Still Life, Other Life: Michael Sharkey Examines the Poetry of Barbara Fisher

Barbara Fisher

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Rescued from Time, Barbara Fisher’s 2016 collection of poems, takes its title from a comment by American novelist James Salter’s comment, in his 1997 collection of essays and memoirs, Burning the Days: Recollections: ‘Art, in a sense, is life brought to a standstill, rescued from time’. It’s easy to see why Salter’s sensibility resonates with Fisher. Salter’s extensive experience, as fighter pilot, novelist, film writer, expatriate in Europe and extoller and lover of women, is revisited in evocations of favourite locations and people. In his novels, women and men characters are hearteningly presented as complex and engaging individuals, and he has a special regard for the strength and abilities of women who, like his male characters, succeed or fail in enterprises including love affairs that demand commitment and honesty. Salter’s memoirs record his delight in works of great writers he admires: Flannery O’Connor, Marguerite Duras, Pauline Réage, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, Jean Genet, Dylan Thomas, and others whose lives also fascinate him. Among other textual pleasures, Salter’s Burning the Days is a guide to European (chiefly French) and American literary sites that provoke his intellectual wanderlust.

Barbara Fisher shares Salter’s literary, cultural and geographical curiosity, and her experience of travel in fact and in books and the arts makes her all the more appreciative of Salter’s characteristic empathy for characters who lead lives unlike his own. But there’s nothing imitative about her style. Her experiences, as well as her subtle affair with the English language, are demonstrated in the poems gathered in Rescued from Time and three earlier collections published over twenty years.

Fisher’s work is appreciated by several poets and reviewers (myself included), and she has a following particularly among writers in several Sydney circles as well as poets and others from further afield who first encountered her in national workshops run by Ron Pretty at Wollongong in the 1990s. Her poems have won prizes and appeared in most anthologies and journals worth the name since her self-avowed late re-commencement in publishing poetry in the 1990s. So it’s a mystery to me why her poetry is not more critically acclaimed.

Many people have known of Fisher’s interests through patronage of her antiquarian bookshop in Cammeray. She specialised in architecture, culinary and domestic arts, sharing a passion for good design with her late husband, the renowned heritage architect John Fisher (1924-2012), to whom she dedicated her three major collections. A glance at any of these reveals her sophisticated engagement with language, travel, and the history of culinary, textile, performative and other cultural markers.

My first encounter with her poetry occurred at one of those Wollongong workshops around twenty years past, and ensuing contact has been sparse, punctuated by long hiatus. A couple of years ago, I published a poem by Fisher in the Australian Poetry Journal. I hadn’t read her second book, Still Life, Other Life (Ginninderra, 2007), nor her 2012 Picaro Press chapbook, Rain and Hirohito and other poems, but the depth and variety of Rescued from Time provoked me to read all her books and check anthologies like The Best Australian Poems (2004 and 2006), The Best Australian Poetry (2007), the Young Street anthologies When the Sky Caught Fire (2008) and This Strange World (2013), and The Quadrant Book of Poetry (2012), to see the company she kept. Almost incomprehensively, she appears neither in the 2014 Turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry nor the 2016 Puncher & Wattman Anthology of Australian Poetry.

I can understand that these latter, and some other more recent gatherings have failed to find space for Fisher and many others on grounds of space alone. But I trust they have not excluded her out of ignorance of her work. Editorial preference for work by more overtly experimental and—or—younger poets, or work selected because it fits non-poetical topical criteria such as ethnicity, race, gender, class, and other themed considerations I can comprehend, because that’s the way the rules of the poetry game shift, sometimes glacially, and sometimes in an eyeblink, like alterations in trouser lengths, beards, haircuts, language, accents, and other badges of self-identity.

I do wonder, though, at the exclusion of her work in the more prominent national anthologies. I’m puzzled why the AustLit research website lists no reviews of Fisher’s first book. Accordingly, my reconnaissance of her collections starts with the first, Archival Footwork. I own a special interest. The cover blurb by three writers asked to comment on the manuscript of that book gave every sign that the work was accessible and engaging, and was headed for at least a succès d’estime if not some major award. Elizabeth Webby, Kevin Brophy and I, when asked to comment on the manuscript of Archival Footwork, commented on Fisher’s mix of domestic and universal topics, her ‘sensuous precision’ (Webby), control of tone that brought ‘wildness to the mildest subject matter’ (Brophy), her ‘intelligence and craft’, ‘taste for taking risks with classic forms’, and her memorable light verse and demotic speech (Sharkey). I wouldn’t withdraw a word of my commendation.

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For a first collection, Archival Footwork was unusually mature in the language, knowledge she brings to subjects diverse as art, ravel, history and politics. Like subsequent collections, Archival Footwork is arranged in sub-sections, which, though unnamed, group poems thematically and to some extent topically. Immediately evident concerns of poems in the opening section are art and travel, and Fisher draws on first-hand experience and connoisseurship of the literature relating to both.

By way of a pleasing derangement of the senses, the first poem (‘Displacements’) reconstitutes the shock of seeing George Stubbs’s extraordinary 1763 painting of Queen Charlotte’s zebra. Fisher considers that apparition’s effect on viewers of the period and later, and compares the response to the 1794 exhibition of a live kangaroo in a London theatre. The poem goes beyond ekphrasis (a mode in which she is adept) to image the dreamlike nature of encountering such phenomena; she further speculates on the animals’ supposed response to their alien circumstances. The poem’s a tour de force that discovers the scene in slyly understated opening lines: ‘I suppose we had got used to monkeys / at the edge of baroque painting, / furnishing a festival like blackamoors / in yellow turbans’. Fisher heightens surprise by this salutary reminder that much that we consider conventional is very strange. The detail of her final image of the kangaroo scratching his fleas and chewing ‘the strangely sweet grass’ in his urban English enclosure brings the phenomenon right up to date. Fisher knows Australian fauna and flora from first-hand observation, as well as she knows that of other places she has visited and lived in. I can’t think how many readers will wish they had written such an understatedly thought-provoking poem on disorientation.

Following poems (‘Debussy in Rome’ and ‘Postcard from Edirne’) also upset preconceptions of place and history. Debussy’s loathing of Rome, which led him to curtail a three-year prize-residence after two years experience of the city’s ‘daily awfulness’, may strike a chord with anyone who has failed to be charmed by the city’s grandeur as a result of the dementingly mundane distractions of climate, noise and company. Preferences for the coolness of churches, ices and evenings bring no lasting relief to the composer who longs for the bracing North.

Another poem of peregrination, ‘Postcard from Edirne’, also responds acerbically to touristic expectation, by recreating the unsettling conjunction of moods provoked by a hospital where music was formerly played to lull the lunatics, including violent inmates chained to the walls. Fisher concludes, ‘there’s no record as to how / the treatment was received’—a remark that is less an abandonment of the poem than an opening for readers to reflect on the vagaries of anticipation.

Ensuing poems consider the grim hospitality of a country house hotel in Yorkshire, the suffocating blandness of Ibsen’s house, the banal fabric pattern in a Hangchow silk factory, and the alienation of Dr Elsner, a refugee in a migrant camp in Australia—‘Another Country’, with its detestable ‘mutton chops’, mysterious ‘Devon’ sausage, and ‘formless drift of an outer Sydney suburb’. Such images, familiar to the native-born, lead to Elsner’s distracting meditation on the cousins he played with as a child: they too disappeared, into other ‘unknown camps’ in Europe, and he asks ‘Paul and Maria, can you forgive /my living?’

In such a way, as in poems elsewhere in the collection, history and autobiography are unshakeable elements of the present. In a poem on her own travels, ‘Returning to Vienna’, Fisher wonders why, ‘in this stylish town / I feel as if I’d rung a bell / and nobody’s home’. The stylish town has its own answers in accounts of former times when citizens peered from curtains as their neighbours were arrested: those watchers behind the curtains wondered ‘what will happen to all that good furniture?’ Human misery in its mass-produced manifestations cohabits with marvellous music, so in Vienna ‘even mass is a concert’, and galleries are ‘thick with Brueghels’, and shops are full of ball gowns.

Throughout Fisher’s poetry, contrasting ideas of tolerant and revisionist mores are played against each other in poems involving ostensible reportage of world events, or which, when she turns to Australia’s centuries of migrant history, recreate experiences of actual or fictitious characters such as Dr Elsner, living in challenging or hostile circumstances. (A late example, in the final section of Fisher’s 2016 volume Rescued From Time, constructs an analogous history of an imagined deraciné migrant, Joseph Bergin.)

This probing of ideas of what constitutes normality and expectation extends to all the poetry of Archival Footwork. In the first section of the book, ‘Breakfast Creek’ playfully notes the profusion of creeks bearing the name, and offers a solution in a supposed explorer’s diary entry: ‘It having no distinguishing features, / I have named it Breakfast Creek’. The mood of this resolution could as well fit the exiled Dr Elsner’s view of his new country’s society and culture, but the absurdity of some Colonial-era traveller’s attitudes is sanctioned by our post-Colonial familiarity with the sceptical views of even nineteenth-century realists (such as Joseph Furphy, whose bullock-driving philosophes in his novel Such is Life remark on John O’Hara Burke as ‘a real burke’—with all the innuendo that the epithet contains). Fisher is well acquainted with the record of opposing visions of Australia in Colonial times, and of their persistence even into more recent times. A later poem in Rescued from Time, ‘Considering Fred Williams’s Landscapes’, notes

Odd that we never really noticed
how our trees look
straggling up a hillside,
ragged against the sky.
Until he showed us.

And Fisher adds ‘Perhaps we’d always known’—a judgment articulated long after such poems as ‘Another Country’ in the Dr Elsner sequence in Archival Footwork, with its bleaker, Patrick Whitean vistas of Australian landscape and suburbs.

Generally, Fisher works in free-verse forms, where her sense of the surprise effects a precisely broken line can spring on a careful reader provides successive pleasurable encounters and recognitions of the extraordinary in the banal. A balladic poem, ‘Demolished Residential’, creates surprise another way: it’s a droll listing of the experiences of the inmates of the house. It’s worth quoting a few stanzas:

Fat Mrs Cruse and her shivering dog
Found refuge in a tram,
Marooned in somebody’s paddock
With a present of melon jam.

Mr Roscorla was put in a Home,
Where he sat in a sea-grass chair,
Looking all day at the ocean
And wondering why he was there.

Mr Dinwiddy of butterfly collar
Found board in Neutral Bay.
Dinners were not undertaken;
Cornflakes came in on a tray.

But Miss Annie Agnew, pamphleteer,
Was far too busy to care;
She could write letters to papers,
Be angry, anywhere.

The lightness the verse resides in the detail as much as in the whimsy of the rhymes that nevertheless testify to Fisher’s endorsement of each resident’s individuality. Does ‘light verse’ fit the bill? I wonder. Fisher’s easy turns of phrase pick up both the Australian demotic and more formal expressions while revealing the capacity of both registers to contain a broad vein of benign fellow-feeling.

