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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cover of Crux by Philip Roberts. Island Press 1973

The cover of Crux by Philip Roberts. Island Press 1973

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover of Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974

Cover of Swamp Riddles by Robert Adamson. Island Press 1974

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Philip Roberts 1979

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

Reviews of Island Press books on Rochford Street Review:

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

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

Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick. Pitt Street Poetry 2013.

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

-Hafiz, ‘I Saw Two Birds’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Seferis once wrote about the poetry of CP Cavafy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Tredinnick

Mark Tredinnick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Catching Fire; or, The Art of Sitting’

……………………..for Judith Beveridge

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sulphur-crested Sonnet’:

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

and ‘Half Moon in Late September’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rumi said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insightful, very funny – and a memorable parable.

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

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

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

Would this do just as well?

-Joe Dolce

——————————————————————————————————–

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

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

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

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Anthony Lawrence – the blog post Southerly refused to publish.

Each month Southerly (the Journal of the English Association, Sydney)  asks a writer or critic to write a number of blogs for its website (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/). In February the Southerly blogger was the poet Anthony Lawrence – he was introduced on the Southerly website on 10 February in the following terms:

Anthony Lawrence has published fourteen books of poems and a novel. His most recent collection is ‘Signal Flare‘ (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013).

His books and individual poems have won many major awards. In 2013 he won the Blake Poetry Prize.

He teaches Creative Writing and Reading Poetry at Griffith University, Gold Coast, and lives at Cabarita Beach, on the far north coast of NSW.  (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/2014/02/10/next-monthly-blogger-anthony-lawrence/)

Over the course of the next few weeks Southerly ran a number of Lawrence’s blogs:

Lawrence’s final blog was due to be published last Friday (7 March). It was to be an interview with Lawrence conducted by the young poet Robbie Coburn. Southerly, however, refused to run the interview claiming, according to Lawrence in a post on Facebook, that the interview shifts Lawrence “into the third person” and that the form of the blog “presents as self-promotion”.  Lawrence also claims that another reason Southerly refused to run his final blog as he was critical of an aspect of John Kinsella’s political poetry.

Given that the final Lawrence blog will now not appear in Southerly and that it does fit together with a number of the other blogs published during February (particularly the Adamson piece where Lawrence describes the influence that meeting Robert Adamson and a number of other poets had on his development as a young poet), Rochford Street Review has made the decision to publish Lawrence’s final banned Southerly blog in full.

Comments maybe left at the bottom of the article.

********************************************

Robbie Coburn interviews Anthony Lawrence

Anthony Lawrence

Anthony Lawrence reading at the Sydney launch of Signal Flare (Photograph – Robert Adamson)

Anthony Lawrence’s poems capture the Australian landscape like a photograph. His viewfinder captures nature, and with vivid imagery instills clear visuals in the mind of the reader.

One of Australia’s most important contemporary poets, his work has been widely published in Australian and international journals, magazines and newspapers, and represented in anthologies. He has published many books of poetry since his first Dreaming in Stone (Angus & Robertson, 1989), edited anthologies such as The Best Australian Poetry for UQP, and has published one novel In the Half Light (Picador, 2000). His poetry has won numerous prestigious awards, such as the inaugural Gwen Harwood memorial prize, the Peter Porter Poetry Prize and the inaugural Judith Wright Calanthe Award.

With the land changing so drastically, and the state of the world altering, it is inevitable that nature will be viewed differently by later generations. But Lawrence is a poet who creates somewhat of a time capsule for future readers in his studies of nature, combining this with a controlled lyrical intensity and explorations of relationships and lives. His latest collection Signal Flare was published by Puncher and Wattmann in 2013.

RC:
Nature is a consistent element of your work. Do you think nature can be preserved through poetry?

AL:
The natural world has been a central focus in my work since I began writing poetry. The first (written evidence) of a poem that references nature can be seen on a sheet of white cardboard. I must have been about 9 or 10. The poem is called ‘Currawongs’ and is written in red crayon. It’s a rhyming poem about currawongs trying to navigate a strong wind while returning to their nests. There is a description of a tree, most likely a eucalypt. The sky is mentioned. I had recently discovered, by way of my maternal grandmother, Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman,’ and I was filled with the need to tell a story in rhyme. Currawongs were frequent visitors to our back yard. I’d sit and watch them after school. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, as I was just following my nerve and desire to create something, but I was making a big claim, from my nine years on the earth, that these birds are worth close scrutiny. I didn’t consider that anyone would ever read it. I felt compelled to record details of wings, sky, wind, nest, tree, eggs, and their calls.

Years later when I discovered Crow by Ted Hughes, many of the poems of George Mackay Brown, the poems of Philip Hodgins, Robert Adamson, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Hugo, James Dickey, Charles Wright, Mary Oliver and others, I realised how profoundly the best of their poems about the natural world have helped readers maintain a fierce interest in ecology, the minutiae of species, the underside of what seems obvious. I’m not interested in reading or writing poems that take the natural world at face value, where one or two physical elements are isolated and turned into verse. The only way poetry can invite or instigate serious debate about the natural world is to engage with it’s variousness: weather, the earth itself, flora and fauna, rivers and oceans and, personally, how humans interact with these things, either individually or through the changing filter of a relationship. A very early poem ‘Whistling Fox’, which you’ve mentioned and which I’ll address again later, involves a father-son relationship, Australian landscape, and the killing of a fox. It’s a poem that moves swiftly through these elements, but which I hope conveys a deep engagement with the natural world, while at the same time there is trespass, and sadness. It’s a paradox that surfaces frequently in my poetry: I’m here, and I’m involved, but in order for me to get close, I’m going to interrupt, briefly, the natural order of things. It’s what happens when we step out of our comfort zones and confront what’s happening beyond the window. Many know what a corella looks like. Many have seen a hawk floating at the side of the road, or riding an updraft over a headland. The difference between acknowledgement and serious study is to make the time to be still, to be watchful, to notice how a spangled drongo feeds and becomes a part of the shifting light in a tree. Poetry can offer us these things in unique ways. The poetry I love most is that which offers me different ways of seeing the natural world, and which challenges my perceptions of how things live and grow and move. This kind of poetry preserves and highlights what we can’t afford to ignore.

The poet John Kinsella professes to be one whose work is largely that of protest, of ‘disobedience.’ He has written that he ‘employs language in unexpected and ‘disobedient’ ways,’ and that it ‘jar readers into different modes of consideration, to reflect not only on the themes but on what poetry actually means.’ That sounds impressive, but much of Kinsella’s ‘protest’ work gets caught-up looking inward at itself, and this self-awareness strips the potential for reaching out to readers and can feel almost secondary to its intentions. Protest lost in language. The British poet Sean O’Brien, however, understands poetry’s potential for sharpening our awareness and our obligation to be vigilant, and demonstrate our desire to preserve what can so easily be damaged, and erased. Unlike Kinsella, he’s not afraid to be transparent, while employing a complexity of syntax and rhyme that add to, not subtract from, the poem’s intensity:

‘Be with me when they cauterize the facts.
Be with me to the bottom of the page,
Insisting on what history exacts.
Be memory, be conscience, will and rage,
And keep me cold and honest, cousin coat,
So if I lie, I’ll know you’re at my throat.’

