AUSTRALIA – a poem by Rae Desmond Jones

AUSTRALIA is from Rae’s final collection of poetry The End of the Line, Rochford Press 2019. Sydney Launch details and pre-sales information will be available in a few days. To be placed on a mailing list to be advised about the launch and were to buy a copy please complete the following:

 

A Personal Sense of Place and History: Mark Roberts reviews ‘Bloodroot’ by Annemarie Ni Churreain

Bloodroot by Annemarie Ni Churreain, Doire Press 2017

I was in Dublin in the week leading up to Christmas 2017 and went shopping for some contemporary Irish Poetry only to find there had been a “Christmas rush” and a number of titles were in very limited supply. Coming from Australia the notion of a pre-Christmas rush on poetry came as a bit of shock, but I eventually managed to track down most of the items on my list (as well as a few extra). One of the titles I eventually had to mail back to Sydney in order to avoid excess baggage charges was Annemarie Ni Churreain’s debut collection Bloodroot.

It took me some time to get around to reading Bloodroot, but the experience was well worth the wait. This is an extraordinary connection, finely crafted and rooted in place, politics and history. While obviously written from an Irish perspective there is much here which also has an immediacy for an Australian reader. The poems about institutional child abuse, the forced separation of mothers from their children and reflections on the same sex marriage debate will all appear familiar.

The simple dedication “for my Foremothers’ hints at the power of some of the poems to come and, indeed the opening poem ‘Untitled’ is unexpectedly complex and compelling. The title of the poem takes on added significance in the context of the rest of the collection – it is not just the poem that is untitled but also the speaker/poet. The unnamed poem searches for an identity as did the children separated from their mothers by the church controlled state:

The first time
a tree called me by name,
I was thirteen and only spoke a weave of ordinary tongues.

 – Untitled

The poem ends with a hint of discovery:

Come Underground, they said.
See what you are made of.

– Untitled

The poem ‘Penance’ which is dedicated “for a girl in trouble 1951” is one of the most direct poems in the collection. There is an anger here woven into the finally crafted words which has only been made stronger by the passage of time:

‘Shame’.
……..Use this word when you speak of love.

A man of cloth will come,
Your new home is among brides.

Deny
the child inside you is the child you dream at night

and when they cut short your hair,
watch the cuts fall

like the soft fur of an animal
held still by threat.

 – Penance

This them is continued most powerfully in the title poem of the collection ‘Bloodroot – at the Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home:

Behind the gates, a black awakening of trees.
Were you made to kneel here too, Mary Josephine, Bernadette?
…………………..If I call you by your house-names will you speak?

Torn avenue and pillars either side,……….I am here for the girl
who had birds in her eyes.
…………………..If I render a wing may she speak?

 – Bloodroot

I did a little research on the Castlepollard Mother and baby Home and discovered that it was run by the Order of The Sacred Heart for 35 years from 1934. During this time the Order never employed a doctor or nurse, only a single mid-wife as required by law. During this time 3,763 babies had their births registered. It is estimated that over 500 babies died and were buried in shoe boxes in a small piece of land down a lane way. After reading this I reread the poem and felt the anger and sadness rise in me as I remembered our own Royal Commission into institutionalised child abuse, a court case I cannot comment on and the Lost Generation of Aboriginal Children.

The power of these poems comes not just from the subject matter but from the fact that these are finely crafted and realised poems. They are driven by the strength of the imagery, the internal rhythm of the poems and even how they appear on the page.

Central to the success of this collection is the sense of place and history Ni Churreain conveys. Some of this history, is of course the history of the abuse of women and children at the hands of the Church/State, but there is also an older history here vitally connected with space:

………

This hill is pagan
This hill is Hill.

It will answer in bog-tongue
and occasional fire,
burning back the earth
along the heather-stream

despite bald heels of rock,
despite the kissy mink,
despite a saintly air

until the stream runs dark
with what needs
to blacken out of you.

 – Bog Medicine

And again in ‘Doire Chonaire’, which is dedicated “for a grandfather unknown”, we once again get this break in history and a striving to make connections:

To you I owe my thirst………For a name
gets passed down through the spear side
in the underland streams that pulse with clear meaning
and thrive towards the lips
……………………………………………..A name is how we match
our tongues to the source and taste our own sediment.

 – Doire Chonaire

There is much to enjoy in this poem, the long lines that break just when you think you might be reading a prose poem, the gaps and spaces in the poem which suggests the break across generations and the use of words such as “spear side” and underland” all add to the depth of the poem.

Place returns in poems about India and Florida. In ‘Where We Come From’ we learn:

This is the Florida I will remember,
a hooded place where the moss hangs

like a lamp-lit silk, peeled from the body
and discarded among the boughs.

– Where We Come From

This is a very different world to the “underland streams” but the strength of the imagery is just as strong.

The poetry in this collection is so finely crafted and alive with language and meaning that it hard to believe that Bloodroot is a debut collection. I am hoping that there was another run on it in the bookshops of Dublin leading up to Christmas 2018.

 – Mark Roberts

 ————————————————————————————————————-

Mark Roberts is a founding editor of Rochford Street Review and lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. His latest collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in 2016.

Bloodroot is available from   https://www.doirepress.com/writers/a_f/annemarie_ni_churreain/ 

Annemariw Ni Churreain appeared in poetry Irish Poetry feature:

 

 

 

The Late Poems of Stephen Lawrence (1958-2012) curated by Aidan Coleman

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family

I met Stephen for a beer the day before he took his life, and for the next couple of weeks replayed our conversation. He seemed calm and cheery. We talked then, as always, mostly about poetry. As he left, he gave me some new unpublished work, most of which I include here, with the permission of his family.

Known to South Australian readers as a columnist for The Adelaide Review, Stephen was building a reputation nationally as a poet and critic. His sharp reviews appeared frequently in Overland, Cordite, Wet Ink, Australian Book Review and Rochford Street Review, among others, and he had recently received news of his inclusion in The Turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry (2014).

Stephen published three volumes of poetry with Wakefield Press: Her Mother’s Arms (1997) – a sequence of poems in the voice of a female medical student – Beasts Labial (1998), and How Not To Kill Government Leaders (2002). He edited the Adelaide-based journal Wet Ink and a number of anthologies, and judged the John Bray Poetry Award for a decade. In 2010 he completed a PhD in Creative Writing. His research, A Poetic of Disunity: Selves and Silence, was accompanied by what proved his final collection, A Spiritual Problem is a Chemical Problem – a title that might sum up his metaphysics.

Stephen’s poetry is dense with allusions to politics, classical and renaissance literature – his Master’s thesis explored ornithological imagery in Shakespeare – and, above all, science. He was watchful for any debasement of the language, and harvested the worst excesses of advertising and government cliché with more gusto than horror. His poems vary widely in length from monochords to monologues, and teasingly elliptical narrative poems, that stretch over many pages.

The bureaucratic and corporate monologues that end How Not To Kill Government Leaders, are a genre Stephen made his own. Set against the backdrop of the rise of digital media in the late-nineties and early noughties, they anticipate the spin and weasel words epitomised by The Thick of It and Utopia:

 

No-one’s going to be performance-managed out of their job. No.
Boy, some days I wish someone’d ask me to retire!
But no such luck.
Sure, systematising your knowledge will mean outplacements.
But that’s good!
You’ll be leaner, meaner and stronger for tomorrow –
Outplacement? No, it’s not sacking.
It’s de-layering.
It’s not forced redundancy.
It’s re-tooling the organisation.
No, it’s not minimising staff numbers. It’s optimising.
No, it’s not Downsizing.
It’s Rightsizing. It’s Redimensionalising.
It’s overcoming your entrenched paternalism, gentlemen.
It’s overthrowing constrictive in-house paradigms.