If there’s a predominant theme to the second section of Archival Footwork, it’s related to coastal and oceanic scenes, with which Fisher has a clear affinity. The sense of gratitude for proximity to such elemental phenomena as waves (whose contrapuntal nature she observes in ‘Pacific Philharmonia’), and with sky and wind is foreshadowed in poems like ‘Saying Grace’ and ‘At Palm Beach’. The former records thankfulness for the company of her husband but asks ‘Yet how did I mislay the feel of my children’s skin, / remember only the birthdays and prizes?’ A sort of holiday poem-cycle, ‘Bluey’s Beach’ contains some of Fisher’s most memorable inventions: ‘Two weeks on the coast / and the mind is bleached’; and, of a hang-glider, ‘suddenly a Leonardo man / hovers overhead, improbable, serene’. Later, the tone-poem ‘Werri Lagoon’ focuses on evening sounds, and ‘In Fading Light’ she writes ‘I think of all the things / I have not done / and the sea / advancing and retreating / is a series of sighs’. ‘Low Tide’ strikingly notes gulls that ‘stand in groups on the sand, / Like Quakers at a meeting’.

These evocative poems amplify the mood of others that celebrate remote forebears and their ‘Empire days’ activities. Reference to ‘imperial’ days occurs more than once in Fisher’s poetry, and for some readers this might complicate the dates of events she recalls. Where do we date the end of Australia’s membership of the British Empire? By some accounts, dates range from 1942 until 1986. Some Australian pre-decimal coins in circulation until February 1966 still carried the image of an English monarch and the inscription ‘by the Grace of God King of all the British Territories, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India’.

Brand names of household products mentioned by Fisher in passing also bookmark bygone times. She recalls a sky ‘of brightest Reckitt’s blue’ (‘Gerringong’), while another poem memorialises a lame aunt who published stories in the Sydney Mail and drowned at the age of twenty-one (‘A Death in the Family’). The Sydney Mail, a Fairfax weekly magazine published between 1912 and 1938, was notable for its journalism, illustration, and fiction. Fisher’s practice in so registering eras and dates is far from idiosyncratic—Gwen Harwood spoke of an obelisk of Reckitt’s blue’, in a poem on childhood memories (‘The Blue Pagoda’)—but Fisher’s ‘Gerringong’ takes its start from the visual conjunction of black-and-white cows standing in Escher puzzle-like poses among lilies on a road to a cemetery, ‘the ultimate place to retire / in marbled luxury, / confined, it’s true, by circumstance, / as the dead tend to be’—an incomparable formulation.

Fisher’s poem ‘Aunt Ida’ pays tribute to another relative, whose stage ambitions were thwarted by parents who directed her to music instead, and whose brothers and sweetheart were killed in World War One, following which ‘She didn’t play the piano much, her repertoire restricted, / since Germans had produced /such quantities of music’. Another poem, ‘Remembering My Grandmother’ reprises those wartime losses, including the death of a son killed in action, the loss of a child aged four, and the termination of her grandfather’s job in a German firm. Fisher’s ostensibly light touch in poems that skirt such tragedies testifies to a sensibility characterised by terse expression and tact.

At times the mood of such poetry is deceptively equable. This strikes me as quite deliberate. Fisher’s poems in Archival Footwork never fall into nostalgia, and melancholy is kept at bay through general brevity of lines, occasional crafty rhyming (‘solitary’, cemetery’, ‘luxury’, in the poem ‘Gerringong’), and sensuous images in such list-poems as ‘Cakes’, which celebrates participation in the ritual of cake-making, handed on by her mother and others.

The food-imagery and aspects of women’s craftwork underline some of the poems in the third and final section of Archival Footwork. Following the introductory poem ‘Vision’, with its comic surmises on everyday life in eras before ‘everyone’ wore glasses, Fisher moves to the luscious metaphorical imagery that suffuses the sequence ‘Salad’. The verbal play inevitably recalls Neruda’s ‘Odas Elementales’, but the surprises owe nothing to mimicry: of a tomato (‘slices of summer’), she declares, ‘I think I’m falling in love with a fruit’; while celery becomes ‘Gothic stalks’ and ‘a forest drowned / in a tall pond’. By contrast, a cucumber is defined almost negatively: ‘such a far cry from / Reading Gaol’. This last, with its contrast between grim surrounds and the milieu of Wildean privilege and wit, also finds echoes in poems about class and privilege closer at hand: ‘Dress Circle’ ponders the paradoxical absence of owners and people, and the presence of so many cars in a rich suburb. She speculates that this due to the influx of cleaners and housekeepers. Conversely, ‘Saturday Arvo’ conveys the mood of a paper-strewn suburb characterised by greyhound-walkers, garden gnomes, the sound of women phoning talkback shows, and the wholly unexpected appearance at evening of ‘incandescent’ frangipanis.

Paradox and contradiction are grist to Fisher’s compositional processes. Oblique references to personal pastimes like reading and solving crosswords give the clue to a mind that revels in the contrariness of mundane activities. Fisher dramatises the female dove that remains in the Ark when the male bird fails to return. The female bird remarks, ‘He never did have any go’ and remarks that she is now a sole parent. This comic invention deserves a place in any future anthology of ‘Ark’ poems, alongside Fay Zwicky’s classic ‘Ark Voices’. The poem ‘Road Toll’ observes that crosses by a roadside mark ‘corridors that lead / to nameless ones / waiting to be named’, and in the poem ‘At Gallipoli’, Fisher muses ‘She’ll be right, they must have said, / busy at their task. / As if it ever was’.

That sense of the mot juste extends to impatience with imprecision. The poem ‘Names’ observes ‘We move in a cloud of mateyness / as false as that old mantra / How are you today?’ She remarks instead that she wants to know names of things, places and people, ‘so I can nail them with their names’. Aware of ambiguities inherent in language, her poetry seeks out the marginally recorded, the fact behind the legend, the un-famous who appear beside the celebrated and famous in photographs. This is a quintessentially democratic aspect of her style. A poem like ‘The Girl’ pays attention to the servant ‘Madge’, who sees beyond her employers’ vision. ‘The Dressmaker’ similarly records the quotidian cares of Mrs Muldoon and her invalid husband; and ‘Evening Class’ juxtaposes the earnest, mistake-prone ‘victims’ in Mademoiselle’s French lessons and the self-satisfied Mademoiselle herself. A final poem, ‘Looking at Sky’ more equivocally notes the leisure that illness confers on the poet, who can do no more than surrender her body to ‘the paradise of sleep’.

At the end of every reading of this first collection of Fisher’s, I still wonder why such a collection remains in critical limbo. Whatever the reasons, it’s less a puzzle than an indictment.

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In Fisher’s second major collection, Still Life, Other Life (2007), her ability to apprehend and enter into the emotional lives of others is evident in a succession of meditations on the poem-making business and the paradoxes inherent in art’s ability to tease us out of our self-absorption. The first section speaks of delight in the tangible, visual and edible world, including the associations of names we bestow on objects—such as pears in the poem of the same name: ‘Mrs Packham, La Belle Anglaise, / who described herself leniently, / as an actress’—and what we associate with them: a metaphorical way of thinking whereby ‘haunches’ of pears resemble ‘Colette’s courtesans’.

Several poems take paintings as triggers for other conclusions than those intended by the artists. Joseph, in the poem ‘Flight into Egypt’, appears to be engaged in reading for pleasure, ‘unaware / of great events unfolding, / so lost is he in story’. A poem titled ‘Still Life, Other Life’ reflects on the material involved in still-life paintings and makes an unexpected imaginative leap:

Out there canvas cities flap
in a dry wind,
water queues wait in the dust.

Does the poet have to say more? Fisher’s poems don’t explain what they’re about, and I find this agreeable: her poems on art, especially, offer the artefacts as autonomous things or events requiring no elucidation, as, I think, most artists would agree concerning their work. While poems can and do express ideas and feelings by virtue of their existence as language phenomena, Fisher’s walk a line between presentation and communication of ideas as things in themselves. When she broaches political subjects in similar manner: they exist within a unique set of circumstances at the same time as having features in common with other events with the appearance of coherence suggesting narrative coherence. Fisher’s approach bestows an aesthetic quality on political matters that is rare. Jennifer Maiden’s ‘political’ poetry, like that of New Zealander Sonja Yelich (for example, in the latter’s 2009 collection Get Some), can appear to have designs on its readers through mythologising events or otherwise making them symbolic. Fisher seems to me to be less obviously persuading her readers to accept some ideological ‘take’ on event; rather, she appears to put recognition if not love of people before any ‘cause’.

In a series of poems on the wives of famous artists, Fisher highlights neglected features of the actual production and interpretation of great works. A fleeting contrast might be made here between Fisher’s approach and Carol Ann Duffy’s (in the 1999 volume, The World’s Wife), but Fisher is not so obviously concerned with point scoring and deconstructing mythological as well as historical figures. I think the difference lies in a sort of rescue operation, reclamation of reputations of women who had actual existence. Claes Oldenburg’s wife is brought to the fore as the seamstress of the soft sculptures that made his name (‘The Sculptor’s Wife’); John Milton’s daughters, whom he employs as readers of languages of which they are supposedly ignorant, laugh at the poet when he approves their embroidery (‘The Poet’s Daughters: Deborah Milton Speaks’); the Countess Tolstoy painstakingly proofreads her husband’s near-indecipherable writing and prepares his books for the press while he plays peasant (‘The Novelist’s Wife: Countess Tolstoy’s War and Peace’). Dorothy Wordsworth is presented as the greater writer—‘You wrote it down so freshly, / while he composed / a little fib’ (‘The Poet’s Sister’); and Elizabeth Gould receives is given credit for her exquisite paintings that made her husband’s name (‘A Sigh for Elizabeth Gould’). As Fisher’s titles indicate, a history of repression operates in the lives and work of these women.

Not all such history involving art hinges on suppression of recognition. The poem ‘Rain and Hirohito’ portrays the Emperor, dying in Tokyo: ‘Deity long discarded, he was / always more interested in fish’. In like mode, Fisher refers to her own activities in a trio of poems on poetry. ‘Searching the Poem’ playfully portrays the process as an Edward Lear-like pursuit of a butterfly; ‘Finding the Poem’ appears to make light of the writing until

One morning I wake
and there’s a bubbling spring
inside me. Come, small poem,
out of the drawer.
I am ready
to put flesh on your
bones, sift through
those laborious drafts
and write you free.

Of ‘dead poems’ she writes ‘Yet […] there is nobility too—poems / which gave their organs / that others might live’ (‘Burying the Poem’). Fisher’s sentiment might accord with many poets’ experience.

In poems that bring familiar circumstances and localities to the fore, Fisher sketches the bare locative data and makes the scenes memorable through images and turns of phrase that highlight absurdities we take for granted. Her ‘Lament for a Town’ could refer to any bypassed country town; what makes such live, so to speak, is a result of particularising images, such as that of streets formerly ‘herringboned with utes and Holdens and Fords / parked in pepper-tree shade’. The poem ‘Sydney Weddings’ focuses on parks with their weekend ‘snowfall of brides’, concerning whom, Fisher adds ‘some will jettison their photos / along with a partner / found lacking’. ‘The Red Coat’, a later poem that comes closest to autobiography, records an encounter in infancy in a Melbourne street, where Fisher and her mother suddenly see Fisher’s father escorted by a woman dressed in red. Fisher comments in retrospect, ‘How wretched you made us, old charmer, / and how good to have you around / when we felt you belonged to us’. Whatever suffering the family endured is kept private in controlled spare speech that highlights the unsettling irruption of the strange in everyday life. One could search far in contemporary poetry of domestic relationships to find as admirable restraint.