– ‘Cousin Coat’

I’m not advocating that all poetry be protest, yet if we’re going to preserve anything we’re passionate about, or care enough about to want to set down in a poem, then surely we owe it to potential readers to be fierce, engaging, challenging and understood.

RC:
How do you think the human world reflects the natural world in poetry and can you give me some insight into how you use nature as a basis for an exploration of the self when approaching the writing of a poem?

AL:
My responses will no doubt cross over and under each other, and I can see how much of what I’ve just addressed will be relevant to this question… so let me be circuitous. There’s no point in offering a personal response to any aspect of one’s own work unless influence is summoned to put things into perspective. I can speak with confidence about the poetry of others whose work has involved and engaged with the human/natural/worlds, and I can speak with authority about how I see these things as being reflected in, and totemic of, my own work. I’ll begin with the poetry of James Dickey, since I’ve already mentioned him as an influence, and also my last blog post for Southerly was a poem-review of some of his (early) poems. Next I’ll discuss your question in terms of the poetry of Philip Hodgins.

Like many poets, James Dickey was someone who made mythologies from experience and wrote so convincingly of them that we enter his landscapes and rivers under the spell of his images and his control over the flow and shape of syntax. Whether he was in a canoe on a South Carolina river or recalling a story of killer whales tracking humans from under the ice, the raw human details are inextricably linked to the unfiltered details of the natural world in which these dramas and wild observations are played out. Dickey understood the power of narrative, and he cut his stories back to their essence. Certainly with his first three books, an intense lyricism was his defining gift: water, fish, trees, even a vast Antarctic scene – whatever aspect of the natural world he felt driven to define was done so through the eyes and pulse of a man for whom being alive was, for a long time, a hands-on, fully-lived adventure. Dickey’s images could be visceral and real, or surreal and playful, yet whatever he attended to had a vein of authenticity running through it. There was always a sense that this might have happened; that Dickey may have been there. If we sense that Dickey has invented a scene or situation, no matter how surreal the circumstances he evokes, there is almost always an accompanying sense that he had discovered something, about the natural world or himself, in the process of composition. Wallace Stevens wrote “The problem with surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play the accordion is to invent, not discover.” When Dickey invented a heaven for animals or an eagle mating to death with a wolverine at the top of a sub-Antarctic spruce… you know he’s discovering things about what it means to engage in a raw, human way with the inventiveness of the natural world. I learned early from James Dickey that when writing about the natural world it’s okay to have a wild imagination and to engage with subject-matter some might find uncomfortable or confronting, as long as human involvement, whether peripheral or central, is part of the fabric of the poem.

I first read the poems of Philip Hodgins while studying at Charles Sturt university in Wagga. Back then it was the Riverina College of Advanced Education, set among dry hills and massive river gums. I loved the Riverina landscape – the greys, browns and pale greens of the plains and Murrumbidgee River, the irrigation canals and dusty light, the extremes of temperature. Discovering Hodgins’ poetry was a pivotal moment – here was a man writing out of the urgency and pressure of a diagnosis and ongoing treatment for leukemia, and his poetry was often simultaneously an indictment and invocation of wonder at the Australian landscape and farming methods. Hodgins’ personal trauma heightened his vision, and his poems that deal with dairy cattle, pigs, termites, invasive livestock treatment, or rural landscapes often have metaphors of illness or death woven into them. Philip Hodgins was a master at using an Australian vernacular in such a way as to disguise, not conceal, his intricate half-rhymes and sonorous tones, often leaving the bell-notes of the sounds of words to ring of each other from five or six lines away, such was his intuitive control over the language at hand. Hodgins’ poems have been a constant source of inspiration. His best poems are brilliant examples of how human influence ebbs and flows within the context of the natural world.

RC:
Almost all of your work revolves around vivid landscapes, particularly ocean imagery, and the relationship between nature and humanity.

Your 2009 collection The Welfare of My Enemy was quite a change of subject for you, exploring the terrifying circumstances involving missing people. What drove you to write about this? Even reading the work is terrifying when one considers how regularly disappearances occur…

AL:
lawrenceThere were well-defined landscapes and oceans in The Welfare of my Enemy too. As Frank O’Hara couldn’t enjoy a blade of grass unless there was freeway nearby, it seems I wasn’t able to enjoy a good mystery and disappearance unless there was a desert scene, mountain range, or sea spray blowing in from somewhere, and not infrequently.

On Friday night, August 25, 1978 Stephen Lapthorne and his partner Michelle Pope vanished while driving in Stephen’s lime-green Bedford van. I knew Stephen well. They disappeared somewhere between Pymble, on Sydney’s north shore, and Berowra in the Kurringai area. They’ve never been seen. My long sequence of poems (untitled) tried to engage with the phenomenon of missing persons in ways that embraced both narrative and lyric poetry, and using mostly half-rhymed end-words. The majority of situations are fictional, though many are informed by fact, especially the details of Stephen and Michelle’s disappearance. I believe Ivan Milat is responsible. He was working on the Kurringai council at the time. My theory is that he staged a breakdown in a stolen car on the Old pacific Highway, and when Stephen and Michelle pulled over to help, he overpowered them and drove the van to where it could be buried. I also believe that the van containing their remains may be buried on a property near the Wombeyan caves road. The Missing Persons unit seem loathe to act on what they see as wild conjecture, especially after thirty six years.

The Welfare of my Enemy was a difficult book to write. The subject-matter saddened me. Writing from the perspectives of victims, family members and perpetrators of crimes took its toll, and I stopped reading and writing poetry for awhile. If it’s true that writing poetry can be hell on our mental health, I wouldn’t recommend Missing Persons as a theme for anyone. I do feel it’s an important book. It was a long time in the making, and when it came to the writing, it happened fairly quickly. The poems fell into place, the voices announced themselves, and I had a good first draft in six months.

RC:
You have consistently written in a more ‘traditional’ style, compared to what is being done by some contemporary poets in terms of form. While some experiments lose feeling and sincerely, your style lends itself to great evocation and is consistently in line with the reputation you have already built. Your collections, throughout your career, have advanced this style, using free verse to create your syntax and music within the lines.

When considering this, do you think the quality of the work is in its syntax, rather than the form in which the poem is presented to the reader? And how much do you think the visual presentation of the poem on the page affects its reading?

AL:
Many poets change their style. Some do this consciously, and the reasons for this can be complex. James Dickey made the decision to leave behind the ‘night-rhythm’ (written from the pulse, not a calibrated syllabic placement) of his first three or four books, and instead focus on a long line with gaps to represent pauses in breathing. Dickey was disingenuous in that he criticised the ‘Projective Verse’ of Charles Olson, then went on to employ in his own poetry much of what Olson was advocating. ‘Projective Verse’ involved the natural run, extension and end to the breath in a line of poetry, thus freeing the line from metrical constraints. Dickey called Olson’s theory ‘creative irresponsibility,’ yet he embraced the long, broken line, using the typewriter to great effect to shape both the line and its visual power. The appropriation of ideas is nothing new, though Dickey was not one to hide behind a device or theory and hope no-one would notice. His use of Olsen’s methodology worked. It became a part of his thinking and breathing, in the composition and editing, and the majority of his books used this long line.