 – How Not To Kill Government Leaders, (119-120)

Such poems parade a cast of recognisable characters and many of the jokes and sleights are cumulative. Stephen worked in a number of government roles, including communications and speechwriting, and the book’s final monologue, in which the speaker – or “Knowledge Manager” – identifies as Stephen, might hint at some complicity. “THE TOWN HALL MEETING”, included here, is an answer to such monologues, from the other side of the desk.

Stephen also specialised in short forms, particularly haiku and gnomes. The majority of these poems inhabit long sequences: “Hazardous Accumulations” in How Not To Kill Government Leaders stretches to 66 haiku, “Is This Poetry?”, in the same book, to 117. As with the monologues, these shorter forms show Stephen to be a poet of rhetoric more than image.

Emotions stop you
from seeing that they are all
that is important.

 – How Not To Kill Government Leaders (44)

I respect the church
and grieve, for the human thought
that’s gone into it.

 – How Not To Kill Government Leaders (50)

These, and most others, obey the strict five-seven-five prescription. Every syllable is counted as much as it counts, and poetry is often the butt of the joke:

This line of haiku –
Squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched,
is the longest plod.

 – How Not To Kill Government Leaders (43)

A similar playfulness informs “HAIKU” below. As with the monologues there is a sort of circular movement reminiscent of last century’s absurdist dramas. The metaphorically precise “Fallujah”, is a perfect tanka:

I fire a bullet
at my horse’s head, because
a fly lands on it.

My horse drops dead, and the fly
buzzes off to the next horse.

 –  A Spiritual Problem is a Chemical Problem (89)

Much of Stephen’s work could be described as found poetry: some gnomes – as the John Howard poems do here – use politician’s words (or something very like them); some earlier poems, if not lifted from Hansard, have perfectly mastered its cadences, but such material – where not invented – is trimmed, recast or amped up.

Not wanting to play Bridges to Stephen’s Hopkins, I have preserved inconsistences in capitalisation, and only been bold with the most obvious of typos. I know of no “Gnome 223” but have gone with Stephen’s numbering. Biographical readings should be undertaken with caution – if at all – remembering that Stephen’s is a poetry of multiple voices, and any number of selves.

 – Aidan Coleman

Stephen Lawrence with Dash Taylor Johnson at SA Writers’ Centre – Photograph supplied by Heather Taylor Johnson

Stephen Lawrence: Rochford Street Review

——————————————————————————————

Late Poems by Stephen Lawrence

 

THE TOWN HALL MEETING

Never mind that it was not in the Town Hall.
I found a front row seat. My mind remained open.
My job’s safe. I do not worry.

When the CEO flapped his sportsman’s hands
cufflinks semaphored from his sleeves’ stiff flags
caught the spotlight.

The CEO shook his sportsman’s head.
He gave us opportunity. We were not on the block.
We were not to worry. We did not worry. We listened.

Carl Jung, he sparkled, proudly.
Jung showed the way to accept change.

We were going forward. And Jung gave it meaning.

There were animal pictures used in the focus groups.
They were important to select the path,
the way forward.

Don’t think about it, he told us. I do not think.
The CEO will let me keep my job. I do not worry.

.

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family.

.

MY FAULT

When I say it’s your fault
I don’t mean it’s your fault
I mean [that] it’s your fault
When you say it’s my fault

 

GNOME 221.

Emily Dickinson made
her room the universe.

 

GNOME 222. — Creation

Creation, flawless, evolved
to meet its own end.

 

THE WRITERS’ WEEK FLOWER

This is a sedentary festival. One-way.
Nodding in the same chair for days
papery bonnets and programs
crunch into crepe fist-tissues.
I spoke to a tree far up the slope
behind blurred rows of sun hats.

Electrified, I held their consideration
talking to a pen-thin microphone
of poetry. “Voice makes verse alive:
it is not enough to stroll in gardens
recline in your comfortable trance
on benches, cast out a line, catch
observations; then, fish-slippery
jot them into your notebook,
lay silver words out in rows
like arranging sticks in sand.

Cathartic, not amounting to poetry,
at best half a thought, without
something to animate these words.
What to do” – a wheelchair sneezed –
“is rouse the poem with your voice,
the voice will find a story, have ideas.”
Does the audience have thoughts?

I gave my last minutes to smiling at trees,
fielding questions about earlier books,
the new book, my travels, anything.
An intelligent sun-hat posed this:
flowers are life and conduct us to death.
Flowers from next to her backyard seat.

I answered another question. No return.

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family.

NEIGHBOURS

when they can be heard
we note their bass registers
their percussive life

 

HAIKU

why you no pay me
why you no pay me pay me
why you no pay me

 

IT IS WHERE I LIVE

“Why did she phone here?” asks my wife.
I’ve forgotten. In love with her fair skin,
I try to answer, but now can’t think why.
Tight black curls of innocence engorge me.
No, I have not forgotten, but cannot imagine.
I did think I knew, but have nothing to retrieve.

I am erect with honour and care. Reason aches.
The peace of purity downs me with a punch.
It reveals the culpability of this friendship
with a woman who has telephoned me.
My feeble eagerness breaks forward
into a further moment of innocence.
Moister than parting lips, as clean of conscience
as one who knows he breathes deception.

I am a good man, guileless, without outrage
and so very stupid, without plan or graph.
My wife’s pale downy face entrances me.
The only way she can answer my pleading,
“Let’s kiss,” is to slap me. And she is right.
When the phone rings, I try to kiss her again.

.

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family.

.

The Harrowing of Hell

a wristwatch brings light into the tank
my reflected spot travels solar minutes

to strike off glass and become a tiny boil
blisters, plays against their sides, gilding

the fish who have nothing else to live for
but find eye-brain company in this smudge

tagged by the twitching luminous coin-probe
they convulse and lift against their glass wall

this play is to enliven the unnatural sphere
a glum box ribboned with trailing skin-rags,

but I brought Hell to Hell: lucent glimpses
torture hopeless souls in their dwelling

swinging sun-mirrors drill the caged spirits
spray them with flames of unbearable time

the fish gape horribly in drenched air
mop water-clouds with their mouths

the Damned remain mute, strain silent,
my whim of sun twitches away a last time

after the light drops from sight, souls
hitherto unregarded by light and time
have had eternity added to their sentence

Stephen Lawrence with daughter Georgia – Photograph supplied by his family

.

 

HOWARD ON GILLARD

A total failure.
In my view, real people don’t
need to say they’re real.

 

Gnome 224

In my view, real people don’t
need to say they’re real.

 

HOWARD ON ABBOTT

Mr Abbott is
an authentic believer,
a family team.

 

Gnome 225

an authentic believer
A family team.

 

My Last Thoughts

To bring time into the universe.
Four dimensions. Four last thoughts.

I lay, on the slab of city square paving.
Snow eddies. Self goes first.

I lay, dying, cold, on a Budapest square
face receiving the crystal snow.

What is the last last thought? My love?
I’ll leave that until last. Last last last. Ha ha ha.

Snow lava drops enter me, through skin.
Hot is a bad sign.