Pain of another sort, resulting from her mother’s illness and death, is as efficiently managed in concise vignettes: ‘Kurrajong’ records, in interesting shifts of tense, the former routine of Easters in the hills, drives, afternoon teas and lunch on the grass, ‘you dying and we still in denial’. ‘Legacy’ also resorts to gerunds: ‘The last intrusive act: sorting your clothes’ while ‘the camellia you loved’ has ‘put out its immaculate flowers. / They are so pale in the cold garden’. Fisher’s shifts in tense are worth revisiting: they’re models of verbal tact.

Two poem-sequences, of the three that expand Fisher’s subject matter and approach, comprise catalogue or list poems. One, ‘Concerning Clothes’, ranges over precise associations: childhood horrors such as shrunken bathers, school uniforms, and the occasional party dress; op shop sorters’ methodology; Judith, ‘Dressed to Kill’ on her way to meet Holofernes; ‘Discards’—clothes washed up on beaches (‘We think the worst / of clothes without their owners’); the task of ironing a nightgown for her mother’s funeral; a woman, dressed in her ‘best sari’, subject of a tour guide’s demonstration of how the poor live. ‘Without Clothes’, the concluding poem in the sequence, unsettlingly juxtaposes Adam and Eve with leaves, Auschwitz, and a ‘calm reclining Venus’ who ‘wears her nudity like a dress’. Such a conjunction recalls those poems (in Archival Footwork) that compel readers (and observers of the visually familiar) to take stock of the ways in which conventional interpretation masks the alluring strangeness, and sometimes absurdity or horror in the familiar.

A second catalogue type of poem-sequence, ‘Considering Sand’, that comes as the culmination of a number of poems on oceanic and atmospheric effects, similarly invites readers to contemplate associations of the word ‘sand’. The introductory poem speaks of holiday homes and how ‘walking on sand can be like /crushing biscuits’. Further along, ‘The Bible is full of sand and beards / and hot weather. Years later I’m amazed / to learn it’s snowing in Jerusalem’. Other defamiliarising images include those of the sandbags associated with disasters; of the pre-industrial writer whose ‘film of sand / veils that sonnet to his mistress’; of the shallow beach grave of a murdered girl; of the peculiar suggestiveness of ‘sandwiches’; of the ‘subversive’ sandshoes of the eccentric Sydney character Bea Miles. Fisher adds the sand masking the deaths of one bull after another; Schumann’s ‘sandman / scattering his most melodious dust’ on sleeping infants; and her own mining ‘the dunes of language’ and thinking of Blake, who’ saw / time fall silently in the glass’.

The poem is a series of transformations of the familiar, and I again reflect on the apparent absence of critical response to her work. Could it be that her publication by such presses as Indigo and Ginninderra obviates serious consideration? If so, I don’t hold with such prejudice, in a period when to be published anywhere at all is such a difficult and even discouraging undertaking. Her publishers merit thanks for bringing her work to light in such attractive editions.

A final poem-sequence in Still Life, Other Life is titled ‘Russian Album’, where Fisher continues to ring changes on touristic preconceptions in eight poems that humanise the people encountered during her visit. The Intourist guide lacks the nerve to opine on the Soviet years, much less contemporary times, but is happier with ‘icons / and the domes of Holy Russia, / fairytale forests […] and the scarlet berries / of roman trees / that make delicious jam’ (‘Galina’s Bread’). A member of the Convent of the Precious Blood has even less time for Leninist ‘nonsense’, but is not pleased to have her photo taken while she manually labours in a manner that might suggest visual imitation of ‘the Soviet way’ (‘The Postulant’). An account, as if reportage of an event in progress, of children walking in streams with bunches of flowers to their first day of school, ‘All over Russia’, is abruptly halted with the irruption of news, while Fisher and her husband are lunching in a stylish St Petersburg restaurant, of the murderous siege of a school in Beslan, Ossetia. Fisher’s poem concludes with the restaurant staff wiping away tears ‘as they set down our plates’. Common humanity emerging in times of crisis is reprised in two final poems: ‘Carpentry’ relates an unskilled woman’s experience of making a coffin, from household materials, for a small child during the siege of Leningrad: ‘She was not cut out for this task / but knew it must be done’). The concluding poem, ‘The Fountain House’, brings the entire collection back to the relationship of art and life and women’s experience. The house in question was the poet Akhmatova’s residence for many years, and Fisher relates that, though denied a ration card, Akhmatova survived through the charity of friends who brought chocolate and oranges, ‘“As though”, you wrote, “I was an invalid / —not simply hungry.”’

I concur with Elizabeth Webby’s comment on Fisher’s ‘mastery of the compressed narrative […], evoking the world in a grain of sand’.

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By way of an intermezzo, Fisher gathered sixteen poems in a chapbook titled Rain and Hirohito, published by Picaro Press in May 2012. With the exception of three, these had been published in the preceding larger collections (respectively, 87 and 85 pages). The three exceptions were ‘The Proper Spirit’, ‘Deck Chairs’ and ‘Casuarinas’, which all appear in her most recent and compendious (108 pages) collection, Rescued from Time, with which the remainder of this survey is concerned.

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Rescued From Time follows the earlier major gatherings in grouping poems around unnamed though more or less topical congruencies. The first section is much concerned with the properties and productions of artists: photographs, botanical models, poetry, historic houses, and the clothes and performances of actors. ‘Deckchairs’, the opening poem, ponders what the ‘confident gaze’ of famous people, photographed at their leisure, conveys. Fisher proposes ‘the witticism just uttered, the laughter / dissolving in the mild, tobacco-scented air’. There is no getting at the gazers’ mystery, though, and I think ‘mystery’ is the unstated element that draws Fisher in all her poetry relating to art. Clues to some of the mystery in ‘Deckchairs’ may lie in the detail of ‘tobacco-scented air’ and references to ‘the famous faces’ (Vanessa and Clive and the Woolves, Morgan, / Lytton and Carrington’, ‘panamas, / early sunglasses or thatch of remarkable hair’, but observers of the photograph can only guess at the gulf between themselves and the lives of those subjects who seem to look straight back at them.

The paradox of ‘life brought to a standstill’ is expressed in other figurative works referenced in this introductory part of the collection. One such is ‘The Breakfast’, a Jacob Jansz painting from the turn of the sixteenth century that, to Fisher’s mind, displays ‘the Holy Family sitting down / to a very German breakfast’. Reading that stark phrase, with line-break and all, I’m struck by the cleverness of it. Ekphastic poems can be lifeless things after all, but Fisher makes hers live by reference to the things that make life good, and her connoisseurship in the matter of food ‘nails’ the meal with exactitude. In the poem ‘On Looking at Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of an Old Man and his Grandson’, a similar sense of life stems from the details as Fisher shifts focus from the old man’s nose, so often subject of medical and art-commentary, to his ‘hooded eyes’ and faint tender smile toward the ‘radiant’ child who looks up to him, and the uniting warm red colours of their clothes uniting them—‘as if to reflect the blood that binds them’. Verbal language and the language of painting are things apart, so simile has to state what may be self-evident in the actual painting. Fisher adds an editorial comment that pulls the entire experience together: ‘we know something marvellous / is alive in the work’. In this way, the ‘marvellous’ embraces the painting, the painter, its subjects—and the onlooker.

The extent to which Fisher thinks metaphorically and associatively may strike many readers of this collection. She is alert art’s mimetic potential, highlighting the mode (in its pre-Socratic sense of stage-actors’ imitation of actions) in poems like ‘The Proper Spirit’, concerning actor’s assumptions of roles when they put on their stage clothes. Women, Fisher remarks, know ‘the constraints of costume’, and she takes her observation of the phenomenon further when she refers to Mrs and Mrs William Blake, naked while reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, out of their belief that it ‘would encourage the proper spirit / in which to read that great work’. It’s a startling but characteristic move of Fisher’s to include this instance of people getting into the spirit of occasion. In ‘Conversations I do not have’, she recognises the outer shores of performative occasions, in her acknowledgment of a propensity and a wish to break out of frame at times, at risk of social gaffes or greater absurdities. She ponders the effect of speaking truth instead of the conventional lies heard at funeral orations, or when remaining cravenly obliging to hosts at dreadful dinners or when being presented with unwanted gifts.

Variations on the theme of dissimulation and the mimetic impulse take some interesting turns in other poems. ‘Kristallnacht’ considers the German ‘flair for poetry’ that applies such an appealing word to an outrage; to a point of such duplicity, Fisher adds the further contradiction whereby the Bayreuth synagogue was spared destruction similar to the German Parliament, on account of the synagogue’s proximity to the Wagnerian Festspielhaus. In ‘Glass Flowers’, Fisher dwells on the uncanniness (or ‘magic’ as she calls it) of the Blaschke father and son’s work in creating glass flowers for the Harvard botanical museum: ‘so delicate a contradiction’ goes direct to the mystery of art’s preservation of some simulacrum of life (in this case, ‘solidity, / marble hard yet fragile in its cool perfection’). This is akin to Keats’s remark on ‘Cold Pastoral’ of the Grecian urn that teases a viewer out of thought.

Some of Fisher’s poems on art and life are more self-reflexive; the fifth poem in her sequence ‘Hospital Vistas’ includes the following:

I am in a painting by Jeffrey Smart.
[…]
And can that tiny distant figure
be David Malouf, or is it Clive James?
Be that as it may, they are both welcome.

The preoccupation with art and the incidental indications of foreign travels, Fisher moves toward the more ‘domestic’ Australian and even suburban setting of the second section of the book, with ‘Coming Home’: ‘We drink our tea on the veranda / and Europe slides off us’. Two poems directly reference architecture. In ‘Historic Home Visit’, the fictive Professor Fletcher, wearied with ‘motel rooms and carpet-smelling air’, and bored with the ritual of trailing his spouse and their guide and through a grand house, has a sudden flash of fantasy in the master bedroom, imagining ‘his Ariadne seized, flung on the bed, / with all her loveliness arrayed / as if for his own banquet spread’. The image is comic in tone of authorial amusement at masculine overreaching or self-delusion—such as characterises A.D. Hope’s ‘Imperial Adam’ or Gwen Harwood’s ‘Prize Giving’, all three cases employing amusing possibilities of rhyme.

Fisher’s gaze falls on distinctively Australian vistas and subjects in the second section of the book, notable for several catalogue or list-poems. She writes of self-sown bush lemons, with their ‘leprous, aching boughs’ (‘Bush Lemons’); melaleucas (‘Paperbarks’: ‘they make me think of ancient relatives / in dressing gowns, shuffling / to bed with hot water-bottles’); ‘Palms’ (‘a bit like poor relations at a smart party’), and ‘Casuarinas’—a poem that fancifully proposes a saint whose name has been ascribed to the tree (‘like Saint Barbara—of pious legend, dropped from the Vatican calendar but still / revered in certain parts’). Light and sound references suffuse these poems and others that pointedly address garden and littoral scenes frequented by birds: ‘By the Lake’ speaks of fishermen’s boats ‘crammed (appliquéd) / with pelicans’; ‘Light—Late Afternoon’, a poem in tercet form, remarks ‘How they loved late afternoons, / Those painters we love too’.