The main problem with a deliberate attempt to change one’s style is the sudden shift in register, the general tone and shaping of the poems. On a surface level, this seems fine: why not cut the finely-crafted lines that connect stanzas and pack up the well-worn and second-skin twists to syntax? Anyone can make the decision to dramatically change how they write, yet by doing this, the essential deep unknowing that comes from many years of allowing association, chance and diffuse intuition free-play can be hobbled, or even cauterized.

There is no one way poems are made, yet most go through many stages. My poems generally begin with a line scribbled down with no thought as to what it might mean or where it’s likely to go. I will run with what arrives, extending the line, shaping it, teasing out its visual and aural possibilities, delighting in what emerges, word by word. I treat every line as a poem, and I’m not able to move on until I’ve taken it as far as it can go. Then I’ll start another. The process begins again. By working this way, each poem develops with a series of startling surprises and challenging problems. While I don’t over-think how a poem will look on the page, I do play with form as I go, concentrating, even in the very early stages, on where to end the line. This helps with structure and so assists with rhythm. Investigating the variousness and possibilities of syntax, a poem’s music begins to surface, and this leads to its shape. Eventually, when a poem has gone through many hand-written drafts; when the table and floor are patched with blackened pages; I’ll start to craft a poem into its final shape. The process begins again, though this time its a one made while being fully-conscious, and its done on the screen. Poems can go through fifty or sixty visual versions before I set them free. Finally, after putting constant pressure on each line, a poem will crack open and reveal its shape. My hope is for a poem that achieves the best possible balance between how it sounds, feels, and looks on the page. Given the precision and constant vigilance I bring to each new poem, I’ve never been able to step away and decide to change the way I write just for the sake of it. I don’t see the point. I’m told that my poems and books have changed anyway, over the years, in structure and tone. This might not amount to being experimental, and I’m fine with that.

A poem’s visual arrangement can be a major part of its ability to engage a reader, or it can be a distraction. Poems should never be fashioned from couplets or sestets just for the sake of it. If, after many combinations and variations, realignment of lines and how to end them, a poem demands a certain form, stay with it. It will be the right one. The poems in my new collection Signal Flare went through many drafts at the final, shaping stage – some as many as eighty versions – before I was able to cut them free. The puzzle-solving is something that both delights and distresses me. Its hard-work, especially when it comes on the back of having spent weeks trying to end a poem. But that’s what it’s all about. There is so much to consider. When I tell my Creative Writing students that putting words down on a page is just the first step in what could well be months of work before a poem is finished, they are bright-eyed, bristling with adventure, and they think I’m joking. By the end of the semester their expressions are dark. They arrive at workshops wringing their hands. They speak in careful, enjambed sentences. Their bags are heavy with drafts. They get it.

RC:
Do you find your influences have changed considerably throughout your years of writing poetry? One generally starts by reading the classics and those more well known international poets of old, moving on to contemporary Australian poetry later on. Are you influenced these days by new work you read as much as that which inspired you as a young poet?

AL:
My influences range from poets whose work I return to frequently for sustenance and inspiration, to investigating the poems of new writers. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s being published in Australia, the UK and America. The Best Australian Poems, Best American Poems, Best New Poets from the US, and Best British Poetry anthologies are always at hand. There are some wonderful new, young writers out there. The secret is to read constantly and widely. If you’re not an active, engaged reader of poetry, you’re work is unlikely to develop beyond its surface-tension. To break through, we need to embrace the past and present. A competent poet will remain within that competency if wide reading is abandoned. Recently I wrote a piece on Ambition for this blog. I mentioned poets who love the idea of being known as poets but who aren’t prepared to put the time and serious effort into craft, the nuts and bolts and false-walls needed to make poetry that stands out. Sadly, this is a common thread in poetry. There are young poets who just don’t extend their reading beyond the work of their peers. Big mistake.

RC:
Some poets actively distance their true self from their poetic self, so to speak, using characters. Your work is often extremely personal, addressing particular life experiences openly. Pieces that come to mind are ‘Whistling Fox’, ‘Home After Two Weeks Away’, ‘The Drive’ and your chapbook of love poems Magnetic Field. Do you think these pieces are written as a means of coming to terms with experiences, out of necessity, or do you think the poetic and true self should be separate? I’ve heard many poets say they believe poetry is not supposed to be therapy. Do you think there is still a place for catharsis even if the ‘work of the poem’ is the main focus?

AL:
In my course The Spellmakers – a dedicated poetry-reading course – I give a lecture on the so-called Confessional poets, where we read a number of poems by Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, WD Snodgrass, and to the list up to date, Sharon Olds. Many of these poems address intimate, often disturbing details from the poet’s life. For Sexton and Olds, especially, there seems little doubt that the poems chronicle personal events and scenes, and at their best the poems are captivating and brilliantly conceived.

With some poems I have not tried to conceal myself. The I is me, and for whatever reason I felt compelled to place myself front and center within a poem was of its place and time. I don’t regret this. The poems you’ve mentioned are, indeed, a lyrical recording of personal experience. I have tried, when addressing experience directly, to find a balance between the shock of the human presence and the best possible language with which to frame these experiences. When experience overrides the poem, it fails palpably. I also find the dramatic monologue a wonderful way to come to terms with experience. This form allows us to investigate personal issues while wearing a mask, or while standing off to one side, offering a list and commentary. It’s a powerful form but should be used sparingly. You’ve used the word ‘necessity’ and that’s exactly why these personal poems were written. They announced themselves. They needed to be written. I’m not interested, as mentioned previously in these blog postings, in poetry that works as therapy only, as catharsis. I’d rather stand in front of a mirror and play charades with myself. And while I love many of Anne Sexton’s poems, there were also a number that failed because she couldn’t harness the personal to the extent where it married the lyrical detail. The intimate or brutal details overextended themselves, and so the poems became like diary-entries in verse. In Signal Flare, many details of my life are there, yet I chose different vehicles with which to carry the details. And don’t forget the power of the lie. In this book I’m more interested in a close look at the lives of others. Aligning myself with the experience and emotions of others in a way that diminished (not removed) the raw effect of the I was my main objective here. Even when I was there, it might have been an embodiment of myself and others, or someone imagined completely. I don’t have a sense of where my next poems will lead me, but my bags are packed, my passport is current.

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Robbie Coburn

Robbie Coburn

Robbie Coburn was born in June 1994 and lives in the rural district of Woodstock, Victoria, Australia. His first full collection of poetry Rain Season (Picaro Press) was published in 2013. He is well into a second collection, The Other Flesh. A chapbook, Before Bone and Viscera, will be published by Rochford Street Press later this year. He regularly reviews books for Rochford Street Review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

another mistress’

 -(‘The Confessions of Saint Augustine’)

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

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

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

 – (‘The Great Auk Poem’)

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

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

– (‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’)

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

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

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

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

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

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

– (‘Empty Your Eyes’)

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

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

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

– Robbie Coburn

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

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

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Rochford Street Review relies on the support of its readers to continue. If you like what we are doing please consider making a donation.