Each livid burst gouges me from me.

Why is there not room in the universe and (for) me?
Asking is why. Consciousness resist life.

Bits of me are going.
All limbs have been sacrificed to zero.

Are my arms and legs now visible elsewhere?

As my ears and nose and penis burn away
I bring a toe or finger back.

As my brain sleeps against forever
I squeeze my heart awake.

All of me has gone, but each part has returned.

The universe has seen me whole
but over four dimensions.

Saved, by time and logic. Ha, ha.
No, I am not.

Existence needs me all, simultaneously.
I am without function if not at once.

My cock does not imply my brain.
My thumb does not imply my lungs.

Cold zero-one me one-zero.
Or perhaps I have got it all wrong.

Outside looking in, the world has won.

Absolute implies the universe.
I have brought the world to meaning.

At last. Oh, my love.

Stephen Lawrence on Houseboat – Photograph supplied by his family

SHE REFUSED LOOKS

fades, passes from sight
blurs, becomes unseen

vision shapes light
eyes slip from her body

not noting scrutiny
she eludes being viewed

___

not quite a shimmer
a human thought in time

might have snapped
her back into sight

but she was invisible
for not thinking of us

____

the atmosphere allows
tiny breaths to gleam

her radius shifts
a question unasked

leaving her presencePhotograph –
I feel myself inhale

Stephen Lawrence with son Joe –  Photograph supplied by his family.

anchors vision

curled under brush
sale for forty years until now
in full view by the roadside

relying on landscape
to deter human will
from entering this vista

_____

our car mocks solidity
the windows we breathe against
curse their diaphony

a road train bursts by my head
resets the country flow
sound changes forever

a gate now open
white-green scrub muddied
time smeared across space

bushes’ tongues bivouac
shades flattened by perspective
daub and stain pasturePhotograph – 

can no longer be held as knowledge
parsed or thought
into homely understanding

thirsty salt-erect tussocks
take colour from rubbed plinths
erupted out of this instant

behind falling and catching fence-wire
fields of parallax blue
melt apart in two directions

bent in winds lasting all their lives
stands of trees accompany us
for relative time

_____

hills barricade clouds
sky-shapes whittled by geology
carve apart elements

slowly progress away
to dialogue with root and sky
about borders, about time

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family.

Texture and Complexity: Carmel Macdonald Grahame launches ‘Suburban Whistlestop’

The Watsonia Poets Anthology, Suburban Whistlestop, a Melbourne Poets Union publication edited by Jennifer Chrystie, Judy Keighran and Ann Sadedin, was launched by Carmel Macdonald Grahame at the Watsonia Library, Watsonia, Melbourne on 11th December 2018.

Some words are not easily used by poets. For example, writers have had to argue for a long time on behalf of the word Domestic. Domestic references and themes like family life, a focus on children, households, household labour, gardens, food, a daily walk…have been belittled in the past and seen as unworthy of poetry, even somehow inherently unpoetic. There is a general understanding about the grand tradition, that great public themes like war, the glories of history, or great abstractions like Love and Death have had the upper hand, so to speak.

And it occurs to me that the word Suburban comes with similar entailments, has been burdened with some background idea suggesting a place of oblivion, or at the very least complacency and dullness. The painter Howard Arkley was making this point in the 1970s, 80s and 90s with work that turned away from landscapes, and instead demonstrated what rich material the suburban context offers an artist, much richer material than a glib word like lifestyle might suggest. The suburbs have texture and complexity, are filled with detail that represents lives as they are lived, are the site of great good fortune and loss, like any other human context. Of course they do. And given that we are so suburban a nation, it seems important that our artists attend to it, rather than seeing it as unpoetic.

Well here they do attend to it. This collection addresses the tensions circulating around that word. It fills a space between art and the ordinary lives we live in suburban settings. It shows how various these are: I think of the difference between Dorothy Poulopoulous’s Melbourne Moments, Christina Spry’s September, and John Jenkins’ Early Winter…Watsonia, Doncaster, Kangaroo Ground…wherever they are, poets taking notice, finely observing…

***

In this collection you find poetry that attends to ‘the inner life’, for example; whether painful or joyful: After an intimate, fully realised family moment, Wendy Fleming’s’Before the Baby Came’, ends:

Don’t ask what happens next
Just know that this scene
Stays within me

Pointing to the involuntary and precious nature of memory. And having something significant to say about childhood.

Kay Arthur’s ‘The Arrival’ and ‘A-Ward’ convey tenderness and vulnerability, using a collection of details like hairbrushes, roses, tea being poured, the weight of the pot, shortbreads in a tin, mugs…the poem takes the combined meaning of all these to speak of the kind of experience for which descriptions like Mental health are blunt objects in the extreme.

Gay Miller’s ‘To Contribute, Pain, My Middle’ capture inner dialogues with a self negotiating with adversity, something we all do.

***

Far from complacency there is a potent sense of history here. Paul Dunnell’s ‘Dry Waves addresses Australian colonisation and honours the indigenous people who were forced to submit to it—

I have been thinking this is Gurindji country
Long before we came…

Jennifer Chrystie’s ‘The Pewter Plate’ concentrates on that emblem of Dirk Hartog Island, where William de Vlamingh nailed a plate to a post in 1697. A quite different sensibility was at work there in response to this country. Part of the point being that the two poems resonate because of each other’s presence in the collection. This added resonance, created by links between dissimilar poems, is often at work, producing the something more that comes of collaborative projects.

***

There is also a potent sense of the future here. Vigilance about the environment runs through the collection, even underpinning poems that may at first appear to be personal. So the suburban context opens out, picks up on universal concerns: ‘…we race on, burning dreams and time away…’

The lines come from John Jenkins’ poem ‘Slick’, a kind of fugue on a theme of oil, picking the reader up and carrying up towards the poem’s sense of an impending future.

In an entirely different voice, with its edge of mysticism, Fee Sievers’ ‘Rainmaker’ renders the losses that come in the wake of drought, grieves on our behalf.

Margaret Hopkins’ theme is Nature. In Divided Reality she is explicit:

Owning and using the earth
Without respect…
Refusing to acknowledge
Global warming while polar ice melts…

Just to quote a couple of lines, in which the nexus between Nature and politics is at work.

Nature and respect for it, and our relationship with it, is the theme underlying a poem like Marietta Elliott’s spider, in the voice of a woman in the shower…

I don’t mind you, small creature
Battling inhuman odds…

***

In all this I want to acknowledge the attentive editing. When a poem (also by Jennifer Chrystie) entitled ‘Mosquito’ — humourous and witty — is followed by one like ‘spider’ — gentle and finely observed — we have a sense of the poems being stitched into each other, either thematically or by means of form — of which there is plenty of variety, these are poets who know what they are doing — giving the collection a satisfying continuity and coherence.

In the end I don’t read this as a collective voice, although some readers may want to on behalf of the Watsonia-ness of the contributors, a part of the point. But rather I want to read it as a collection of voices. There is a choral effect to the whole. This is because of the diversity in the poetry itself—whether formal or discursive, whether the language a poet uses has a colloquial register or reaches for poetic tones…And so on.

In this choral effect there is a sense of those tones rising.

Ann Sadedin, in ‘Wild Wisdom’ invokes revisionary thinking about ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ a text she cites. The poem ends—

I am here, belonging
To the vastness of things.

Her poems strike me as taking a particular interest in things being not what they seem, being MORE than they seem, and that being a lesson of nature.