As the excerpts indicate, Fisher is alert to correspondent images that give point to her observations, and this is also true of poems whose drift is predominantly narrative, such as ‘A Colonial Story’, the twelve-pages long account of a colonial-era suicide, related to Eleanor Phillimore, Writer in Residence a National Trust house, by the nonagenarian retainer ‘old Jim’, who ‘lurks’ nearby. Fisher has some fun with the contrast between Miss Phillimore’s businesslike researches into the story of the original owner’s career and mental breakdown, and the proprietorial fussiness of the National Trust guide who offers her ‘a book’—the Women’s Weekly. The distinction between the two characters’ idea of literary seriousness also embraces Eleanor’s friends, whose talk of her ‘obsession’ she meets with ‘scalding’ remarks. A further character in the tale, Mrs Dunphy, a former servant-woman from Britain is amazed at the lofty rooms of the mansion, thinking ‘oh, the dusting!’ while her husband Bob speaks of ‘all this privilege and old money […] not to mention / Colonial Georgian claptrap’ before stomping back to the tour bus in a huff. Fisher’s reliance on such dialogue to carry the class implications of the story is of a sort with Patrick White’s novelistic (and dramatic) positioning of seekers and sophisticates against the complacent, smug (and sometimes murderously) envious. Fisher’s narrative maintains a similar blend of tragic, comic and satiric elements without interpolative authorial comment.

The fourth and fifth sections of Rescued from Time engage with domestic matters in another way, dwelling on reminiscence, ageing and decline. Some of the poems may reflect particular personal losses, though it would be risky assume all as fact. A poem like ‘Skiing in the Main Range’ might be no more than recollection of the pleasure of the activity and the company whose trails ‘tuned the slopes / into a great expansive drawing’—an image that lends weight to the idea that Fisher employs the world as a canvas or magazine of materials for the creation of art. In a poem relating to a wedding photo from London in 1905, the most arresting feature for Fisher is a brick wall spiked with shards of broken glass, that encloses the focal group (‘In the Picture’). If the figures in the photo are, in effect, ancestors, that detail would hardly lend little more significance to the idea of a marriage hedged with danger.

We may be on safer ground in assuming autobiographical reference with the poem ‘Lost Uncles’, which reprises the theme of the Archival Footwork poem, ‘Aunt Ida’, in recording the deaths of Thomas and William, though it adds the detail of William’s enlistment, at the age of seventeen after being handed a white feather by a woman on a train, and his death in action several months later. The poem concludes with a terse quotation from official notice to families relating to burial of their dead: ‘Particulars not to hand’. Australian poems written in the past century relating to World War One and personal losses are notably prone to lapse into faux-sincere effusions of patriotic gush posing as art, but I think Fisher’s poems on lost uncles easily evade such lapses of taste.

Elsewhere in the poems I’ve classed as touching on familial memories, Fisher distances t melancholy by wishing away certain recollections, such as the sight of an old man living in a Bombay drainpipe, and the poor woman dressed in her best the Bombay poor referred to earlier. Fisher is provoked to reflect on her own experience, and acknowledges that there is no forgetting ‘past insensitivities, / the shaming gaffe, / the hurt received or given’ (‘Forgetting’). Wishing cannot dispel such emotions. A further reminiscence, ‘Viewpoints’ recounts Fisher’s experience of climbing, at age seven, a tall tree in an English garden and looking out the distant hills and fields of watercress by a river, and the ‘mean terraces’ closer at hand. The most accomplished poems bearing on intimate relations maintain a brittle restraint. ‘To an Adopted Child’ concludes ‘when you reach understanding, / deal with me leniently’, and plastic flowers in a poem of the same name the poem refer to her mother’s ball dress: the flowers ‘still will bloom / while we decline, will meet / our last breath / with a bright stare’.

Fisher takes another tack in her penultimate grouping of poems in Rescued from Time. Four poems comprise lists of associations of colours, and several poems consider wayside shrines to victims of road-carnage, a friend’s gift for choosing appropriate postcards for intended recipients, Fred Williams’s landscapes, and Grace Cossington Smith’s penchant for painting interiors with mirrors on open wardrobe wardrobes, and other doors that open to the artist’s veranda and garden: for Fisher, these are correspondent ‘open doors and open mind’ (Grace Cossington Smith’s Interiors’). If Cossington Smith’s paintings are ‘awash with her signature brushstrokes / of multi-hues pigment / and the dazzle of light’, Fisher’s poems are also replete with ‘signature’ turns of phrase and images that highlight the variety and hues of her subjects.

Poems like ‘A Survivor’ and ‘Toast’ serve well to illustrate the sort of detail that emphasise the insistence and intensity of memory. Both poems celebrate bygone or enduring vernacular Australian food. The former poem imagines a museum of Australian staples including carpet-bag steak, tinned-spaghetti sandwiches, and neenish tarts. Depending on readers’ ages and tastes, the list will beggar credulity or bring tears to the eyes of those who lament the days when they were young. Fisher’s poems on colours also couple sensory experience and further illustrate her precision with language (words that ‘bear such a load of meaning’ as she says in the poem ‘White’). Thus, among the images conjured by ‘Yellow’, Fisher bundles Van Gogh (‘Vincent did not have / a jaundiced view of yellow’), Chinese silk, the Yellow Book, the Yellow House in Potts Point, wattles in bloom, yellow box honey butter and eggs and other phenomena. ‘Red’ speaks of wounds, rage, the ‘red-letter day’ when reds are not found under the bed but ‘when the rednecks / all got their comeuppance’. These collisions of images release energy in what incurious readers might otherwise consider flat ‘lists’.

Perhaps the most interesting extended sequence of poems in the book is that which brings it to a close. The ten poems that comprise ‘Fragments of a Life’ purport to stem from ‘the unposted letters of Joseph Bergin’ whom the unnamed editor and narrator of the letters identifies at the outset as ‘my father’ (‘A Daughter’s Note’). The letters are supposedly discovered in a tin, and are all addressed to an anonymous woman whom he loved before migrating to Australia. A footnote provides background to his sophisticated Polish Jewish background, his Viennese and Parisian education and training as an engineer before he fetched up in Australia, worked on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, founded a construction company, married an Australian woman, established a family and ended up ‘immensely rich’

The narrator guesses that the letters address the woman whom he loved in Paris, though the extracts provide little clue: it’s clear that the woman was married, and his earliest impressions of Cooma (‘like some sort of frontier, all fractured English’) contain the remark ‘You would not like it here’. The letters reveal his friendship with fellow Boggabilla camp inmate Eric, a charmer who has opened a café in Double Bay and calls himself a count. The poem ‘Householder’ informs Bergin’s absent lover ‘How you would smile to see me now, / living in a suburb, mowing a lawn’. The cultural gulf widens with revelations of his current wife, who is ‘young and beautiful / but does not know it’, and whom he loves, but ‘Not as I loved you and was consumed’. In the letter-poem ‘Lost Ones’, Bergin writes that he tries not to think of his Aunt Etta ‘with her ample figure exposed / waiting, naked in a line’.

Fisher moves the Bergin narrative along through a collage of her fictional character’s self-depictions. In ‘Housewarming’, he writes of a party in Australia even while he presents memories of his lover and his aunt. In ‘The Vacant Bed’, he obliquely alludes to his wife’s death by remarking on wardrobes full of her clothes. The second last poem, ‘The Painting’ recounts his purchase of a small picture at a gallery, where ‘they were very polite’, but ‘they’d hoped I buy the Brack’. Fisher implies a degree of sensitivity in Bergin’s emphasis on the picture’s origin: it was painted ‘by no one anyone’s heard of. / Young, I suppose, just starting’—but he values it because it recalls to him the smell of ‘dry grass and burnt trees’ when he first came to Australia.

It occurs to me at this point that I should return to Fisher’s poetry to note the olfactory sense-references, but I’ll leave those for others to discover; her poems have slyly included every other sensation and taste. The Bergin sequence ends with ‘Leaving’, in which he writes of himself in a nursing home where he looks from a terrace ‘at the boats and ferries / until it’s time for tea’. His ‘bosomy, not to say bossy nurse’ gives him a friendly pat, and he remarks ‘I control my irritation; / she means well. They all mean well’.

Subtlety is the keynote of ‘Fragments of a Life’, as it is of so much of Fisher’s poetry. At the same time, there is toughness of thought behind the Bergin letters and many other poems that do not flinch at sadness close at hand or misery in the world at large. There’s little point in trying to ‘locate’ Fisher among her peers, whether male or female. Her achievement is distinctive. I’ve though of other poets whose range might parallel or coincide hers: Hewett (whose autobiography is wrapped in mythology: no comparison; Fisher is not so driven); Wright (not quite: the ecological, philosophical, scientific and social justice themes are more insistent than Fisher’s allusiveness); Dobson (art, yes, and suffering, but so tightly wrapped in received forms); Harwood (close, in tone, wit, sense of poetry as an art that can easily embody philosophy, friendship as well as love and another beloved art form); (Zwicky: now there’s a thought: openness and clarity, yes, though consider the weight of family and European and Chinese history—and put Zwicky’s ‘Deckchair on the Titanic’ beside Fisher’s ‘Deckchair’?); and so on. No, Fisher is an original. And it’s a pleasure to encounter such an active and open mind.

Works referred to

Archival Footwork. ISBN 1 74027 096 7. Charnwood ACT: Indigo/Ginninderra, 1997.

Still Life, Other Life. ISBN 978 1 74027 442 5. Charnwood ACT: Ginninderra, 2007.

Rain and Hirohito and other poems. ISSN 1444 8424. Cardiff NSW: Picaro, May 2012.

Rescued from Time. ISBN 9781760412333. Ginninderra Press, 2016. RRP $20.  http://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/rapidcartpro/index.php?product/page/1165/*+Barbara+Fisher+%2F+Rescued+From+Time

 –  Michael Sharkey

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Michael Sharkey: Photo by Winifred Belmont, Bologna, October 2017

Michael Sharkey lives in central Victoria.  He edited the Australian Poetry Journal from 2014 to 2016. His latest books are The Poetic Eye: Occasional Writings 1982-2012 (Leiden & Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2016) and In the Real World and Other Poems (Hobart, Burringbar, 2017).

Improvisational Openness: Jen Crawford launches ‘Semi’ by Owen Bullock

Semi by Owen Bullock was launched by Jen Crawford at the Poetry on the Move festival at the University of Canberra, 20 September 2017.

It’s funny how much a book of poetry can carry what one feels to be the essence of a person in text form – at least, I’m often struck by that. And I guess the lovely thing about that is that sometimes you can have the book where you might not have the person. This book is a great example. I feel like this is a kind of portable Owen – it has all his gentleness, the good humour and the vaudevillean variety, the honesty that has both a lightness of touch and a resonant depth.

