] with wings’.  We wish her well in her escape; but Gayleen has, we fear, collected too few positives, too many negatives and no epiphanies from her small town.  She might be just as disillusioned by the world’s great metropolises.

The last poem in the volume is the title poem, ‘The Hour of Silvered Mullet’.  It offers a conspectus of a Lake town that is neither too rosy nor too starkly satirical.  Will the boy on the clacking skateboard, hurtling down the bitumen towards the evening-silvered Lake, grow into a Volvo driver defined by what he can accumulate in his garage, ‘car, mower, chain saw . . . raft of tools’ and the ‘skeletally wonderful / unfinished yacht’?  Or will the Lake catch him with its ‘light-hook flashing’ waters?  Along a quieter evening path there is another child, a visionary child, ‘rocking in the aqua boats of her mother’s shoes’.  Her dinghy-like gait promises a different passage through time, one that will strike balances with rocking lake-water.  A malign figure cruises these streets, a real estate agent for whom all values are property values and a catch is a good rental purchase: will he be the Fisher King to rule over the Lake town’s desolate future?  Perhaps not.  The narrator of this little film of Lake life prefers to point her photo-sensitive camera at the girls coming out of the local hall where they’ve been dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  It hasn’t been a formal ballet lesson but a Free Expression dance lesson—hmm—but the girls have enjoyed it so much their joy seems to communicate itself to the corellas and the angophoras rising above them.

As a concluding poem ‘The Hour of Silvered Mullet’ draws together many of the threads of the volume.  The balancing act Jean manages so well that she makes it seem easy is admitting, yes, on the one hand there are dead ends which many of us have driven into, and continue to live in, in our suburbs and satellite towns; but yes, on the other hand there is grace abounding or grace enough, and beauty too, if you know how to sniff it out, how to listen and look.  Jean’s ear and eye and her work are free of what I’ll call the Leo Schofield syndrome, the demand that others—the young in particular—have to appreciate what I appreciate because I am the arbiter of high-brow taste and artistic values—and if you dare to disagree, you are a mediocrity and a Bogan.  I commend The Hour of Silvered Mullet to you, not only because I’ve learnt a lot from it, but because there’s a lot of tolerant fun in its dance of ideas and images, sounds and scents.

– Christopher Pollnitz

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Christopher Pollnitz is a conjoint lecturer at the University of Newcastle who has edited D. H. Lawrence’s Poems for the Cambridge University Press series of Lawrence’s Works, and is currently working on Volume III of the Poems, Lawrence’s early versions and uncollected poems. He has written articles and reviews of Australian poets including Les Murray and Peter Porter, John Scott, John Tranter and Alan Wearne; Hunter Valley poets he has written on include Norman Talbot, Kim Cheng Boey, Judy Johnson and Jean Kent.

The Hour of Silvered Mullet is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/emporium/jean-kent/

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Treading the lesser-known path: Gig Ryan Reviews ‘One Under Bacchus’ by Duncan Hose

 One Under Bacchus by Duncan Hose. Inken Publisch, 2011

This review is based on Gig Ryan’s launch speech, Saturday July 9, 2011, Melbourne Trades Hall.

When Duncan Hose won the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2010 with his poem ‘The Allegory of Edward Trouble’ –  a colourful and brilliant re-imagining of Ned Kelly’s life and meaning where “blood stains the hydrangeas” (immediately we’re aware of a colonised country, not yet claiming Lawson’s wattle as its emblem), “My heart mulched and tartan like the / golden bogs of Tasmania”) – it signalled a huge change in the reception of Australian poetry.  When a prize renowned mainly for its well-rewarded conservatism and staidness goes to an adventurous, thoughtful, funny, searching work, we can breathe a sigh of relief that the best doesn’t have to “waste its sweetness on the desert air”, though sweet doesn’t much apply to that particular poem.

Ned Kelly poems both open and close  Hose’s striking second book, One Under Bacchus. Hose investigates how these national myths have influenced or even formed us, but further this book follows a particular trajectory: after the idealised bushranger, Hose then moves on to the tale of Alexander Pearce, an escaped convict who ate his dead mates to survive:

…………..these leg bracelets
keep us awake with their chewing, four days on the heath
…………..Hell hath little flowers, white honey bunches limned with red
The sky tho circumpolar hath no regular sun, only grays more illumined
Less cloaked, like a promise’s promise my running mate’s
…………..A convict’s convict whom I chose once I knowed
He spells his name ‘Charels’…
I will make myself live for a scoop of Hobart liquor
…………..Before taking the drop, since we did abscond & have already
Eaten Terence Diggory.