Other poems reach overtly for the sublime, that aesthetic that is about our diminishment in the face of forces, especially natural forces, which are more than we can apprehend. This is the kind of energy at work in a poem like Paul Willason’s ‘The Great Shark’.

…the terror of its alien perfection
Bound in blood
To swim the oceans framed
within the mind’s vast sweep

John Prytherch engages with the sublime directly in a poem like ‘Psalm of the Winds’, insofar as the poem deals with wonder and human smallness, using the biblical poetic form to frame it and despite everything inflecting it with hope.

There are more. And there is more to every poem in Suburban Whistlestop and to the work of every poet represented than I have been able to say really…there is just more, more to it all. And the whole, this chorus, speaks of The More resonating through a word like Suburban.

Congratulations to the Watsonia Poets. I commend the collection to everyone who reads poetry.

 – Carmel Macdonald Grahame

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Carmel Macdonald Grahame lives in Victoria. Her short fiction, poetry, critical essays and reviews appear in literary journals and anthologies. A novel, Personal Effects, was published with University of Western Australia Publishing in 2014. She has been a winner of the Melbourne Poets Union Prize and co-winner of the Patricia Hackett Prize in her home state, Western Australia, where she has been a teacher of literature and writing.

Suburban Whistlestop is available from https://www.melbournepoetsunion.com/

 

A Need to Examine the Life of the Nation: Kit Kelen reflects on ‘To End All Wars’

Kit Kelen, who was one of the editors of To End All Wars, edited by  Dael Allison, Anna Couani, Kit Kelen and Les Wicks,  Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, gave the following speech at the launch of the anthology at the Shop Gallery Glebe on 27 October 2018

Greetings all. Just a few words and a few more words about this anthology and how it came about. The idea for the collection came from a discussion, in Istanbul, between myself and Les Wicks at the International Poetry Festival there, a few years ago. It was a discussion involving some Turkish poets and translators as well.

Some background. We were annoyed because the Department of Foriegn Affairs and Trade (DFAT) had just pulled the plug on funding for a reading that we were scheduled to be doing at Gallipoli. No explanation of course. Who can comment on operational matters involving the conscience all at sea? But we quickly came to the conclusion it might have something to do with our credentials as peace-nik poets, so to speak.

Being in Turkey and contemplating Gallipoli and the centenary that had just happened, we thought it would be a good thing to bring together a bilingual parallel text collection of Australian/New Zealand and Turkish poets (everything translated both ways), reflecting on, not the first ANZAC day per se, but rather the centenary of it. Reflecting on what it means to Turks and to Australians, and what there might be of this, in either culture, deeper than the official account and general solemn ra-ra – for in our case, the sacred national icon of this particular biscuit (the ANZAC communion wafer). We were interested in reflecting on the reflection you could say. We were interested in setting up a two-way poetry mirror, a particular one not seen before.

There are traces of that original idea in this collection you’re holding in your hand today, thanks to the generous assistance of David Musgrave and Puncher and Wattmann.

As you’ll know, things have become progressively more difficult politically in Turkey over the past few years since Les and I were last there, and especially for progressive intellectuals or anyone wishing to critique the received wisdom of, for instance, national origins. This WWI period which marks the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Attaturk’s modern Turkish state – is particularly sensitive. This is precisely what had made the original idea of the bilingual anthology very attractive to us – that this conflict a hundred years ago, and its beginnings and endings had so much to do, in Australia’s and in Turkey’s case, with our originary myths of nationhood – ‘baptism of fire’ myths, of the kind that were very prevalent in Australia at the time of Federation and from that time up until the beginning of the First World War.

The advent of Federation in Australia was replete with a prospective bellicosity, very relevant for us here today – because, before the event, the popular poetry proclaiming Australia as such – Dorothea Mackellar aside – was largely a poetry of war (pretentiously prophetic often). Some of it was humorously so. Take for instance C.J. Dennis’s 1908 mock anthem, the ‘Australaise’, an impressive celebration of the Australian infix:

Fellers of Australier,
Blokes an’ coves an’ coots
Shift yer (bloody) carcasses,
Move yer (bloody) boots,
Gird yer (bloody) loins up,
Get yer (bloody) gun,
Set the (bloody) enermy,
An’ watch the (bastards) run.

Chorus:
Get a (bloody) move on,
Have some (bloody) sense,
Learn the (bloody) art of
Self de-(bloody)-fence.

(You’ll forgive my having inserted some words missing in the original, or you might choose to amplify there yourself.)

Closer to the moment of Federation, one Australian Boer War correspondent by the name of A.B.Paterson was encouraged by the events he witnessed to express the sentiment that the world-wide Empire of the British proved that ‘kinship conquers space’. And from this assertion he was able to throw out a challenge (or threat), more characteristic of his time than his oeuvre: ‘those who fight the British Isles must fight the British race!’ Paterson kept up the race rhetoric for the Great War too. In his 1915 ‘Open letter to the troops: we’re all Australians now’ the Banjo wrote:

The mettle that a race can show
Is proved with shot and steel,
And now we know what nations know
And feel what nations feel.

Probably the best known lyrics of the time relating specifically to Australia’s participation in the First World War are those of W.W. Francis’ ‘Australia will be there!’. It was adopted by the AIF from the war’s beginning and remained popular throughout.

Rally round the banner of your country
Take the field with brothers o’er the foam;
On land or sea, wherever you be,
Keep your eye on Germany!
For England Home and Beauty
Have no cause to fear!
Should auld acquaintance be forgot?
No! No! No! No! No! Australia will be there!
Australia will be there!

Let’s note that ‘the banner of your country’ referred to here was unlikely to have been the Australian flag. Though it had been invented for a competition in 1901, and had some official status by 1908, this wasn’t clarified until Menzies’ Flags Act of 1953. Though many Australians today, in love with the eternal quality of their national devotions find it hard to believe, it was the Union Jack that mainly draped the coffins of the WWI Australian war dead. There was no Australian passport till 1949 either.

Now while Australian and New Zealand losses in the Gallipoli campaign and throughout WWI were devastatingly high (witness the WWI wall at the War Memorial in Canberra), the Turkish losses at Gallipoli may have been ten times as high as the ANZACs’. We Australians and New Zealanders lost that battle but we won the war. The Turks paid the higher price.

But were they Turkish losses or ANZAC losses? They were the losses of respective empires – the Ottoman and the British. The senseless and useless pain and suffering Turks and Australians experienced in the Gallipoli event, and for generations after, was at the command and in the service of world empires. Between then and now, Australians have indeed once defended this continent from foreign invasion, but one hundred years and more later, Australians are dying on foreign battlefields, still in the service of world empire – still in the service of a white man’s world empire.

***

Kit Kelen launching To End All Wars at the Shop Gallery Glebe on 27 October 2018

No Australian with feeling for the idea of being Australian could have watched ABC TV over the last two months without having the Aussie heartstrings tugged in two impressively concerted directions. On the one hand there’s the anthem quality in ‘I am, You are, We are Australian’

(vision messaged for multiculturalism) – ‘from all the lands of Earth we come’. (And let me add I believe this campaign is a brilliant first shot over the closet dogwhistling racist bows for the upcoming federal election. This is a campaign for the ABC [and its continued public ownership], for public ownership in general, and for a multicultural Australia. Three for the price of one!)