This is not to say that Semi is in any way predictable. Indeed there’s a range and agility here that reminds me that Owen’s a guy who knows how to juggle. Swift movements of attention carry the grace of someone who’s been practicing their craft for a long  time, and with great dedication. Those movements don’t give the sense of a fractured or fragmented sensibility, but rather of the hand moving faster than the eye across a very broad skill base, with an improvisational openness to play with whatever might arise.

I’ve followed Owen’s movements for years – from New Zealand to Australia – and I’ve often been quite boggled by the volume of material that he produces and the quality he maintains across that body of work. Each book is worth reading, but this one strikes me as particularly special. Its poems form the creative component of his recently completed doctoral submission, and this means that it represents a kind of surfacing of a body of thought. Much like Hemingway’s iceberg there’s a certain amount here articulated directly in the words above the waterline, but you can also feel and discern the heft of the engagement that’s below.

The sheer variety of ways that the page and the line are explored here are a great indicator of this. The work with form shows a really full engagement with concepts, with literature, with possibilities. And again it’s worth saying that these explorations are not piecemeal, but purposeful, sustained, oriented partly  in the particular needs of the voice at a particular moment – narrating into the prose block, working the turn of the left-justified line, scattering away from the margin into space and erasure, distilling into grids, slipping in haibun-fashion from image into reflection, into narration.

The verbal range is delightful too, catching that sense of capacious openness and reflective depth. Listen to the way this moves:

I’m language
made into and out of
to be
…….in what the other has written. live
disappointments at what’s read
…………………..preceding delight, often in
the same
…………………..text
………………………..that’s changed
nothing, time moonched
perspective munted
                                         – ‘I’ll put a rainbow in your hand’

I think the other thing that comes through really strongly here is the sense of collaboration – collaboration as play, collaboration as dedication to the other (the other artist in a project, the other writer, the other loved one). There’s a moment in here where I expected one poem – ‘a good start’ to resolve with the noun phrase ‘hard work’ –

and laugh now I’m here

with the sunshine

and my tiredness

………………………– from ‘hard work’

but instead we have the adjectival ‘hardworking’ – it’s a quirk of voice that somehow catches the spirit of something I see in that collaborative presence, too – the sense of acceptance, ongoingness, pleasure in dedication.

There’s much more to say about this volume, about the generosity of self here alongside the openness to the world, for example – but we have just a little time to hear from Owen, so I want to make space for that. And for you to go acquire this lovely companionate book, which I am quite sure you will keep with you for a long time, as I will.

 – Jen Crawford

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Jen Crawford is an Assistant Professor of Writing within the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra.  She is the author of eight poetry books and chapbooks, including Koel (Cordite Books, 2016), and recently co-edited Poet-to-Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan with Rina Kikuchi.

Semi is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/semi/

 

The Celebration of a Life Richly Lived: Ron Pretty Reviews ‘Many, and One’ by Lyn Hatherly

Many, and One by Lyn Hatherly Five Island Press 2017

Some readers may not be aware that this is a posthumous collection: sadly, Lyn Hatherly passed away in 2016. At the back of Many, and One, there is a biography of Lyn, so I don’t need to go through her life story in any great detail. But there are a number of things from that biography that I would like to take a few moments to highlight.

I got to know Lyn when I came to Melbourne to run Five Islands Press, the Australian Poetry Foundation and Blue Dog (which later became Australian Poetry Inc and Australian Poetry Journal) and it is true to say that none of those projects would have survived for very long without her — an observation that was confirmed after I retired to Wollongong and Kevin Brophy took over Five Islands Press. For both of us, Lyn was administrator, secretary and editor by turns; always there, always reliable, always cheerful.

She was a very careful editor and proof reader; she helped with the selection process for Blue Dog and was always a good sounding board when selections were being made for FIP.

The next thing that impressed me about Lyn was her knowledge of the myths, the ancient writers and philosophers; and particularly, her knowledge of, and authority on, the work of Sappho, that ancient Greek poet from the island of Lesbos on whom she had done her PhD. Some of the poems in the collection display the power of one of her translations; she translated Sappho for her degree. Lyn came to academic study late, as her biography explains, but she was an autodidact with a life-long love of literature and thirst for knowledge, both scientific and literary.

I know that Lyn had other arrows in her Sapphic quiver, chief among them her ability as a lecturer, workshop leader and mentor for writers. Others are better qualified to speak of this aspect of her life, but the number of people at Eltham with grateful memories of her attests to that, as does the workshop in Eltham she founded. The fact that it continues uninterrupted demonstrates her continuing creative influence.

That perhaps is a somewhat lengthy introduction, but it is important to remember that, as fine a poet as Lyn was, she composed her poetry while she was doing a myriad of other things, which makes the quality of her poetry even more remarkable.

Turning now to Many, and One. The first thing I would want to claim for it is that it is accessible and challenging. This is poetry to be enjoyed and appreciated by all who have a skerrick of interest in poetry.

Coincidentally, as I was preparing this review, I happened to see a documentary film about the great Hungarian composer and teacher Zoltán Kodály. He firmly believed that all of us have music in us, and the correct approach will bring it out. He also felt that Conservatoria around the world do music a great disservice by concentrating on a few gifted musicians at the expense of all others, who are left feeling second rate, demoralised.  I can attest to the truth of that, for I know a gifted pianist who, having won a scholarship to London, was there told that she would never make a concert pianist. The disappointment in a very real sense destroyed her life. Kodály believed in encouraging the love of music for people at any age, and the success of the annual  Brisbane Music School attests to the efficacy of his approach.

That story has a direct relevance to Lyn Hatherly, for, as Kodály in music, so Lyn believed that poetry is for all of us, not just the gifted few, as the success of her workshops attests. As does her own poetry, which demonstrates the power of a clear and accessible surface, vibrant images, precision and passion to convey rich and complex ideas. As we can see in this collection, there is a richness we can all enjoy.

The book is in 6 evocative sections, entitled, in turn, Many; Imagine; Love and Desire; Borrowed Breath; And One; and, finally a baker’s dozen of uncollected and selected poems. As the note on the text at the beginning indicates, some of these poems were in earlier collections, so it’s a new and selected edition. As well, Chris and Kevin have indicated in their note that “we have done our best to present the poems left unfinished in as complete a state as possible, in the arrangement that Lyn had worked out.” I think Lyn would have been very pleased with the result, for those poems fit seamlessly into the collection. Unstated there, of course, is the sense of loss those unfinished poem represent.

The next thing to notice is the title: Many, and One. We know that Lyn was a very careful editor, so why the comma? For me, its effect is to isolate and emphasise each term in the title, even as it insists on the link between them. There are a great many of us, and we live in a world of many wonderful things, and in a world that faces grave issues, as many of the poems suggest even as they stress the beauty and the power of the natural world. At the same time the title insists that we are one, that we live in one world and (despite the dreams of the astronauts) if we destroy it, there will be no other. Her poem, ‘The many’, explores this. Notice the way she segues from talking about the one, to bacteria, and finally to talking about all of us. (page 49). See also ‘We are many, but we are one’ on page 64.

The title thus connects seamlessly with the dominant theme of the collection. For many of the poems in this collection explore aspects of science and the natural world; her sense of delight in it; her sense of wonder. All her life this was an abiding interest of hers, and it came as no surprise when she told me some years ago that she and her partner Chris Peters were intent on building an ecologically sustainable home, which they did in Eltham. That’s the thing with Lyn: she didn’t just espouse her beliefs, she lived them.

So many of the poems in this collection reference this passion of hers. For instance, this one from page 12: ‘Hear Them’. Note the real sense of celebration throughout this poem, and especially in the last line of each stanza. The final stanza will give you a good sense of the poem:

How wise we were of sap and form
to found this green and wet-pocked earth
where plants take air and make it breathe
where streams and seas and clear lakes flood
where rocks have thawed to make good soil
the sun gives light and heat and fire
and all life forms shake with desire
together they shall sing a hallelujah.

That awareness of the natural world, the wonder of it, permeates the whole collection: the earth and everything in it, and everything on it is her text, how all of it’s connected, all of it is to be celebrated, insect, bird and animal, humans and our place in it, the love of partner, child and parent, the awareness of our origins, mythical and scientific; and where it is all headed. One, and Many indeed. So many poems could be chosen to illustrate this; but read, for instance, ‘At Dusk’, on page 45, where Hatherly seamlessly moves from suburban communters returning home to Shearwaters seeking their nest. The poem celebrates what they have in common.

There are a number of passionate and very sensual poems in the collection, such poems as ‘I see us’, ‘I breathe you’, ‘Labours of Love’, and others. Look how much she packs into ‘Flesh and light’ on page 41. It is both very sensual and scientific, invoking Newton and fields of energy, moving seamlessly from science to the passion and back again.

The energy of love can be moulded
into shapes in an unseen world.
I lean back into the tide of your love.
Its energy is clear as the layers of ocean
closest to the sky, where sunlight is held.

Such poems, of course, emphasise another kind of unity: that between lovers, and also, in a number of poems, between mother and child, or between her and her father. Those poems are almost painful in their beauty: as we read them, we can’t but reflect on Lyn’s delight in the world of the senses. So alive these poems!
Her awareness of what she is leaving gives a real poignancy to many of these poems. One that has a huge impact on me when I read it is ‘You believe’ on page 27. The poem is also a good example of Lyn’s ability to find the significant, evocative detail.

You believe you’ll always remember this,
the spring-blue sky, shallower than summer,
fruit flowers above new green leaves,
wattles still showing a dull gold,
huge box trees creaming and scented
. . . . . . . . . . .
How could plant life keep flowering, fruiting, gifting us
without them (bees), bright as canaries in a mine?
I will remember this.

One of her great skills is in reminding us of the ongoing connectedness between history, myths and the present. These poems remind me of A D Hope’s comment that, “It is the meaning of the poet’s trade to recreate the myths and revive in men the energy by which they live.” (I like the ambivalence of the final “they” in that sentence.)  In the poem ‘Ulysses’ on page 37, just the title is enough. And I think Ovid would have been proud of her poem Daphne (P 17). We’ll all have our own favourites, of course, but for me, the best illustration of this feature of Lyn’s poetry is ‘The star people’ on page 73.

Such connectedness with the present also applies to the ancient philosophers. Look, for instance, at the way she brings Epicurus into the present in a poem like ‘Properties of air’ on page 39. He ‘formed the view,’ she tells us, ‘that matter is illusory’, and ‘We inhale Epicurus’s words.’ And he is very much with them as ‘We dream, you and I, on a lap of long grass.’

At first glance, Lyn’s poetry might appear artless, unstructured, but that’s because her effects come so naturally, so subtly, that it’s easy to overlook them. The poems are rich in the well chosen detail, the evocative phrase, the subtle patterns of sound, the carefully chosen line breaks. Let me give you just a few examples.
See for example, how much is encompassed in these short phrases from Daphne (17), how effective the sound patterning is, how competent the line breaks:

She stands staring at him
sinking her small feet in deep loose soil
until they take root, until her arms spread
in branches, and the white flesh of breasts
know a corselet of bark.