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

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

I. Michael Dransfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ground Zero

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

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

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

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

Death of Salvatore Quasimodo

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

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

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

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

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

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

still life with hypodermic

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

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

ascension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dransfield

2. Vicki Viidikas

condition red

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punishments and cures

1.

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

Knotted your head into ribbons
laced with my memories?

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

3

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

We can’t punish what isn’t there

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

4

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

What can we do about funnels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vicki Viidikas. (Photographer unknown).

Vicki Viidikas. (Photographer unknown).

3. Robert Harris

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

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

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

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

Going to See The Elephant

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

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

………………………as a heart’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

sway —

…………..deaf to fascistsi blowing fire

and that madman who spoke of ‘the cream’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wallaga Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah By Kerosene Lantern

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

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

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

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

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

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

everything this generation has told me.

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

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

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

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

XXIII: In Anne Boleyn’s Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Robert Adamson

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

Michael Dransfield

Vicki Viidikas

Robert Harris

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The Simultaneous Coexistence of All Time: Stephen Edgar launches ‘Tempo’ by Sarah Day

Stephen Edgar launched Tempo by Sarah Day (Puncher & Wattmann) at the Friend in Hand Hotel on 14th October 2013.

Sarah Day signs a copy of Tempo at the launch at the Friend in Hand Hotel. (Photo Robert Adamson)

Sarah Day signs a copy of Tempo at the launch at the Friend in Hand Hotel. (Photo Robert Adamson)

“It is only our conception of time”, Kafka tells us in one of his bracing aphorisms, “that makes us call the Last Judgement by that name; in fact, it is a court in permanent session.”

This sense of the superimposition of past and future onto the present, of the simultaneous coexistence of all time, is an abiding theme in Sarah Day’s new collection, Tempo, as signalled by the epigraph from St Augustine:

“A present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things future… what then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”

And the manifold ways in which this insight can be illustrated are richly explored in poem after poem. In “Fayoum”, subtitled “Funeral Portraits of Roman Egypt”, we have the material artefacts of a long past epoch present to our sight: “these portraits painted on the coffin wood/ like missives from another age”. But beyond that, beyond the coffin wood and the pigment, we see the abiding emotions of the human in their painted features, “Hauteur, assuredness, self-interest/ emerge through worn-out caustic and gold leaf”. These could be your fellow citizens any day of the week, the “strangers that you meet/ across a bus or train and fleetingly/ in the unguarded moment see close up”. “they gaze with eyes that live”, the poem concludes, collapsing that gulf of centuries.

Material records from the past are even more poignantly conjured in the poem “In Time, Pompeii”. Yes, there are the mosaics, the colonnades, the statuary, but more arrestingly, the figures of those who died in the volcanic ash. In an image reminiscent of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, and its immutable illustration,

The cast of the young woman
is forever that—a young woman,
supine, elbows bent, weeping
into her hands.

And, of course, she is more, or, should I say, less than that, because the cast is the plaster that filled the hole in the ash where her body decayed. It is the shape of her absence that makes her present to us.

And this does not exhaust the teasing temporal perspectives of this poem. After visiting the ruins, Day walks “through time to a ploughed field/ where a man with a hoe works,/ meditative, desultory”. “he is not from my century either”, she wryly or wistfully observes, before heading to the station for the train “with its noisy freight of twentieth century/ passengers bound for Naples”. So images from the past seem alive now, and figures now living can seem part of the past.

Reading many of the poems, I was put in mind of two favourite words of mine, both beginning with p: pentimento, the revealing of a painting or part of a painting that has been covered over by a later painting—under the wash of the present moment we see these images from the past floating into view; and palimpsest, a sort of literary equivalent of pentimento, a manuscript on which two or more successive texts have been written, each one being erased to make room for the next, though leaving traces behind.

A different take on this theme is used in “The Seed Vault of Longyearbyen”, which refers to that extraordinary repository of plant seeds built deep into a cliff on the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen, where “the endless shelves of dormant DNA/ beguile the flux of time” and constitute, she says, “this mausoleum to the Afterwards”. DNA, of course, could be called the seed within the seed, that more or less eternal prescription for the transient life forms which flower from it, including us. And in “Family Tree”, what she calls “the mantra of our DNA” is recited, while reading through a list of family members from 1765 onwards. Her elderly father (I think), with eyes closed, his eyesight too poor to read the small print himself, joins the litany as “the living dead appear/ in answer to their spoken names,/ step forward one by one as if in light”.

DNA, the eternal prescription. Eternity itself is best understood not as an infinite prolongation of chronological time but rather as the stilled or unending present moment. In “The Mower” “Eternity’s the green concentric lines… The blade against the grass is present time.” And then there is the eternal present in which nonhuman life forms live, like Keats’s nightingale. In “Optics”

A column of gnats opens up the moment:
a hologram against the sky’s clear void…

Plato’s moving image of eternity—

spinning its intricate motion,
its vast, timeless, unceasing loop.

“Tempo” is of course the Italian for “time”, but in its application to music it denotes the speed at which a passage is to be played; variations in the perceived speed of time, motion and stillness, change and constancy, the permanent and the evanescent: these motifs too are at play, or at work, throughout Tempo, as instanced above in the image of the gnats. Or again in “Gulls”, where a flock of gulls seems stationary on the waters of a bay swept by a gale:

how does a host of hundreds of birds
on the bay hold its own?

Does the hill with its forest crown
and farm-housed hem cradle them in its lee

on a ribbon of calm…

Or is their stillness an illusion

of the mess of white?

This is the merest impressionistic survey of some of the thematic strands in Tempo—the “what”, we might say. There is also the “how”. As A E Housman reminds us in his lecture “The Name and Nature of Poetry”, “to transfuse emotion—not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer—is the peculiar function of poetry”. It is the transfusing of emotion that transforms these poems from observations, in both senses, to genuinely affecting and memorable art. As in, for instance, the image of that young woman in Pompeii. As in “Alzheimer Ward”, to choose another fairly straightforward example, with its evocation of the ravages of lost memory : “Their landmarks are behind them now,/ wartime weddings, youthful wives—/ trinkets of lost, forgotten lives.”

Yet even so, when a face floats, nameless
at the open door
like a hazy memory of love—
something painful like rapture moves the heart.

That slight ambiguity about whose heart is being moved is a fine touch. Or there is the deliciously spine-tingling edge to “The Mirror”, a curious incident from childhood when a group of them discovered a large mirror lying face upwards at the bottom of a brook which spooked them with its uncanny reflections “between illusion/ and substance in the vortices and currents”. Or even something as simple, as apparently trivial, as an evocation of hens pausing to drink from a bowl of water on a hot day becomes quietly moving:

For a moment nothing is so beautiful
or calm as this hiatus. Side by side
the russet and the smoky hen,
statue-still, devotional, thirst slaked;
a clear ellipse of water, egg-shell blue.

“Hens at the Water Bowl”

“A poet’s biography”, Joseph Brodsky wittily observed, “is in his vowels and sibilants, in his meters, rhymes and metaphors… With poets, the choice of words is invariably more telling than the story.” And Seamus Heaney has said: “In a poem, words, phrases, cadences and images are linked into systems of affect and signification which elude the précis maker. These under-ear activities… may well constitute the most important business which the poem is up to.”