The other heartstring tugger has been the (relentlessly advertised) Invictus games. Let’s think about what they are. A moving celebration of the determination, the courage, the resilience of those otherwise broken by war. Yes. Can anyone doubt the value of this exercise for the sportsmen and women involved? Can anyone doubt the debt these people are owed by the nation states for whom they have given their all?

But how do these games and the powerful emotion they generate make us feel about war and about the causes of war? And about our responsibility for war, in our case, as voters in a parliamentary democracy? Royal patronage takes things out of the political domain and helps us to not ask questions. Questions for instance about corporate sponsorship for the games from entities that profit by making weapons and weapons systems.

Is anyone brave enough to criticise INVICTUS? Invictus? And who is undefeated?. These brave broken warriors of ours of course! Who have they – who have we – fought? And why? Who have they – have we – defeated? And how just was our cause? How proud of our participation in these conflict should we – should they – be?

Is it sacrilege to ask such questions?

The wars in which Australia, and most of the other Invictus participating nations, have engaged in the last two decades have been under the general umbrella of a global war on terror, or what could be considered a long term reprisal for 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC (attacks resulting in roughly 3000 deaths in 2001). Let us consider these numbers for a sense of proportion and in order especially – self-interestedly – to ask whether the wars on terror have made us safer.

Richard Clarke, a counter-terrorism expert who worked in the US National Security Council between 1992 and 2003 was highly critical of the Bush Administration’s counter terrorism strategy and decision to invade Iraq (on trumped up ‘weapons of mass destruction’ intelligence). Clark has written, ‘far from addressing the popular appeal of the enemy that attacked us, Bush handed that enemy precisely what it wanted and needed, proof that America was at war with Islam, that we were the new Crusaders come to occupy Muslim land’.

There has been too much taken for granted of what terror is and where it comes from. We need to ask now – in a global way – what terror is and who produces it. We’ve needed to ask this for a long time. We need to ask what it is that drives persons of conviction to kill themselves and others for a cause they feel to be just, for a cause they feel to be ignored. Is terror just about foreign looking types blowing themselves up and taking others, perhaps us, with them? Or is terror also something that could fall from the sky, directed by remote control, with the best – if still often flawed – technology in the world. Is terror something only worth reporting at any length when it happens to people who happen to look like us?

Here are some old figures to help. Because of the difficulty and vagueness of record keeping, it is difficult to find accurate figures for (especially civilian) death tolls for Afghanistan and Iraq, due to Western-involved hostilities in these countries since 2001. Estimates as of a few years ago for Afghanistan have been of over 31,000 civilian deaths due to war-related violence. Estimates as high as 360,000 additional fatalities have been made, based on a ratio of indirect to direct deaths in contemporary conflicts. Iraq War casualties had been estimated at 461,000 total deaths as of June 2011. I cannot see how the deaths of unarmed civilians, random or targeted, does not amount to terror. I cannot see how those who live beyond, and having witnessed, such events have not been terrorized.

Perspective! Saddam Hussein was undoubtedly a nasty and bloodthirsty tyrant; he was though very much less lethal to his people than we of the coalition of the willing have been.

And what about the terrorist threat at home?

Australians have died in numbers in overseas terror attacks (especially Bali – 92 deaths in 2002 and 2004), but since 1972 there have been 15 deaths in Australia from terrorist attacks (5 of those 15 deaths were of perpetrators). Since 9/11 there have been 5 deaths of Australian (non-perpetrators) on Australian soil due to terror attacks.

Have we got things in perspective here? Think of the road toll since that time. Think of deaths from cigarettes, deaths from sugary drinks. Think of the 373 deaths by suicide of former Australian military personnel between 2002 and 2016. For 2014–2016, ex-serving men aged under 30 had a suicide rate 2.2 times that of Australian men the same age. Think of black deaths in custody. Think of the number of Australian women who have died as result of violence from their partners so far this year.

***

Sarah St Vincent Welch reading at the launch of To End All Wars

The figure of the digger looms large for Australians in history’s mythic page. It suggests long continuities in the Australian story – from the Goldfields (conjuring the spirit of Eureka) to the trenches in France, and till today.

I want to focus on Gallipoli, not just because it was the original topos for this book, but because it has been made the time and the place most sacred to Australia’s sense of itself as a nation among nations. A time and a place of defeat for us. A moment and a place of terrible loss foretold. The making sacred of Gallipoli for Australians has been intensified and massively funded during and since the Howard years

What were we doing at Gallipoli?

We know now that Gallipoli was stupid and unfair in the way imperialism and racism and greed are wrong and stupid. It was the wrong place for Australians and New Zealanders to be; it was the wrong reason for them to be there. But having been there still makes us who we are. And that’s why we shouldn’t forget. Here’s the key point: a continuity masks a discontinuity. The reason we should continue to say lest we forget in the twenty first century is the opposite of the reason why this was the right thing for white British people in Australia to say eighty years ago. The sacrifice of Australians who lost their lives at Galipoli wasn’t noble or worthwhile. It was just idiotic. They were being used and used stupidly. It was the sacrifice of sub-imperial entities, ‘The Commonwealth of Australia’ and ‘The Dominion of New Zealand’, on behalf of the British Empire. These are some of the things we shouldn’t forget. It’s not immediately clear what role ‘national’ identity played in this sacrifice, but in memory of the senseless credulity of Australia and Australians, in memory of their mindless obedience to people who declared themselves their betters, we should never forget Galipoli, the Anzacs. The lesson the whole world should not forget in the case of the Great War, as in the case of many other conflicts, was neatly expressed by Noam Chomsky in his book 9-11: ‘We need not stride resolutely towards catastrophe, merely because those are the marching orders’.

***

I am, you are, we are …

The memory of Gallipoli has been the perfect counterbalance to the forgetting of the great (and shameful) British victory that Australia has been since the invasion began in 1788. The memory of Gallipoli has been the perfect counterbalance to the forgetting of Aboriginal Australia which white Australia needed to do in order to justify itself. One war far away in which we were the victims, the heroes, the martyrs. One war over there to forgive and forget the unmentionable war which gave us our land and made us who we are and can be.

The unleashing of Australian fury at the Turk on Turkish soil involved multiple displacements in the emerging psyche of Australian and New Zealand, these British nations-coming-into-being. Well into the centenary of this tragic rhetorical train it is still our losses we mourn. Australian guilt for the fate of the nearly 100,000 Turks who died in the Galipoli campaign has never been seriously entertained. Today the Turks celebrate their victory at Canakkale as having enabled the consciousness of nation through which Ataturk would achieve the modern Turkish state. The paradox for them is that the successful defense of the Ottoman Empire enabled what is still today called an Independence War.

White Australians on an individual basis don’t think of themselves as having dispossessed anyone. If no one is responsible for dispossessing Aboriginal people, then what was it supplanted Aboriginal rights in Australia? Note the anachronism – for the purposes of the question – of all of the abstractions involved: Australia, Aborigines, rights, possession, prior ownership. These are all western names for things with a western history. Ideas. These are all British triumphs – of understanding and of classification. They put the place in the box

After Galipoli, any ethical problem, which might have been associated with Australians having been there, faded naturally into the distance. How much guilt can one attach to martyrdom? Along with actual distance, the Treaties had consigned everything of the Great War and before to another world ‘over there’ & ‘back then’. But by then Galipoli had already served the function of displacing from popular consciousness the ethical problems associated with Australians being here and now in Australia.