And consider this brief stanza from Cities (22). See how much she builds into these brief lines: the compression, the evocation, with so many of her ecological concerns packed into one brief stanza:

As consummate pack animals we rule
taming, excluding other life forms
even trees and lyrical birds
marching out each day, dragging in
bread from the global commons.

Look too, in the poem Ulysses, (P37) at the way this stanza, in one sentence, builds so beautifully to its butterfly conclusion:

Into this green-tinged underworld,
where vines wrap screens around tree-poles
and lianas that tracked the sun
end in coiled spirals on a floor
crawling with baby-flesh ferns,

two travellers flitted

Notice, too, how effectively she uses the stanza break there to foreground that final phrase.

I could go on multiplying examples of her skill, but I’ll leave to readers the pleasure of finding them for themselves. Those few though are sufficient to make clear the skill with which she weaves her magic: the sound patterning, the compression, the repetitions, the careful structures, the foregrounding, the phrase that make you look and look again.

I would like to finish by referring to the first and last poems, which so ably frame the collection as a whole. The first of them, ‘For a Good Life’, on page 11, is a poem that encompasses her philosophy in a few simple stanzas. Then, on page 81, is ‘Each Breath’, the last poem in the collection. So much is going on in this poem; it carries within it a suggestion of the history of evolution, and an awareness of the richness the world has to offer, and finally and most powerfully, her awareness of the direction in which she is headed. There are many powerful and evocative poems dealing with these questions in this collection, so this is a very appropriate poem on which to end:

I hold my breath, feel the faintness
my body’s panic, the increase in blood-born
carbon, the way some acts are not wilful.
Air and life have always interacted
the present crop of green and living things
nest in our hollow, sipping a mix of oxygen
nitrogen and argon from the fine layer
succouring our Earth: our global commons.
Every breath links us with our past
reminds us that we are all joined.

So I walk on, face forward to my future
while behind me foorprints like arrowheads
point to all I have left behind.

It’s a fine summing up, a statement of her personal philosophy and a revelation of her courage. So buy, read and re-read this book, even as we remember, and miss, the fine mind and generous spirit of the woman who produced it.

 – Ron Pretty

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Ron Pretty has been publishing his poetry for 40 years. His eighth book of poetry, What the Afternoon Knows, was published in 2013. He has taught writing throughout Australia and in US, England and Austria. From 1983 to 1999 he was Head of Writing at the University of Wollongong. He was the director of Five Islands Press, for which he published 230 books by Australian poets in the 20 years 1987 – 2007. He taught creative writing at the University of Melbourne, 2004 – 2007. In 2012 the Australia Council for the Arts awarded him a residency in Rome.

Many, and One is available at http://fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/many-and-one-lyn-hatherly

Lyn Hatherley’s obituary on Rochford Street Review https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/03/29/vale-lyn-hatherley/

‘An intellectual and emotional complex’: Luke Fischer launches ‘The Sepia Carousel’ by Jakob Ziguras

Luke Fischer launched The Sepia Carousel by Jakob Ziguras, Pitt Street Poetry 2017, at Gleebooks on 2 August 2017

Jakob Ziguras

It is an honour and special pleasure to be given the role of launching (a little belatedly) Jakob Ziguras’s new and second book of poems The Sepia Carousel. Jakob and I will shortly converse about the book, and Jakob will then read a number of poems. However, to begin with I will say a few words as a way of introducing The Sepia Carousel.

Jakob currently lives in Wrocław, Poland, and over the past twelve years he has spent much time in Europe, especially in Poland. This time in Europe has involved a deepening of Jakob’s connection to Poland. In recent years he has been translating a number of Polish poets and been extensively reading modern and contemporary Polish poetry.

Jakob was born in Wrocław and lived in Europe until the age of seven, when with his mother he immigrated to Australia as a refugee from communist Poland. After studying visual art for a time, he moved on to study philosophy and completed a PhD at the University of Sydney. Through both his family background and his education Jakob is deeply connected to and versed in European philosophy, literature, art, and theology. If Jakob is correctly identified as a European-Australian poet, the emphasis should nevertheless be placed on ‘European’ rather than ‘Australian’. Jakob writes from within European traditions of poetry and philosophy rather than as a tourist or foreigner in Europe.

Among Australian poets, Jakob’s poetry is comparable to the work of Stephen Edgar in its formal virtuosity and versatility and to Kevin Hart in its philosophical and theological concerns. However, even though Hart’s poems make significant allusions to mysticism, theology and philosophy, Jakob’s poetry generally embodies a greater concern with intellectual complexity (rather than lyrical immediacy), such that a number of poems will remain opaque to a reader with little knowledge of the history of philosophy.

The German word for poetry ‘Dichtung’ contains the word ‘dicht’, which means ‘dense’. Ezra Pound on discovering that the German verb for composing poetry ‘dichten’ can be translated into the Italian ‘condensare’ (to condense) remarked that an essential aspect of poetry was the condensation of meaning. Pound viewed poetry as ‘the most concentrated form of verbal expression’. Jakob clearly shares this view with Pound as his poems concentrate meaning to the utmost.

Like Jakob’s first book Chains of Snow, The Sepia Carousel engages deeply with European history, philosophy, poetry and art and contains a mix of free verse and formal poems, with a predominance of the latter. Nevertheless, there are some notable developments. Firstly, there are more long sequences in The Sepia Carousel––the opening cycle ‘Roman Sonnets’ that consists of eleven sonnets being only one of many examples. Secondly, while Chains of Snow could be said to be an embodiment of poetry as condensation, The Sepia Carousel pushes this tendency further. Through multiple layers of allusion, symbolic compression, formal constraint, word-play and irony, the poems achieve immense concentration.

Jakob’s poetry tends to be difficult. It is far from the mundane realism and demotic diction of the American poetry that sparsely populates magazines such as The New Yorker. But Jakob’s poetry does not renounce or disrupt meaning and coherence in a post-modern fashion. Jakob is more of a high modernist than a post-modernist. His poetry is intellectually complex and allusive. It rewards contemplation and re-reading. It recognizes the complexities of existence and history, and the complicity of the individual in systems of violence and evil. His poetry does not seek refuge in simplistic answers, aestheticism, or sentimentalism.

The sensibility of Jakob’s poetry is notably European and historical. Like many Central and Eastern European poets, Jakob’s poems are deeply aware of the problem, most famously articulated by the philosopher Adorno, of how it is possible to write poetry after Auschwitz, after the atrocities of the twentieth century that have continued into the twenty-first.

Rilke was one of a long line of European poets who strongly identified poetry with the task of articulating the praise-worthy, of affirming life in spite of the transience and imperfection of the world. But after the brutality and systematic violence of more recent history, the task of genuine praising––free of sentimentality and escapism––has become more difficult and problematic. Nevertheless, as the contemporary Polish poet, and friend of Jakob’s, Adam Zagajewski has memorably put it, we must ‘try to praise the mutilated world’.

Jakob’s poems look for fragments of hope and possibilities of transformation amidst the ruins of history, try to affirm at least something beyond the nihilistic emptiness of contemporary capitalism and consumer culture. A characteristic moment of such affirmation is found in lines from the second poem of the sequence ‘Isola di San Michele’: ‘Song comes and goes among the bitter laurels. / I pluck a leaf, and crush it to release / the cool clean scent; then walk away, / the ash and bracing resin on my hands.’ The laurel leaves, the emblem of poetry, are noticeably ‘bitter’ and their trace on the poet’s hand contains ‘ash and bracing resin’. Poetic affirmation is intermingled with ash and decay, life cannot be separated from death. In the moving autobiographical poem, ‘Windows in the Dust’ Jakob recalls a childhood game in a courtyard in Wrocław in which he and other children made patterns in the dirt out of bits of rubbish and broken glass. This is a beautiful embodiment of the aesthetics and poetics of Jakob’s new book. Among visual artists Jakob’s poetics might be likened to the aesthetic of Anselm Kiefer, in the way it looks for beauty and affirmation in unlikely places of ruin and dissolution. Nevertheless, there are also quite bleak poems in this collection, in which despair seems almost inevitable.

Jakob’s poetry is not only notable for its intellectual complexity and range but also for the symbolic compression of his images, which extend imagist and symbolist practices. Pound famously defined the poetic image as ‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.’ Jakob’s lines frequently exemplify and instantiate images in precisely this sense. To offer one example, consider these two lines from one of the unrhyming sonnets in the sequence ‘Jet Lag Song Nets’: ‘A cold wind lashes at the merchandise. / You wear your scarf pulled tight into a noose.’ In just a few words, these lines capture the speaker’s feeling of the futility of life, which borders on a suicidal desire, in relation to the spiritual emptiness of the market place.

Jakob’s poems also deftly draw on and subvert traditional symbolisms in order to articulate a philosophy of history and a critique of our current moment. When snow appears in the collection, rather than its traditional association with purity and innocence, it tends to imply the cold rationality and amorality of the modern technological world. As a polar and equally destructive tendency, the season of spring, in the title sequence of the third and last section of the book ‘The Rite of Spring’, rather than symbolising positive forces of renewal, transformation, and resurrection, signifies violent irrationality, unbridled passion, and despotism.

While there is a remarkable density and wide use of allusion in Jakob’s first collection, there is a noticeable increase of allusive and narrative compression in the new book. Rather than elaborating a narrative or allusion within the body of a poem, these are tersely intimated as an assumed background of meaning. For instance, the poem ‘Introspection’ (in the sequence ‘Snow like Wool, Frost like Ashes’ dedicated to the late Polish poet Stanisłav Barańczak) we find the following lines: ‘The introspective paradox / is that introspection / is not––unlike Johnsonian rocks––/ subject to inspection.’ These lines assume that the reader has some familiarity with the philosophical problem of infinite regress with regard to self-consciousness, namely that the true subject or self can never be its own object as the observed self never coincides with the observing self. In addition, the expression ‘Johnsonian rocks’ tersely encapsulates the philosophical anecdote of Samuel Johnson kicking a stone as a supposed refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s idealist philosophy according to which the world only exists through being perceived.

In the new collection there is also an increase in word play and punning across various languages. One of my favourite lines of this kind (from the sequence ‘The Rite of Spring’), ‘If children ask for bread, then give them Stein,’ alludes both to Marie Antoinette and to the biblical account of the devil tempting Christ to turn stones into bread, and puns on ‘Stein’ as a reference to Gertrude Stein and the German word for ‘stone’.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section titled ‘The Appian Way’ is primarily situated in Italy, especially Rome, and engages with and critiques Western history. The second section ‘First Snow’ is primarily situated in Poland. The third section ‘The Rite of Spring’ ranges widely across European history and literature and includes poems set in Australia. The collection contains a number of brilliant free verse poems but long sequences of formal poems predominate, including terza rima, sonnets, pentameter quatrains, and a variety of other forms. The masterful handling of forms is not only aesthetically significant but also part of the semantic complexity of the poetry. For instance, the sequence ‘Snow like Wool, Frost like Ashes’ is written in ballad meter but these are highly philosophical poems with nothing that resembles traditional balladic narrative; thus there is something like an ironic tension between the meter and rhymes of the ballad form and the ostensible content of the poems.