All of which is to say that, in talking about the themes in Tempo I have no doubt failed to address directly those crucial aural and lexical and rhythmic and other elements which Brodsky and Heaney refer to, in which the true business and life of these poems reside, but I hope that from the various quotations from the text I have included you have been able to hear them at work, if only fragmentarily and fleetingly, and that they have planted in you the desire to hear more. Tempo is a wonderful book and I am delighted to declare it launched.

– Stephen Edgar

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Stephen Edgar’s latest collection, Eldershaw (2013), was published by Black Pepper Publishing. Further details can be found on his website http://stephenedgar.com.au/

Tempo is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/tempo

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Eclectic and Very Satisfying: Peter Boyle reviews ‘Mood Lightning’

Mood Lightning – an anthology edited by Ten Ch’in Ü. Imaginal Press 2004

mood

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Mood Lightning
is, I believe, a remarkable book. With just over 300 pages it offers an eclectic and very satisfying sample of poems and brief prose writings on poetry. An anthology of various poets, mostly from Australia but with New Zealand, English, Malaysian and American poets as well, it gathers an unusual collection of finely made, sensitive poems that demonstrate the sheer extent of extraordinarily beautiful and moving contemporary poetry that all too easily can be neglected and lost. Of the 87 poets and writers represented in the book only some fifteen were previously known to me at all, and I would have thought I had a reasonable knowledge of contemporary poetry, at least in Australia. Fame of any kind is clearly such a perilous guide to merit.

The anthology has been organised along roughly thematic lines with section titles that highlight the role of nature and the spiritual in poetry. Among the highly accomplished poets represented here are the Australian-based Arabic-language poets Shawki Moselmani, Wadih Sa’adeh and Anis Ghanem. They seem to form a frame through which the rest of the poetry in this book is seen, providing a tone of plain-speaking, intimate directness that is not at all sentimental or conventional but rather marked by strong individuality and a delight in the unusual moment or specific detail. The intense precision of this poetry is well illustrated by the following two poems – the first by Wadih Sa’adeh, the second by Shawki Moselmani

Life there

There she buried
her child, and waited
to lie beside him for years.
When finally
they lowered her down
into that soil,
she was only one day old
while he was already an old man.

~o~

A meal

Who is pecking my head
patiently and thoroughly:
the birds of prey
or the birds of slumber?

This standard of poetry as meditative weapon, as intimate moment of reflection captured with the utmost clarity is echoed time and again across the anthology.

Turning almost at random to one of the few names in the anthology well known to me, I have the delight of reading a beautifully understated poem by Robert Adamson, “The Greenshank”. A tribute to Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, the poem combines a wide-sweeping sense of distances traversed – Hungary, the Hebrides, Australia – with a painter’s precise eye for the “acrobatic twist” of a solitary bird above a mudflat. Likewise finely attuned to nature are the many poems here by Danny Gardner and Pat Pillai. Danny Gardner’s poems especially have an enigmatic core to them, as if speaking from a deeply held centre. One of my favourites is “Motels”:

Not quite far enough towards the dream,
not quite near enough to call home,
their beacons are suspended animation, intangibility,
a harmless enough stasis.
Yet some among us who are told we’ve made safe ground,
release their hold too soon, and fall,
there, for the camera, in Nobody’s Room,
a final smudge against the canvas,
stopping for the night,
before, we or they, are ready.

This is a very diverse anthology. If it contains gnomic poems of a markedly spiritual tendency and poems that might seem the accompanying notes for a painter intent on capturing the natural world, there are also numerous witty or sad reflections on human relationships. Bogdan Koca’s terse dramatic creation of difficult relationships in poems like “Olga” or “Maria and Henry” shows a real flair for using the rhythms and breakages of conversation to catch the failure inherent in so much yearning. In the second poem repetitions and jagged syntax create a strong sense of a failed love, as in the closing lines:

Maria with dawn
between her arms
Maria with shadows of
half broken blinds
Maria with Henry
in a looking glass
Henry and Maria
that have never been

Another especially strong poet represented here is Richard Deutch. A poem like ‘No exit’ places the speaker against nature in a dynamic immediate tension. I love the way this poem keeps moving from its initial precise insight: “Daub-painted sea, with just enough/of the start of eternity to strike fear in//my navel.” – to its conclusion: “waking’s precipice,/the closed-off side of me,//angry,/the north coast sealed.” Deutch also reveals himself as an inspired and engaging translator of poets as varied as Horace and Rilke.

As well as more traditional looking poems with line breaks there are several prose reflections and prose poems within the Anthology. One that caught my attention for its quirky humour and sheer delight in language is Ray Wittenberg’s ‘English’ but equally there are imaginative extended prose pieces by Bogdan Koca and Miranda Su Lan Harding. Perhaps one of the strongest, most compelling pieces in the entire anthology is an extended prose poem by Wadih Sa’adeh ‘Bringing back a melted person’. The bizarre opening sets up a world of its own that the rest of the prose poem explores and elaborates:

………….This lake is not water. It was a person with whom
I spoke at length then he dissolved.

………….And I am not trying now to look at water, but rather
I’m trying to recover a dissolved person. How do people become
lakes like this with tree leaves and algae tops?

………….Drop by drop, the dead descend on my door.

………….A boat stops for me under the sun.

………….And a wretched fit of trembling returns to sand . . .

The terror that emerges in the poem, the sense of a self totally at risk, is built steadily skilfully through all the twists and turns of this remarkable poem. If poems should speak of what is essential, this poem fulfils the task of poetry in a way few poems do.

Clarity, precision, an absence of poeticising or posturing seem more the conditions for entry into the anthology than any one aesthetic or creed – those qualities of writing combined with a human openness and depth. There is a marked absence of the kind of poem that might prompt you to say: “This is beautifully written and has quite striking images but I don’t know that it says much, or says much that’s interesting or new.” By and large these poems pass what is quite a difficult test – that the words justify themselves as more valid not only when compared to other words that might have been used, but more valid than silence itself (to paraphrase a saying of Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo).

As an Australian poet and one who has been involved in creating several anthologies, I especially admire the independent spirit with which Mood Lightning is put together. There is a beautiful sense of placement, of poems echoing off poems and an absence of any concern with names or reputations. The work of poets whose original language was Arabic or French or Spanish or Chinese offset the range of Australian voices from Les Wicks and Danny Gardner to Sue Hicks, Phyllis Perlstone, Brook Emery and many more. The anthology seems to suggest a new way to see present day Australian poetry from a truly multi-cultural perspective – but more than that, from a refreshingly un-academic, spiritual perspective. I appreciated the fact that almost everything and everyone in the anthology was new to me. It is a humbling reminder of how much extraordinary poetry there is in Australia and elsewhere that all too easily gets neglected. Ten Ch’in Ü deserves all credit for compiling an anthology that is a delight to read at the same time as charting a very different map of poetic possibilities for the early 21st century.