***

Sailing back to Byzantium for a bit. Me and Les on the Bosphorus! By the time it became clear that we would not have enough Turkish participation (despite the great numbers of brilliant Turkish poets) we already had a lot of interest from Australian poets who wanted to be part of the project. So this is how our Plan B came to be; the concept now simply being to have Australian and New Zealand poets reflect on the centenary of the Armistice ending the First World War.

On the back of the book, we posit a ‘barely veiled triumphalism’ in the countries that were victorious. Having already been taken to task for this, I think it’s appropriate now to answer the question – just what does that mean? ‘A barely veiled triumphalism’. And aren’t we mean to be raining on this parade on behalf of all those who – like Jesus on the cross – died for us? Do we mock their suffering and sacrifice if we ask a few questions about it; for instance if we ask – was it worthwhile? And was it really actually for us?

In fact I believe we honour the fallen when we make the effort to understand the meaning of their sacrifice, to understand the meaning of what happened to them. We honour the fallen when we try to understand, rather than making rote gestures of devotion, before the altar of nation or of empire. We honour the victims of rote gesture in this way by asking always ‘why’ (?).

Lest we forget? Absolutely. But for a certain kind of worshipper at the shrine of nation, that ‘lest we forget’ is a lightly coded message – really it means ‘lest we regret’. Patriotism is, as Oscar Wilde told us, the last refuge of the scoundrel, and chauvinists fear the weakness that comes of having their unreasoned faith examined. There is a need to examine the life of the nation. There is need to challenge, and more than ever at this particular moment, those people who believe that all the becoming nation did in the way of war on the way to getting us here was right and good and proper. Much of it was and much of it wasn’t, and we grow as a people when we make the effort to discuss which was which. We grow through that kind of conversation

***

Linda Adair reading at the launch of To End All Wars

The Australian War Memorial cannot be claimed to be a celebration or a glorification or a justification for war, but it is a place of worship for nation. It makes war sacred and makes it an unchallengeable fact of our past and who we are. It is a demand for respect for the fallen – whom it is true age does not weary. Although the years may well, in some cases, condemn what they have done in our name, in the names of those they could never know.

The War Memorial should be a place for reflection, for putting things in perspective. But perspective is precisely what we have lost in Australia when it comes to thinking about war, about our wars.

The revival and the extraordinary amplification of the Gallipoli myth – what I would call the Gallipolisation of Australian self-recognition – is largely down to John Howard, and to those on both sides of parliament who have slavishly followed him into those trenches where we glory in our goodness and forget the harm we’ve done.

I’d like to refer you to Ben Brooker’s excellent recent article, in Overland, about recent Australian spending on war commemorations. Just a snippet – $700 million on the ANZAC centenary commemoration spend– around 3 ½ times more than is being spent by every other country that took part in the War combined. Then there’s the fact that the Australian government is spending $1.1 billion on war memorials between 2014 and 2028. Consider the other things on which this money might be spent.

Not a penny of that commemorative money in this book though. We found the last shilling ourselves!

***

When we think so much about the Invictus Games we are not thinking about why these young men and women, now needing repair, were sent to war in the first place. There can be no doubt that the Invictus Games is a good thing for them. But is the spectacle of the Invictus Games a good thing for us? For our collective conscience?

What the anthem quality of national sentiment (I am, you are…) , what the war on terror, what the Invictus Games and the Australian War Memorial all have in common is that they promote a mythology of who we are and how good we are, at the expense of an understanding of and an acknowledgement of some questions that are very simple, very fundamental – for instance – how it is we are here; for instance – who is responsible for the crimes against humanity – crimes of undeclared war – by means of which we are here.

For better and for worse Australia has been becoming a white man’s country for several hundred years; becoming other things as well of course; becoming better in many many ways.

Yes it’s good we Australians defeated fascism and didn’t become a Japanese colony, and this victory could not have been achieved without our armed forces and without the loss of Australian lives. And we should rightly mourn such loss and celebrate such a victory. The way the world is looking today, we should gird up the loins for possible further struggles to come – further struggles for democracy and against fascism.

This polemic is not about singling Australia out as bad country, not at all. I firmly believe that, despite the current leadership and its lack of moral fibre, we’re one of the best nations, but I wonder if nations are such a good idea.

Does poetry – do the arts – need to be in the service of nations?

I think a book like this – full of diverse forms of witnessing and reflection – is about how we can be better, how we can find better ways to be in the world. Poetry is a means of world bettering.

Today, nation is the world’s deadliest abstraction. It is military force that makes nations deadly.

Christopher ‘Poodle’ Pine wants Australia to be one of the world’s ten top weapons exporting nations. Is that a good aspiration for him to have on our behalf ?

Is it sacrilege to ask such a question when we are remembering our war dead? Might we be glorifying in war at times without meaning to do so? Blood sacrifice… baptism of fire – these were – these are – words gloried in. Are empires good to die for, good to kill for? Do we need to have nations? Would the world be better off, be safer, if there were no nations or empires?

I think it’s very pertinent today to ask these questions that were on so many lips one hundred years ago when that Armistice was signed.

***

Bringing this book together has been a truly collective effort. In this book are many of the usual suspects of Australian poetry along with many unexpected voices. I’ve decided for this speech to mention none of them in particular, for fear of favouring any over others. Their words are here for you, and though dipping in and out is the more conventional method, I recommend you read the collection cover to cover if you can find the time to do that.

This is less an anthology of anti-war poems per se than we the editors might, from the outset, have imagined. It is more a collection of witnessings, mainly civilian witnessings, of events and impacts of war. This war and the next one and the ones that have followed since – these wars have shaped so much of who-we-all-are gathered in this room today.

So thanks to DFAT and the government of Tony Abbott for motivating a bunch of peacenik poets to get off their spotty behinds and encourage some serious thinking about what 11/11/1918 has meant for Australians and for New Zealanders.

Les and I were joined by Anna Couani and Dael Allison, which among other things, made us a gender-equitable team for the task. Anna has provided the wonderful etching for our cover. Dael and Les have been our logistical powerhouse in getting this job done. I thank them all. An honour and a privilege to work with them on this book.

It’s been a very interesting editorial collaboration – largely conducted at a distance, by e-mail …

I think each of the four of us combined very different but compatible skills. There were repeated moments each of us felt groaningly overwhelmed by this project, and someone always – one of we four – stepped into whatever breach there was to fill.

The project had its own momentum and found its publisher and here we are today.

Conscience with its own rudder! That’s what poetry can be! And it’s what I hope you can all grab hold of somewhere between these covers.

 – Kit Kelen


Volumes of Kit Kelen’s poetry have been published in Chinese, Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Indonesian and Filipino. His most recent English-language collection, Poor Man’s Coat – Hardanger Poems was published by University of Western Australia Press in 2018. Kit Kelen is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Macau, where he taught Literature and Creative Writing for many years.

To End All Wars is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/to-end-all-wars

Featured Writers from To End All Wars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher (Kit) Kelen,

Emeritus Professor of English

(University of Macau)

Conjoint Professor in the School of Humanities & Social Science

(University of Newcastle)

Series Editor, Flying Islands Pocket Poets

 

 

 

Volumes of Kit Kelen’s poetry have been published in Chinese, Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Indonesian and Filipino. His most recent English-language collection, Poor Man’s Coat – Hardanger Poems was published by University of Western Australia Press in 2018. Kit Kelen is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Macau, where he taught Literature and Creative Writing for many years.