In our current age of hype, platitudes, doublespeak, and attention spans limited to the length of a tweet, Jakob’s poems ask us to read more carefully, think more deeply, and to widen our understanding and appreciation of history, philosophy, theology and art.

 – Luke Fischer

 ————————————————————————————————

Luke Fischer is a poet, philosopher, and scholar. His books include the poetry collections A Personal History of Vision (UWAP Poetry, 2017) and Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013) and the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems (Bloomsbury, 2015). His editorial work includes a co-edited special section of the Goethe Yearbook (2015) on ‘Goethe and Environmentalism’ and a forthcoming volume of essays on the philosophical dimensions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Oxford University Press). He frequently curates poetry and music events. He has received various honours and awards, and is an honorary associate of the philosophy department at the University of Sydney. For more information see: www.lukefischerauthor.com

The Sepia Carousel is available from https://pittstreetpoetry.com/jakob-ziguras/

 

Vale John Ashbery

John Ashbery, widely regarded as one of the greats of English language poetry over the last half century, died on Sunday 3 September aged 90.

Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, in 1927 and grew up on an apple farm in the nearby village of Sodus. He wrote his first poem at age 8. His first book, Some Trees, was published in 1956, with a by W.H. Auden and was praised by Frank O’Hara, who likened Ashbery to Wallace Stevens. His 1962 collection, The Tennis Court Oath, was so abstract that many critics had trouble coming to terms with the collection, but his 1966 collection, Rivers and Mountains, was a National Book Award finalist and confirmed his position as a major US poet. This was confirmed when his 1975 collection,  Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize.

From an Australian perspective Ashbery was one of the major American poets, along with Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan and others, who provided a major influence to a generation of Australian poets from the mid 1960s. John Forbes was referring to this when he wrote in ‘To the Bobbydazzlers’:

…………….Sitting
on the beach I
look towards you
but the curve
of the Pacific
gets in the way
& I see stars
instead knocked
out by your poems
American poets,

Perth Poetry Festival – Keynote Address by Amanda Joy

As patron of the 2017 Perth Poetry Festival Amanda Joy delivered the 2017 Festival Keynote address on 17 August at the Northbridge Piazza Community Room.

Amanda Joy

Within days of being asked to make this address, the week before I left for Broome, I went to dinner with a group of poets, in a corner a candle had been lit for Fay Zwicky. We were told she would not make it through the following day.

When I think of memorable keynote addresses, without fail, the first to come to mind is Fay Zwicky’s opening speech from the Apropos Festival hosted by Writing WA a few years back. I still don’t entirely trust my recollection of what she said, there was some kind of hypnotic reverie involved, which existed outside the words and cast a spell over that entire week. It began with music, Fay Zwicky playing piano. Her talk was mostly autobiographical, quite practical, surprising, gracious and radiated great generosity in its advice to poets. I’m sure everyone there took away many things. Residual for me, the seed which took root, was her advocacy of fearlessness, not just in poetry but in our relating to others, a courage in reaching out, particularly poet to poet.  I very loosely paraphrase here, “if you admire someone’s writing, write to them, no matter how far away and loftily admired they might be” Her reach was as international as the points of reference evidenced in her writing. She illuminated those interconnections which sustain us and it seems right to invoke her presence here now, through her own words and those of a handful of Western Australian Women Poets.

There is a particular sentence in her essay Seeing and Recording a Local Ambience which has stayed with me as caution, friction and fascination since I first encountered it;

The Obscurity of Our Diction.

“The obscurity of our diction has been closer to vagueness of perception than to the obscurity of the complex consciousness. It embodies an uncertain grasp of the relationship between language and feeling, and of feeling and the natural world. Our poetic speech has lacked that edge of hardness and truth, which enables us to forgive an obvious clinging to convention, which we do in Hardy and Frost. What has been missing is the personal tone, the adjustment of the individual to the physicality of things.”

What an awareness this asks for! and she offers little consolation, rather opening a field of questions. Yes, as instructed, you can slow the moment of sensation, break it gently down, line by line to regulate the pace, as with all her writing the words seem to have absorbed more, codified more, than others can in entire books.

She writes of the lack of musicality, even the inert “thud” of the words of William Carlos Williams, of his visual rather than auditory imagination, not tuned to the mind’s ear, then discusses at length the heightened scrupulousness in his matching of language to physicality, of the appeal this concept of poetry might have to, in her words, “shallow democracy” shared by Australian and Americans.

And what a potent pairing of words that is “Shallow democracy” It speaks to a great deal more than a distrust of elevated or academic literary language and how specialized language can isolate.

In preparing for this talk, I was excited to find on the Giramondo website, her speech from the launch of Lucy Dougan’s book The Guardians. It contains so many gems but I loved this euphoric quote (which I have kept near my desk) “Whenever a poet manages to find language and structures that mimic and project her feelings, she’s actually chalking up a victory over oblivion. “

What our diction resists and what its resistance can say. A well crafted poem asks the reader/listener to move toward it to gain understanding.

In the poem The Stone Dolphin, from Three Songs of Love and Hate, she writes:

The language of tyranny had to be
learnt if anything were to be said

and later in the same poem:

True grief is tongueless when the dumb
define love’s death
In a fiercely fathered and unmothered world
words are wrung from the rack

These are origins, not conclusions. As in so many of her poems she destabilizes language by critiquing the same tool she is working with, she renders it precarious through a restructuring, each orphaned word crammed to bursting point with the weight of greater meaning, yet retaining its most seductive qualities.

I was reminded of the final stanza’s of Morgan Yasbincek’s poem Pilgrim, from White Camel

for two days she sits broody in the camper chair, her cup held still
on ten fingertips, then she moves like that woma python woman
from Uluru, the child a light under the sand of her
tasting the air, she enters a gathering in the centre of Alice, finds
the Arrente woman who gives her some words to see with, permission
to enter her land

These complex networks. Words which have come from another physicality, which have not only been seeded by the shape of things in that particular locale but also allow the alignment of the individual to that same physicality. This is not abstract theory, become bilingual and your tongue will develop a new muscularity, your hypothalamus will vibrate differently, your pituitary gland will secrete a new dose of hormones.

When in Swamp, Nandi Chinna asks “How many footsteps will it take/ to walk a place into the body?” the body keeps walking, the rhythm of movement through terrain becomes the body and the words-as-poem, a new form.

When poetry strives for this alignment, evidences this adjustment, it sings. Not merely as vocality, onomatopoeia, in cadence, meter, or a layering of meaning. Something happens spatially. We are drawn into another place, another encounter, it situates us in a “constellation” complete with its own rhythm.

There is a great poem by Caitlin Maling, I came across originally in Going Down Swinging from her book Conversations I’ve Never Had, called Holiday, it begins with an aerial view of Perth.  (our freshly arrived interstate and international guests may appreciate this view from an airplane)

Perth from above is a cockroach.
It sits there, brown and laconic, and
the microwave of summer can’t shift it”

Discomforting for many reasons, not least because it likens Perth to a cockroach, but also everything suburban becomes cockroach, not diffused by the word like it actually is a cockroach. The language in it is hard, the line breaks as dissociated and dislocated as the idea of a city which clings to country like an insect “twitching intermittently”

The precision of our diction, the map which is our diction, leads to and from the reader/listener’s body through the sentence and from and to share the poet’s body and its yearnings, where they are located, not simply geographically and physically but psychically, spiritually and ineluctably, politically.

Set this beside Yamatji poet, Charmaine Papertalk-Green’s Don’t Want me To Talk, published in Cordite and also The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry.

You don’t want me to talk about
Mining or its impact on country
You don’t want me to talk about
The concept and construct of ‘whiteness’
And how dominant and real it is
You don’t want me to talk about
The art vultures here and everywhere
Modern day art missionaries
Guiding us on the great white canvas
You don’t want me to talk about
Treaties or invasion of this land
It’s a shared true history- lets heal
You don’t want me to talk about
How reconciliation could be the wrong word
You don’t want me to talk about
Native titles way of moving across
The Midwest and Murchison landscape
You don’t want me to talk at all
Most of the time
You want me to nod, smile and listen
You don’t want me to talk about
How I have got a voice
And you don’t listen

There are voices not represented in this room. While we gather under the banner of ‘celebrating diversity’, lets also have a heightened awareness of where it isn’t and why its important to do so.

In the rarefied context of several days of poets reading their poems we have the benefit of entering not only the poet’s diction but an immersion in the intonation, to observe the facial expressions and physical presence. To commune through a shared embodiment of words, the texture of those words over tongues and into ears, as spirit, as wind or other movement over terrain. This week as we make those maps. Maps of this precious time we have together, this transient field of relations we co create and its capacity to change us, as poets and people.

I’ll now read Fay Zwicky’s ‘The Poet Asks Forgiveness’ from Kaddish.

Dead to the world I have failed you
Forgive me, traveller.

Thirsty, I was no fountain
Hungry, I was not bread
Tired, I was no pillow

Forgive my unwritten poems:
the many I have frozen with irony
the many I have trampled with anger
the many I have rejected in self-defence
the many I have ignored in fear

unaware, blind or fearful
I ignored them.
They clamoured everywhere
those unwritten poems.
They sought me out day and night
and I turned them away.

Forgive me the colours
they might have worn
Forgive me their eclipsed faces
They dared not venture from
the unwritten lines.

Under each inert hour of my silence
died a poem, unheeded

 

 – Amanda Joy

  —————————————————————————————————–

Amanda Joy was born and raised in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of Western Australia. Her first full-length book, Snake Like Charms, is part of the UWAP Poetry series. Her poem ‘Tailings’ won the 2016 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. She is the author of two chapbooks, Not Enough to Fold and Orchid Poems.

The 2017 Perth Poetry Festival ran from 11th to the 20th of August https://wapoets.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/2017-perth-poetry-festival/

“my poem is a message to let people know what [a] terrible situation we are in”: Mohammad Ali Maleki talks to Zalehah Turner about ‘Silence Land’ from Manus Island

Silence Land

I have doubts about my sanity:
not everyone can bear this much.
They stole all my feelings;
there’s no wisdom left in my mind.
I am just a walking dead man.
I am just a walking dead man.

I yelled for help so many times –
No one on this earth took my hand.
Now I see many mad things and imagine
how the world would look if it collapsed.

Perhaps it would be good for everything to return to the past;
for nothing to be seen on the earth or in the sky.
It would feel so good to be a child
again and go back to my mother’s womb.
For there to be no sign of me,
for me never to have gone crazy in this place.

What if the woollen jacket I am wearing unravels
and begins to fall apart?
Or the butterfly flies back to its cocoon,
or the autumn leaf grows green and returns
to its branch on that old tree?
What if the tree becomes a seed in the soil –
I sound crazy speaking this way!

It’s the outcome of being detained for four years
after seeking asylum on the sea.

What if that sea returned to its source
and flowed back to the river mouth?
If that river receded back up into its spring?
What if only the sun and the moon remained in the sky?
If I saw even the sun’s birth reversed,
watched it dissipate into space?
Witnessed the moon implode upon itself?