 – Peter Boyle

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For information on ordering Mood Lightning please email luminousword@gmail.com

Peter Boyle is a Sydney-based poet and translator of Spanish and French poetry. He has published six collections of poetry, most recently Towns in the Great Desert (2013) with Puncher and Wattmann. Among other awards, he received the Queensland Premier’s Prize for poetry in 2010 for his book Apocrypha and in 2013 was awarded the NSW Premier’s Award for Literary Translation. His translations from Spanish, Anima by José Kozer and The Trees: selected poems by Eugenio Montejo, were published in the UK.

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Cornelis Vleeskens: towards a retrospective – Mark Roberts

This is an edited version of a article which will appear in the special Cornelis Vleeskens issue of P76 which will be curated by Pete Spence http://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/p76-literary-magazine/
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Trivial Pursuits, PressPress 2012. 
Broken Glass & Driftwood, originally published in Riverrun Vol 1.No 3 1977. Republished Earthdance/Donnithorne Street Press 2012,
Hong Kong Suicide and Other Poems, Gargoyle Poets – Makar Press 1976

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Trivial PI first read Trivial Pursuit in April 2012 and felt like I had rediscovered a friend. I had meet Cornelis Vleeskens a couple of time in the mid eighties – around the time of Fling poetry. He was one the poets whose work I had read in various magazines and admired and I remembered being very impressed by Full Moon over Lumpini Park. Then suddenly it seemed he disappeared from the poetry scene, the work in magazines all but dried up and there didn’t seem to be any new publications. This was, in fact, not the case. Vleeskens hadn’t stopped writing and creating. He was still working, but at a very personal level. He was writing some very fine poetry and circulating it among a select group of friends and colleagues. At the same time he had expanded the scope of his work and was actively involved in producing mail art and a body of very impressive Visual Poetry.

Then about the time I read Trivial Pursuits in 2012 I heard that Vleeskens was very ill and that the prognosis was not good. I had intended to write on the new book immediately after finishing it, instead I hunted out his other work, his earlier books, his visual poetry – whatever I could find. Perhaps I felt it was important to put this late work into some kind of context, perhaps I just wanted to catch up on some of what I had lost. While it was not unexpected, Vleeskens’ death on 11 May 2012 did came as something of a shock.

For me Trivial Pursuit became a way back into Vleeskens’ work and a way of trying to piece some of the fragments of the last 20 years together. It is a single poem, made up of many parts, running through a 32 page chapbook. The first thing that stands out about Trivial Pursuit is that it is funny. It is a long time since I found myself laughing out loud with a poem (as opposed to laughing out loud at a poem!) but I did find myself giggling on the bus while reading this book. Not all of the jokes, however, are one liners. In a long sequence half way through the poem we read:

I misunderstand the cold!
I struggle to misunderstand warmth!
I often misunderstand 11.30 in Glen Innes
I misunderstand my misspent youth
I misunderstand youth!
and hiphop and bodypiecring and tattoos
except on sailors in sleazy bars down the docks
I misunderstand D.O.C.S
I’m pretty sure I misunderstand angels!
I misunderstand the strawnecked ibis
I misunderstand breaking the bank at Monte Carlo
but I’m not sure I’d misunderstand a windfall!
I misunderstand why bats turn left at the exit
I misunderstand “no right hand turn”
I never misunderstand ORANGES! But
I sometimes misunderstand my kelpie
I think I misunderstand Rob Kars’s smirk
I definitely misunderstand this poem!
………………………………………….(p16)

While this section is quite humours in itself with the repetition of “I misunderstand” setting up a rhythm which is only associationally broken, the real word play lies in how this section relates to lines in other parts of the poem. For example the reference to the time “11.30 in Glen Innes” contues a pattern in the first part of the poem where Vleeskens places sections of the poem by referring to the time: “it is 12.20 in Glenn Innes and a Friday” (p3), “it is 1.35 on a new day/and I’m walking on the sunny side/of the street:” (p6), “it’s 12.40 in Glenn Innes/(lunchtime) I need a break….(p11), “it’s 10.50 in Glenn Innes/and there’s a knock at the door! (p15).

The actual reference which caused me to disturb the serenity of the morning bus commute, however, came a few pages later:

the gang’s all hair and another
strenuous hike takes us to the edge:
did the Brisbane River break
the bank at Monte Carlo?

……………………………(p24)

Suddenly the earlier link with the bank at Monte Carlo is made, is this the misunderstanding, or is it the earlier meaning? I was too busy giggling to worry.

These word plays run through the poem. One of the most obvious and successful begins on page 4 when Vleeskens links orange the colour to orange the fruit and orange the national colour of Holland (his birth country):

………..I think it’s kosher
to eat an ORANGE while
listening to a Dutch composer!
On page 10 he expands the word play to include place
and ask myself did the defeat
of the Boers create an ORANGE-free state?

Then there is the reference to misunderstanding ORANGES in the section already quoted from page 16, a line on page 18 “how many slabs for an ORANGE hangover”, then place is referenced again on page 22 when he asks: “do they grow oranges in Orange?” And given the number of mentions of Orange in this poem one can’t help but think of Frank O’Hara.

Running through this of course is the reference to Vleeskens’ Dutch background. He listens to Dutch composers, discusses Dutch artists and pulls in a Dutch reference when you least expect it:

well blame it on my eyesight
or Ashbery or the schizochroal eye!
Which works like a series
of aplanatic corrective lenses
(as if designed by Huygens in
the 17th century Netherlands)

………………………………………(P8)

While the poem appears at first reading to be loosely structured, the word play and the interconnectivity of the text suggests that there might be more than first meets the eye. The poem actually layers image on image, carefully building so that the mundane act of walking down the street becomes a discussion on poetry and poets, on art and artists, on food, about place and history – among many other things.

While Pursuit highlights the skills of the later poet it is interesting to turn to his earliest work which appeared in Hong Kong Suicide and Other Poems (Makar Press 1976) and Broken Glass & Driftwood (Reprinted Earthdance/Donnithorne Street Press 2012 – originally published in Riverrun Vol 1.No 3 1977).

There is a gentle lyricism to a number of poems in these two collections, indeed ‘Poem for Celia’ in Hong Kong Suicide, recalls Dransfiled’s ‘Pas de deux for lovers’:

the quiet of the dawn;
lost in the fishermen’s lights
trawling harbour waters;
seabreaze blowing mosquitoes;
& stars through the open
window. we lay side by side
i, dreaming clouds of smoke;
you dozing in your quiet
music; skin gently played by
the knowledge of goodbye.

While Hong Kong Suicide was Vleeskens’ first published book (part of the original Gargole Poets series which featured poets such as Alan Wearne, Antigone Kefala, Rae Desmond Jones, Kris Hemensley, John Tranter, Jennifer Rankin and many others), the work in Broken Glass & Driftwood belongs to roughly the same period and, I some ways, introduces some of the elements which we find in Trivial Pursuit.

The title poem ‘Broken Glass & Driftwood’, for example, is a poem about making poetry. The physical world becomes a metaphor for the writing process:

1.

words pass like seconds & minutes
of days spent. they’re like a taunt
line in harbour tides, not always

a catch: mullet nibbling the torn
edges of poems: broken glass &
driftwood. (for robert adamson) lies

of years blowing in the trees. the
blues of nothing caught off jetties &
the rocks. my line lies on the bottom

2.

driftwood memories have been laid
out in the sun to dry. i’ll need
them to fry my catch. maybe I can

forget the broken glass. it’s drawn
enough blood already. washed up on
beaches & islands & harbour shores &

always leaving pieces behind when a new
tide pulls me out again. I wonder if
there’s enough left to build a poem.