 

 

Unfolding Complexity: Mark Roberts considers Anna Couani’s ‘thinking process’

This is a slightly edited version of Mark Roberts’ introduction to thinking process by Anna Couani, Owl Publications, 2017

.
Anna has been a friend and a mentor for more years than I care to remember. As a young poet in the late 1970s I had discovered New Poetry magazine and the Poets Union readings at the Royal Standard Hotel in Sydney. I began to meet poets and I read as widely as could among the small literary magazines and presses of the time. Then, I think it was in 1979, I came across Italy by Anna Couani (Rigmarole of the Hours 1977).

There are a number of things that I can remember from the first time that I read that book, the wonderful cover, which consisted of a simple line drawing of a kitchen with a pot on a hot plate and a bottle of salt off to the left and the opening lines of ‘Untitled’, the first prose piece in the book:

As I write down the sentences, mentally compose them and then read them off, they begin to break off like huge chunks of glacial ice, the row of type – the glacier’s cliff face at the water.”

There was  also, later in Italy, a drawing of a doorway, with most of a cane chair, a mirror leaning up against the wall reflecting another chair and a window and a piece of paper pinned to the wall with the word ‘Poetry’ written on it. This picture, for me, encapsulates Anna’s work, both literary and visual. It is, on first glance, a simple line drawing of a room. But as it draws you in the complexity begins to unfold. There is the hidden window reflected in the mirror, is it a glimpse through the doorway? There is the intricate detail of the cane chair and the piece of paper/poetry hanging on the wall.

It is interesting to realise that the connection between the visual and the literary has always been at the centre of Anna’s work. Early in her latest collection, thinking process, Anna asks:

is it ekphrasis
if the poet also made the picture?

She doesn’t directly answer this question but we know after reading the poems in this collection that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. For Anna the “thinking process’ revolves around making art, whether it it is the writing of the poems, the making of the visual art that the poems describe , or the process of making space for the world of art and imagination. In the opening poem, ‘the idea of worlds’ she refers to her “world of work” as a school teacher:

the poignancy that
no one can understand
how it feels

the sense of restriction

but there is the other world “the virtual world already there / in the peripheral vision”. This other world is already an art work

a shimmering white border
enclosing a blue and green world

Anna’s background as a teacher runs through many of these poems. In a sequence of poems about making a print of an iris flower Anna refers to being a student learning a new printmaking technique. There is also a playfulness to many of these poems. The playfulness of an image that ends up being something completely different to what was intended, or the playfulness of words in a poem such as ‘2C’ which discusses how we are taught to ‘see’ an image. The ‘2C’ of the title is echoed in the poem when Anna writes that:

so that could mean
‘seeing’
a scene in 2D

thinking process is an important book full of finely crafted poems by a writer and artist who has played a critical, if under appreciated, role in the Sydney and wider Australian cultural scene for many decades. There is a final image from poem ‘200’ which, for me, encapsulates the success of this collection:

but texture and colour can sing
like the traditional finger painted end papers
of old books
something beautiful to see and touch.

 – Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is one of the founding editors of Rochford Street Review. His latest collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in 2016.

thinking process is available from http://www.owlpublishing.com.au/chapbook-series.html

Vale Judith Rodríguez

Rochford Street Press was saddened to learn of the death of Judith Rodríguez on 22 November 2018. Judith was one of the Australian poets I grew up reading and discovering Mudcrab at Gambaro (UQP 1980s) was one of those poetic memories that has always stayed with me. Rochford Street Press expresses our deepest condolences to Judith’s family and many friends and colleagues.

The following is a tribute to Judith published by PEN International (In memory of Judith Rodríguez (1936-2018)).

 – Mark Roberts

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A Farewell to Judith Rodríguez 

Judith Rodríguez died today, November 22, 2018. A beloved friend to many of us, Judith was a distinguished Australian poet and human rights advocate. She served the PEN community for many years in many roles, both locally and internationally.

Born Judith Catherine Green in Perth, Western Australia, on 13 February 1936, she grew up in Brisbane and attended Queensland University. From there she went to Cambridge for an MA, where she met her first husband, Fabio Rodríguez. They were married in 1965.

Professionally, she combined poetry, university teaching, publishing, and printmaking. She sometimes illustrated her poetry with woodcuts and had exhibitions of her prints in Australia and Paris. In 1979-82 she was the poetry editor of the literary journal Meanjin while teaching at La Trobe University (1969-85). From 1988 until 1997 Rodriguez was poetry editor with Penguin Australia but was back in academe at Deakin University from 1998 until 2003. Along the way nine collections of her poetry were published, and a play and an opera were performed. Her work has been rewarded with numerous prizes and fellowships.

Judith joined PEN Melbourne in 1984 and was a leading member of the center’s committee for three decades. She was President of PEN Melbourne during 1990-91, edited The Melbourne PEN newsletter from 1991 to 1995, and was Vice-President of PEN Melbourne for over 15 years.

In 1986 while she was Resident Fellow at Rollins College in Florida, Judith attended her first PEN International Congress in New York. From the 1995 PEN International Congress in Australia, Judith was PEN Melbourne’s Congress delegate and reported on the following:1995 Fremantle; 1996 Guadalajara, Mexico; 1997 Edinburgh; 1999 Warsaw; 2001 London; 2002 Macedonia; 2003 Mexico City; 2004 Tromsø; 2005 Bled; 2006 Berlin; 2007 Dakar; 2008 Bogotá; 2009 Linz; 2010 Tokyo; 2011 Belgrade; 2012 Gyeongju, South Korea; 2013 Reykjavik; 2014 Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; 2015 Québec City; 2016 Ourense, Galicia; and 2017 Lviv, Ukraine.

Judith Rodriguez was elected a Member-at-Large of the PEN International Board 2001-2004, 2004-2006; a member of the Search Committee from 2006, and its Chair 2008-2009, re-elected and Chair 2009-2012. In 2017 she was elected an International Vice-President of PEN.

Judith was much loved in Australian and international writing communities as a writer, mentor, teacher, and supporter of emerging writers. She taught at universities on four continents and read her poetry in Europe, North America and India.

In 1994 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia, for services to literature, and she is also a recipient of the FAW Christopher Brennan Award. Her poetry collection Mudcrab at Gambaro’s (1980) received the PEN International prize for poetry. Who’s Who in Contemporary Women’s Writing, comments: ‘Her poetry constructs strong female voices which insist on justice, clearly perceiving the intricacies of the personal and the relational. They are not confessional, but draw deeply on experience.’

Judith was a fierce campaigner for social justice, a lover of the written word, an inspiring poet, and a true internationalist who has lived a life of commitment and service both within and beyond many borders. This great woman will be very much missed.

She is survived by her four children: Sibila, Ensor, Rebeca, and Zoë Rodríguez and her second husband, Tom Shapcott, whom she married in 1982.

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The Slipperiness of Meaning: Jean Kent launches ‘Instant History’ by Richard Tipping

Instant History, by Richard Tipping (Flying Island Books), was launched by Jean Kent at  Poetry at the Pub, in Newcastle on 18th April 2018.

Forty years ago — when I was such a new poet I would never have dared call myself one— I bought a book which is still one of my most treasured possessions. It was the catalogue for a touring exhibition of poems by Australian poets. There were only 75 poets included: one of them was Richard Tipping

 Richard had already published two collections by this time, and was a significant presence on the poetry scene. I didn’t know him personally, but I was certainly aware of his poetry. In the years since then, he became known both in Australia and internationally for his visual poems and his sculptural poems, many of which are now held in art galleries. But he has always also been a writer of finely crafted poems for the page, and Instant History is an important reminder of that.