All things returning to their starting place…

How beautiful, to live in a colourless world,
everywhere silent and still.
The earth would be calm for a moment,
free of even one miscreant.

But what do you make of my vision –
am I sane or mad?

 

-Mohammad Ali Maleki
trans. Monsoor Shostari
ed. Michelle Seminara

 

‘Silence Land’ was first published in Bluepepper. It has been republished with permission by the author, Mohammad Ali Maleki.

‘Silence Land’ by Mohammad Ali Maleki was read to an audience at the Queensland Poetry Festival 2017 as part of a series of events from Writing Through Fences organised by Janet Galbraith. Mohammad could not be present at the event as he is currently living in detention on Manus Island. He discussed the poem and his life on Manus Island with Zalehah Turner.

 

Zalehah: Mohammad, I just saw the video of a person reading your poem, ‘Silence Land’ at the Queensland Poetry Festival. It is a wonderfully moving and powerful poem.

Mohammad: Thank you my dear. You always supported me.

Zalehah: Mohammad, did you write ‘Silence Land’ as part of the writing group with Janet Galbraith?

Mohammad: No, Michelle [Seminara] first edited [it] and then, [Justin Lowe] from Bluepepper published it. Then, Janet [Galbraith] sent that for the festival in Queensland.

Zalehah: What can you tell me about the poem, ‘Silence Land’?

Mohammad: Man does not get crazy at once. It depends on the situation we are in. A news makes people crazy at once. Or a sudden incident.

Mansoor: Mohammad says it. The situation makes people crazy.

Zalehah: Yes, I can see that motif in ‘Silence Land’. Can you tell me about the situation now?

Mohammad: I’m not in a good mental and spiritual condition. I take 10 pills a day and see nightmares at night.

Mansoor: Mohammad says if you saw freedom say ‘hi’ to it.

Zalehah: I’m sorry to hear that Mohammad. Where are you? Why are you still in on Manus Island?

Mohammad: Unfortunately, yes. I am still imprisoned on Manus hell.

Zalehah: I’m sorry to hear that. I heard that they were closing the camps down.

Mohammad: YES, but the government is trying to send us among local people with their machetes ready to kill us. If people of Australia want, they can free us in a week.

Zalehah: Can you tell me about writing poetry? Does it help you to write down your thoughts? Does it help to have an audience who wants to read them here in Australia?

Mohammad: But they just say, ‘sorry’. We got destroyed. Four years [of] torturing. I lost my… mind…When I got free, maybe.

Zalehah: Tell me about writing poetry.

Mansoor: I only help Mohammed for translating. We are in a very bad condition of mind. Lost memory.

Zalehah: Where on Manus Island do you write poetry, Mohammad?

Mohammad: We write our pains on paper and whatever we write we get worse. Because no country in the world did not treat us the way that Australia did. We came here to ask for help not to torture us. In my room. I write my poems. I am always in my room.

Zalehah: Does writing help even in a small way? Does it help to write down the things that are happening to you?

Mohammad: It doesn’t change anything. [I] wish I could not… understand what is going on here. I am suffering because I understand it. I can’t describe the situation by words.

Zalehah: Can you tell me about the things that have happened to you?

Mohammad: Unfortunately, I forgot things very soon. But there was murder, beating and many other bad things here. Murder of 4 people at least. Reza Brati, Hamid Khazaei, one Pakistani, one Sudani [Sundanese person]. They send no one to Australia for medical treatment until he dies here. Hamid Khazaei died that way.

Zalehah: The situation is incredibly ugly. However, your poetry has changed some things: people in Australia have read your poems and understand many things they would not have if you hadn’t written those poems. It draws attention to these issues.

Mohammad: We can’t focus on something.

Zalehah: Who can’t? What do you want to focus on?

Mohammad: I mean we have lost our minds… It’s really terrible.

Zalehah: I’m sure it is. What do you think of the video of your poem?

Mohammad: People have to change the government if they want to stop the torture we are suffering from. [I] hope my poem is a message to let people know what terrible situation we are in. Just ask Janet Galbraith and Marilyn Beach.

Zalehah: It is a message. A very strong message. It has moved many people. Keep writing, Mohammad. People need to hear your poems.

Mohammad: Thank you. My phone is losing its battery. I need to charge it now.

Zalehah: Having your poem on the internet will help more people understand your situation. I will let you go then. Good bye. Thank-you and thank Monsoor, as well

Mohammad: Thank you.

 

Partial transcript of an interview with Mohammad Ali Maleki and his translator, Monsoor Shostari, conducted by Zalehah Turner, Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review on 28 August 2017.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

MAM RSRMohammad Ali Maleki is an Iranian poet and avid gardener living in detention on Manus Island whose poem, ‘Tears of Stone’ was shortlisted and received a special commendation for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016. Mohammad Ali Maleki was a featured writer in issue 20 of Rochford Street Review in 2016. His poem ‘The Strong Sunflower’ was originally published in Verity La’s Discoursing Diaspora project. His poems have since appeared in Bluepepper. ‘Silence Land’ was performed in his absence at the Queensland Poetry Festival 2017. Mohammad Ali Maleki’s poems are translated from Farsi by Mansoor Shoushtari and edited by Michele Seminara and Melita Luck.

 

Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based critic, writer and poet currently undertaking Honours in Communications (Creative Writing) at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies.

Teasing Threads – on Perth poetry

Chris Palazzolo challenges WA poets to deal fairly with their city.

Image result for washing lines imagesDuring a brush with fame a couple of years ago when my first book was published, I was asked in an interview whether poetry is possible in Perth. I thought this was an interesting question, especially – given that my book was a small volume of verse – as it contained the not so subtle dismissive, ‘how can you call your poetry real poetry if it’s written and published in a place where the question, is poetry possible here, can seriously be asked of a poet?’ Would such a question be asked of a Sydney poet for instance, or a Melbourne poet? I can’t deny that it infuriated me. I was even more infuriated by my glib reply – poetry is possible wherever people live and love, work and die. I came up with that lame answer because I couldn’t think of an answer, and in a panic seemed to confirm a dreadful truth implicit in the question. That no, Perth is such a soul-suckingly barren place, the lives lived here so inauthentic and rootless, that all the poetry written here never was, and could never have been, real poetry.

West Australian poets only have themselves to blame if their city has been typecast this way.  As a strolling editor of no fixed abode I’ve read a lot of West Australian poetry and it seems almost a reflex for our poets to describe Perth as a citadel of false idols in comparison with the sacred innocence of the country (the Great Southern, Goldfields, Wheatbelt, Kimberley etc) or their own private epiphanies of childhood or garden. A lot of excellent verse has been penned in support of this myth. Probably the most audacious is John Kinsella who in his Wheatbelt cycle The Divine Comedy compared the descent of the Great Eastern Highway from the Darling Ranges into Perth with the descent of the Fifth Circle of Dante’s Inferno. I’ve driven down this road many times, and I can’t say I’ve ever been overwhelmed by the stench of shit and rot that Dante’s pilgrim smelt from the gates of Dis. I would describe the smell as a melange of sweet eucalyptus, diesel and petrol exhaust. DH Lawrence observed Perth from the same vantage point a century earlier in the first pages of Kangaroo. He smelt the eucalyptus too. Most WA poets rarely get as intense as Kinsella. But then in a way that’s part of the problem. The prevailing impression I come away with is that Perth is nice at best, bland at worst, a place of easy consumption ruled by the developer’s dollar. At least Dis is a poetic image!

All poetic cultures have an origin myth. My friend of many years Chris Dickinson once gave me a lovely neat origin myth for Perth. If, as Geoffrey Blainey argues, the Australian national character emerged out of a consciousness of its distance from Europe, then Perth is the quintessential Australian city because it is distant from the rest of Australia – it is distant from distance. There’s a whole new angle on Australian history in this logic. While most of the other Australian capitals grew proximate to each other in the eastern half of the continent, trading, exchanging, learning from and defining themselves against each other, Perth, through much of its colonial, and a considerable chunk of its state history, toiled alone. This is how the city-of-no-qualities arose from the myth; too long solitude; other cities too far away to reflect itself off, a lonesome ego, smoothly unreflexive, sublimely unrecognised. WA poets consign Perth to the terrible fate of its colonial bondage, invisibility, so often, it’s almost like a neurotic impulse.

In the meantime people live and love, work and die here. They party, they have kids, they hang washing on washing lines (in-joke). And many of them write poetry, some of it (paradoxically because of this anxiety of unreflexiveness – Perth’s ‘mirror-stage’) the best in the country, and among the best in the world. I would like to invite WA poets to stop excoriating Perth with ‘faint praise’ and start thinking about their city as a res publica. Examine its civic rhythms and the aesthetics of its built landscape with an unprejudiced (or unideological) eye. Awake from private consolations and look out onto its footpaths and streets, how they change in seasons, how people use them. Cease the nihilistic dismissal of its commerce and politics. Take note of its well-oiled electoral democracy which turned the political map of the metropolitan area from blue to red at the last state election. Celebrate its progressive victories over the century (women’s suffrage, reproduction rights, Native Title). I guess what I’m calling for is our poets to show some civic pride. When WA poets verse admiringly of Melbourne, its muscular urbanity, they fail to see that Melbourne poets (and painters, musicians, filmmakers, etc) have taught us to look at Melbourne that way. They are proud of their city, and over the last century the commercial and political spheres of that city have responded to produce the urbane beauty we admire today. It’s time for WA poets to do the same for Perth.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Readers interested in exploring some contemporary WA poetry can start by checking out the latest issue of Creatrix. https://wapoets.wordpress.com/creatrix-2/issue-37-poetry/

Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

 

Vale Fay Zwicky

Fay Zwicky (Photograph Juno Gemes (copyright Juno Gemes)

Poet Fay Zwicky died on 2 July 2017, the day after her Collected Poems was published by UWAP. Her publisher, Terri-ann White said of her “She actively worked on her Collected Poems with the editors, her friends Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin, and was delighted to hold the book in her hands last week. …… the 4th July would have been her birthday. Great sympathy at this loss to her family and friends”.

A detailed biography, together with a good collection of her published work, can be found at the Australian Poetry Library https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/zwicky-fay. Rochford Street Review is looking forward to reading her Collected Poems which will now serve as a tribute to the life and work of this major Australian poet.

The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky is available from UWAP https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/the-collected-poems-of-fay-zwicky

 

Contemporary Irish Poetry Featured Writer: Mark Roberts

Three Poems              Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is a founding editor of Rochford Street Review and is the curator of the current feature on Contemporary Irish Poetry which has run through issue 22 of the Review.

Most of Mark’s family on his mother side left Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, driven out by the famine and a dislike for English oppression. Over generations in Australia they maintained their sense of ‘Irishness’ and, at times, that Irishness has found its way into Mark’s work.

Mark founded Rochford Street Press in the early 1980s to publish a literary magazine called P76. Rochford Street Press has also published a number of books, pamphlets and chapbooks over the years and is recognised as one one of the smallest literary presses in the  world.

Mark’s own work has been widely published in magazines and journals in Australia and overseas. Concrete Flamingos, a collection of his recent work was published by Island Press in 2016 and he currently has a few new projects in flight.

Books

P76 Magazine

Website