Interesting the reference to Robert Adamson provides an immediate echo of this poem in Trivial Pursuits through the lines:

throw in a line Bob the mullet
are running:

…………………………………….(p. 10)

Broken glassOnce again there is a unforced lyricism to this poem, at times almost haiku like. The link between words and time “the seconds & minutes/ of days spent” moves easily into the image of fishing (and during the mid to late 1970’s references to fishing could not but help to suggest Robert Adamson who was riding high at the time as editor of New Poetry and the writer of poems such as ‘The Mullet Run’. Interestingly there is a line in ‘Mullert Run II which refers to the river “turning orange with mud”)). In the second stanza there is the unexpected use of the word ‘poem’ “mullet nibbling the torn/edges of poems”. For anyone who was every taken fishing as a kid, the expectation was that the mullet would be nibbling the torn edges of prawns (I remember the feeling of the line tugging gently and reeling it in only to find the prawn still on the hook but torn all around by small fish mouths too small to take the hook). The poem becomes something more at this point, the image in the first line “words pass like the seconds & minutes” is recalled and extended and becomes much more ambitious.

Interestingly the next direct reference to poetry does not occur until the final line but the imagery runs right through the poem. The fishing line that lies on the bottom, the “driftwood memories…..laid out in the sun to dry” suggest the struggle to find the words, to create the poem. But in the final instance the easy link between writing a poem and catching a fish is denied. It is not the mullet waiting to be hooked or the memories of driftwood – “of years of blowing in the trees,” that represent the poem. Instead in is the broken glass, which at first is to be discarded “maybe I can/forget the broken glass. it’s drawn/ enough blood already”, which becomes the core of the search of the poem. Blood has been drawn, but obviously there must be more, as after each tide fragments of glass are washed up on the shore. “i wonder if/there’s enough left to build a poem’.

So while at first reading ‘Broken Glass & Driftwood’ appears to be a relative simple poem relying on some strong imagery to draw the reader in, on closer reading it is actually much more complex. The creative process is linked to ebb and flow of tides, and of time which turns fallen trees into driftwood and wears broken glass down into fragments of colour washed up on the shore and, in the end, the poem itself comes from an unexpected source.

In most of these early poems the actual act of writing is nearly always central to the poem. In the second poem in Broken Glass & Driftwood, ‘Between Sleep & White Uniforms’ there are, once again, moments of almost intense lyrical beauty:

(waking again: chalkdust
blown over the harbour
like unwritten poems

the chalkdust echoes the fragments of broken glass – though this time they are blowing over the water rather than being washed up on the shore. They are being blown over the harbour, fragments of unknown/unwritten poems. Later, however, the poem does materialise

waking again: new chalk
& typewriter poems for
dusty lovers

‘Between Sleep & White Uniforms’ is a longer poem running over a number of pages, each section is a different waking, a different attempt at a poem or a relationship with a lover or probably both. There is a transience to both the poems and the relationship here as chalk poems can disappear in a flash

…………..chalkwritten words wiped for

falling short. i came to these pages for

explanations ……………..there are none

This transience is emphasised in a later, unnamed, poem in the book:

a rewrite of old poems scribbled on the
outgoing tide while we were digging for

olive shells.

The poems in Hong Kong Suicide, while still retaining their lyricism, have a sightly harder edge to them. The title even hinting a something a little darker than driftwood and broken glass. The title poem is subtitled ’10 preludes’ – is this a wink at T S Eliot or Wordworth or Katherine Mansfield? Probably not, though it is an interesting train of thought. I suspect Vleeskens was bypassing the other ‘famous’ literary preludes and going straight to it’s musical roots. Each of these ten pieces can stand alone as a poem, but they also work as a sequence with everything working up to a final flip of the corn.

The imagery here is grittier, more crowded and a little more desperate. The images are that of a crowded city with people piled up on each other:

the more people in the room/the less room.
four chinamen bent over mahjong; the back
room sending sweet smoke signals and the
occasional laugh; Sesame Street sounds
strange in chinese, the kids don’t seem to
notice it;

………………………………………………prelude 1

and

suzie quatro
carpenters
don mclean
& chinese opera
blaring forth
scratchily
from cheap speakers;

………………………………………………prelude 2

The list in prelude 2 recalls a poem in Broken Glass & Driftwood ‘ – Another Chalk Poem – which simply refers to a shopping list written out in chalk. But here the list is part of a slightly larger whole. Prelude 2 is a simple capture of an image, almost like an extended haiku, but it is a dynamic opening image, the clashing of sounds and cultures which lead into the final lines:

……..……………..Shangai Street
haggling over the price of a bowl of won ton mi

And we are led into the other Preludes and we are reminded that Vleeskens’ Hong Kong is the British Hong Kong before the handover. There is the feel of a ‘frontier town’ of border guards and searches and spying. There is also a playfulness here in Prelude 3 we are told:

not after the shock of seeing
the police superintendent up on illegal earnings charges
the night after
i slept with
his daughter.

and then in Prelude 5.

sketches like this don’t work without
some sex-appeal, another girl friend perhaps?

give her the same name/……. i lie every time

…………………………………………..i use it

give her a guitarcase/ …………the lies come easy

…………………………………………..once you admit to them.

So as we piece the preludes together, the narrator/poet’s voice is undermined by the poem itself. In Prelude 9 there is a description of an early morning dash across Hong Kong by two lovers in search of breakfast. But we sense the narrative starting to unwind:

i live in Jordan Road, Kowloon
with an empty refrigerator/she
stays with her uncle (foreign
office or something). he doesn’t
like me, even my poems have
become third person, singular

first person, plural:
we alight from the peak-tram,
have a champagne breakfast &
soil borrowed white sheets (the
maid’s on our side, she’ll wash
them for a bribe, Hong Kong’s
like that…..

first person, plural:
we are an inveterate liar.

so what/who to trust the ‘I’, the poet, has declared himself a liar, but the poem is still there – jumping from the first to the third person and back again. But what of the suicide? The tension builds through the Preludes – after all the sequence is called ‘Hong Kong Suicide’ so there should be a suicide somewhere, unless the poet is indeed an “inveterate liar”.

So, like a good thriller it all comes down to the final scene, or the final prelude in Vleeskens case:

he stands exhausted penniless.
(the poem has turned impersonal
but refuses to reach a conclusion.
he’s tried to swallow his pride
hoping to choke on it
but the little he has left
went down without complications.
(throw in his three year old son
if you really want complications.
they stand on the roof of the
newly completed Connaught Centre,
overlooking the Star Ferry.
he flips his last coin…….

There is something almost filmic about this last prelude, the image of the lone person standing on the edge of a tall building making deciding what to do. Once again the poem has changed to the third person, something that Vleeskens announces bluntly in the second line. Like a story teller developing his plot as he goes Vleeskens intrudes once again by adding in the man’s three year old son – so that he “he stands” of the 1st line changes to the “they stand” of the 10th line.