In the beautifully produced, palm-sized format of all Flying Islands books, Instant History may look small, but in fact it is an extraordinarily large collection. Not only are there a lot of poems, their range is also vast. Thirty plus years of life and observation are distilled here, in the typical Tipping style, with dazzling wit, playfulness, precision and clarity.

 Richard’s delight in words is (to use one of his own words about the book) multifarious: simply reading the title and the names of the different sections – The Postcard Life, Rush Hour in the Poetry Library, Earth Heart, Kind of Yeah – suggests how he loves the slipperiness of meaning.

 Even the title Instant History can be understood in so many ways. Is it immediate history? The history of small instances? Or a nod to the way so much of our lives now is captured by the media and then forgotten?

Considering Richard’s gift for plucking the right couple of words out of air as if this is as natural as breathing, we might think it’s just another of his serendipitous , but very clever throwaway phrases … until we realize that there is also a poem in the book called ‘Instant History’.

This title, though, is not just ‘Instant History’. In brackets after that we find “Gulf War 1”. ‘Instant History (Gulf War 1)’ is a vividly shocking recreation of the way television and on the spot reporters changed the recording and receiving of news about war. Now that the transmission of news, both personal and public, is as instant as a click on a Smart Phone, it is chilling to be reminded of this time when, suddenly, cameras “at the place of the Arabs’ are “filling houses across America with worry”, the President keeps repeating “Read my lips. This war/ is not about prime time television”, and

collateral language
keeps bobbing its head up
out of the bloodied sand

where bodies have become pink mist
swirling in data smog.

 

Richard has been a film maker, visual artist and musician, as well as a poet, and his talents in all these areas are obvious in the poems. He has also travelled extensively, so not surprisingly there is a global awareness in much of his writing. There are poems of social and political commentary, postcards from everywhere, riddles, lyrics, meditations … and so many memorable phrases.  

I don’t have time tonight to offer more than a small glimpse into the surprises and treasures Instant History contains. But I’d like to mention one of my favourite poems from the travel section.

‘Snap’, is the poetic equivalent of tourist snap shots on a trip from London to Tokyo, interspersed with reflections on how “to find the Tao”. Moments all through the trip are observed with photographic clarity, giving glimpses of the world, gone in seconds, but vivid. There are acutely observed progressions from the confinement within the plane – “Jumbo shivering vast fatness / Dinners warming in the microwave” to the almost hallucinatory brilliance of scenes on the ground, at last, in Japan: 

…………….Globular persimmons, orange weights
glowing in bare branches

Old man, bowing to a crowd
of worn stone Buddhas.
Etched shadows on crystal moss

 and the wonderfully unexpected end, where

 …………….One hundred bobbing nuns
all laugh at once”

 In this poem, blank white space on the page gives a sense of time passing, or past. The way poems look on the page is important all through this book. It’s something I especially admire about Richard’s work. He also has a natural ear for the way words work, and there are some wonderful, pithy expressions of both the way language can degenerate into inarticulateness, and the power it has to work magic if we are alert to its possibilities—the way, for instance, a poem can be condensed to

…..a single
dot

of tensile energy
transmitted on the tongue.”

 There are also tantalizing examples in Instant History of Richard’s typographic and sculptural poems, including one which is in the grounds of Lake Macquarie Art Gallery. This ‘earth sculpture’ consists of bricks laid into the grass in a circle. From the air, the bricks clearly form letters, which spell out Richard’s title of the work: ‘HEAR THE ART (EARTH HEART)’. There are no gaps between the letters, so if you are at ground level, you have to walk slowly around the circle to make sense of it … Other words then start to form – like ‘HEART’ and ‘EARTH’ and ‘HEARTH’. It’s a classic Richard Tipping concrete poem—surprising, enigmatic, charming and clever.

This poem in the earth is much loved by the swallows that live by the lake—they swoop and dive and circle around the bricks, “quick-dancing in the rising wind”, as Richard aptly describes them in a related poem.

In this book as a whole, I think there is also a dazzling combination of aerial views and close attention at ground level. Instant History is a book to dip into, like the swallows, for light-hearted joy, but it is also a complex, comprehensive response to the experience of living in our times, a ‘his-story’ which rewards careful, serious reading.

  – Jean Kent

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Jean Kent is the author of eight books of poetry. Her most recent books are The Hour of Silvered Mullet (Pitt Street Poetry, 2015) and Paris in my Pocket (PSP, 2016), a selection of her poems from an Australia Council residency in Paris. With Kit Kelen, in 2014 Jean co-edited A Slow Combusting Hymn: Poetry from and about Newcastle and the Hunter Region. Samples of her poems and occasional jottings are on her website http://jeankent.net/

Instant History is available from https://asmacao.org/publications/instant-history/ 

Rochford Street Press announces the publication of ‘Truth in the Cage’ by Mohammad Ali Maleki

Rochdford Street Press and Verity La are proud to announce the publication of Mohammad Ali Maleki’s long awaited chapbook, Truth in the Cage. Written from within Manus Island detention centre, where Mohammad has been incarcerated for the last five years, Truth in the Cage is a powerful work of personal and political poetry.

Mohammad Ali Maleki is an Iranian poet and avid gardener who has been living in detention on Manus Island for five years. His poetry, written in Farsi, is translated into English by fellow detainee Mansour Shoushtari. Mohammad uses his mobile phone to send his poems to friends in Australia who help to edit, share and publish them. Mohammad’s poem ‘The Strong Sunflower’ was the impetus for, and first work published on, Verity La’s Discoursing Diaspora project. Since then, his writing has been published by online literary journal Bluepepper and by the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group. He has been a featured poet on Rochford Street Review and his poems and letters have been included in the Dear Prime Minister Project and at the Denmark Festival of Voice. His poem ‘Tears of Stone’ was shortlisted for the Red Room Company’s 2016 New Shoots Poetry Prize and received Special Commendation for extraordinary work in extreme circumstances. His poem ‘Silence Land’ was performed at the 2017 Queensland Poetry Festival as part of the Writing Through Fences performance, Through the Moon. An essay about his writing is forthcoming in the Extreme Texts Issue of Jacket2 magazine. Despite living in extreme conditions, Mohammad continues to create poetry saying, ‘You can find my whole life in my poems, like a letter to God.’

“Mohammad Ali Maleki, along with translator Mansour Shoshtari, present an intimate and lyrical window into their world of exile as political prisoners of Australia. The work is woven with an embodied sense of their poetic and literary heritages, resulting in deeply engaging, contemplative and passionate poems.  Maleki’s direct use of language often opens out into a magical horror – no less real – implicating the reader as much as the poet in a deconstruction and reconstruction of identity. ‘What if the woollen jacket I am wearing unravels / and begins to fall apart?’. Truth in the Cage delivers truths, uncomfortable and often torturous, through a painterly language, providing much-needed clarity in these times of obfuscation and systematic silencing”

 – Janet Galbraith, Writing Through Fences

There will be a launch for Truth in the Cage on July 17 at The Sydney Poetry Lounge. The book will be available for purchase on the night. All profits go directly to Mohammad.

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Within Australia $10 plus $1 postage
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Outside Australia
$16 including postage

 

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’.

4

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.

5

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).