                            ‘On the Work of Pearce’s British Addictions’

That is, the mythologising of place includes both the idealised and the demonised. Then follows a series of poems on types of imperialism – the sort of anxieties of influence that some Australians feel, with actual ancestry often in another hemisphere, and intellectual ancestry often in U.K. or U.S., these poems feature America, the fur trade, Napoleon, Berrigan, followed by poems about Scotland and Ireland, that is, a short history of the colonised or slaughtered – the poet travels “hatless in the white and shining air” (to quote Berrigan’s ‘A New Old Song’), here the contrast is between an idealised past, an idealised quest and our seemingly less heroic present:

Auntie Elko’s brought photos of the ‘smog-o-the-wilderness‘   that’s
……………………………..the visible realm

‘One Under Bacchus’

and  in ‘Pasties of Iona’:

rather than ‘mekin pilgrimage’ we
drag the cursor over the sacred island &
pants off on the sixth floor
……………………..google the bejesus oot ay it.

The next section has a few ‘love’ poems, followed by a return to Hobart’s settlement, then a Blue Hills sequence (a kind of homage to Laurie Duggan’s neverending Blue Hills) with Aussie attitudes displayed “Europeans – stay in Europe!”: substitute nationality here and we have current government policy in fact – the timelessness of Poetry! – thus showing the nagging ambiguity of Australia’s relation to the rest of world. The book finishes with the longest poem  ‘Edward Trouble’. There’s a constant satirising of pretensions to nationalism, and awareness of the lie of a solely British ‘civilisation’ – “Saturday morning upholstered with the silks / and dressinggowns of chinese Australia”, that is, there are constant reminders of the various types of dispossession on which Australia is founded:

……………………..avenging crows
Suggest new hats for the colony.

‘A wedding party’

.

.

The                                         Glamour
……………………………………………
Of a beggared Australian syntax
Souths                     plant in the ‘native’ section             instruments of death

…………As decoration                       those black-bunged marsupials by god

We’d pat them to death if we could

‘Anglo but Cosmic’

Hose uses a courtly excruciating language of archaic spellings, misspellings, neologisms – there’s both a seriousness of intent and a gracefully light-footed style, like a Watteau painting, half Moby Dick in his high-falutin’ language, half Horatio Hornblower in the noble heroics at work in much of his historic diggings. He mixes words of Scots, Irish, French, 19th Century English, that is, these poems enact through their language the history they are dissecting and critiquing.

These poems don’t strain for an affectlessly confident relaxation that Berrigan sometimes wants, but for a highly-strung language – that suddenly thuds down into a joke, jokes that lurch with meaning. – “he was a skald Father, he drank to think”.  There is appropriately ‘Sonnet to Ted’ here, followed by  the amusingly-titled ‘Typical American Poem’:

Zorro had the dream contented
By the view one would see
…………From the guillotine
Forest around full of crow [sounds]
……………………………..& grubs
Like a period piece on BBC TV
……………………………..Zorro drives
Through the giant Drive In.

Jim’s drapes sure are Dusty.

Zorro, like Kelly, is also a masked hero, creating his own icon.  Also look at the two pictures by Hose in this book – one a half-naked masked woman, the other a young hare – these again contrast the mask of Art, of Civilisation, with Nature.But this book finishes with  the “totemised and trophied”  Kelly:

I too was a bird lover tho’ mostly / I shot them…
I belong to the majority mob w.../…  the minority
………….philosophy ….  the forge
to cast a bigot

Duncan Hose treads the lesser-known path of maverick Australian poets such as Norman Talbot, John Watson and Javant Biarujia – that is, like all good must-read poets, he invents a new language, full of playful disguises and serious intent, reaffirming Baudelaire’s view that only the human-made is beautiful.

– Gig Ryan

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

One Under Bacchus is available from inken publisch http://inkenpublisch.bigcartel.com/