The ending of this last Prelude leaves us hanging, literally. The coin has been flipped but we don’t see it land. Does he jump? Does he take his son with him? Or does he turn around, take he elevator down to the ground floor and disappear into the crowd to return to his room to start writing the poem? The sequence is called Hong Kong Suicide, so he must have jumped, but we already know that he is “an inveterate liar”.

Like a piece of good music ‘Hong Kong Suicide’ improves with multiple readings. While at first it appears like a sequence of good but loosely connected poems, it soon becomes clear that there is an underlying structure to the sequence which propels it forward, like a post modern film noir, to leave the reader dangling on the precipice. But Vleeskens’ structure is not an easy one, as he says in another poem:

there’s more form crept in
than i intended to allow:

……………….– The Motorcar as Poem in Two Parts

hong kongIt is a jumpy structure which may run for two or three lines and then suddenly change. An unexpected line break, a dropped line or a section that is indented and/or cut up adds to the jagged feel of the sequence. One senses that Vleeskens was struggling to keep the poem out of control as much as the character in the poem was trying to keep in control.

There was allot of poetry between Hong Kong Suicide and Other Poems, Broken Glass & Driftwood and Trivial Pursuit – in most cases at least 36 years worth of poetry. Some of that poetry can be accessed in collections such as Full Moon over Lumpini Park (Fling Poetry 1982), The Day The River (UQP 1984), Treefrog Dreaming Fling Poetry 1990 and many others (a non exclusive bibliography is included at the end of this paper). While some of these works can be traced through libraries, many others were published in very limited print runs and are almost impossible to locate. There is a definite need for a major poetry publisher to bring out a collection of Vleeskens’ work.

In the end I have come back to Trivial Pursuit and a piece that seems to bring together a number of the themes running through Hong Kong Suicide and Other Poems and Broken Glass & Driftwood:

OH! cast down your eyes
on these scraps of paper:
they’re blowing on a brisk Westerly
like hamburger wrappers
they’re covered in scribbled notes
indecipherable like a foreign language
or poetry! you recognise a score
and orchestrate the notes
it’s symphonic! it’s mindblowing!
it’s a rip-off!! (AND you’re tonedeaf)
what happened to the I?
is he the first person asleep?
all this time I’ve achieved so little!
it’s 12.40 in Glenn Innes
(lunchtime!) I need a break…..

…………………………………………….(Page 11.)

There is the echo here of the chalk dust poems blowing across the harbour and the slipping between the first and third person. In the end I am left thinking about the title of this last chapbook, Trivial Pursuit. Throughout his work the act of writing and reading poetry was central to his thinking. For Vleeskens the act of walking down down the street was poetic and chalk dust or waste paper a potential poem. For him the trivial acts of life, checking he mail box, catching a tram in Hong Kong or writing out a shopping list was the stuff of poetry. As he says on the final page of Trivial Pursuit:

(it’s all smoke and mirrors!)

-Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is currently undertaking Post Graduate studies at the University of Sydney and currently edits Rochford Street Review and P76 Magazine (http://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/p76-literary-magazine/).

Other books by Cornelis Vleeskens that are still available include:

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Cornelis Vleeskens – picture from the back cover of Hong Kong Suicide and Other Poems 1976.

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Rochford Street Review relies on the support of its readers to continue. If you like what we are doing please consider making a donation.

The Ultimate Commitment: Michael Dransfield on the 40th Anniversary of His Death

Dransfield PriestTomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Michael Dransfield who died on 20th April 1973. Last year Rochford Street Review published a series of articles and reprints of reviews on Dransfield as we felt that the approaching 40th anniversary of his death deserved acknowledgement – perhaps a new edition of some of his books for example. I did suggest to UQP that a facsimile edition of Street of the Long Voyage would be very popular…but alas today it appears that all of his work remains out of print.

So to commemorate this date I am republishing a review I wrote of the Rodney Hall edited Collected Poems which first appeared in Southerly in 1988.

The Rochford Street review Dransfield feature can be found here: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/04/20/michael-dransfield-table-of-contents/

Robert Adamson is organising a memorial reading/seminar to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Michael’s death – for further details please check the Michael Dransfield Appreciation Group on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/groups/6075328475/ – or keep checking back here as Rochford Street Review will be publishing details as soon as they are available.

– Mark Roberts

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Michael Dransfield Collected Poems Edited by Rodney Hall. University of Queensland Press 1987. Reviewed by Mark Roberts. First published in Southerly Volume 48. No 4. 1988. Collected on the Printed Shadows Website December 2011

When Michael Dransfield died on Good Friday, 1973 at the age of 24 he had already published three collections of poetry and established a reputation as one of the most successful and popular of the new wave of young Australian poets who had emerged in the late 1960s. Since his death a further four collections have appeared, culminating in the Collected Poems (UQP 1987). When one considers Dransfield’s rapid rise to prominence, together with the attention focused on his lifestyle and the tragedy of his early death, it was almost inevitable that, to some extent, his life would come to overshadow his poetry. In fact, in the fifteen years since his death, the ‘Dransfield myth’, together with the decline in fashionably of the romanticism at the heart of much of his poetic imagery, has meant that his reputation as a poet has been attacked by a number of critics. In such a context, the publication in one volume of all of Dransfield’s published work, provides us with the opportunity to review his overall achievement and, hopefully, to reach a more realistic assessment of his work.

One cannot begin to examine Dransfield’s career, however, without noting the important role Rodney Hall has played over the last twenty years in bringing Dransfield’s work to the poetry reading public. It was Hall, then poetry editor of The Australian, who first ‘discovered’ Dransfield’ in 1967. It was Hall who passed Dransfield’s work onto Tom Shapcott who was then putting together an anthology of contemporary Australian poetry for Sun Books which would eventually become Australian Poetry Now. Shapcott and Hall also helped Dransfield prepare his first two published collections, Streets of the Long Voyage (UQP 1970) and Inspector of Tides (UQP, 1972). While Hall encouraged Dransfield during his life, Dransfield’s death revealed the extent of Hall’s devotion to the younger poet. Hall took on the task of collecting all of Dransfield’s unpublished poems and prepared a selection for publication. The result were the two posthumous collections, Voyage into Solitude (UQP 1978) and The Second Month of Spring (UQP, 1980).

Hall has organised the Collected Poems so that the volumes in which the poems first appeared are mostly kept intact. As a result the poems appear in rough chronological order beginning with Streets of the Long Voyage (containing poems written between 1964 and 1969), The Inspector of Tides (1968 to 1971), Drug Poems (1967 to 1971), Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal (poems from mid 1971), Voyage into Solitude (a posthumous collection of unpublished poems from 1967 to 1971) and The Second Month of Spring (poems from 1972). Not all these volumes, however, have been left intact. In the introduction Hall argues that where a poem has been published in more than one collection, he has chosen to leave it in the ‘large book’. As Hall believes that Drug Poems was an anthology of “pieces addressing a particular subject”, a number of poems that had previously appeared in Streets of the Long Voyage and Inspector of Tides, and others that would later appear in Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, have been left out of the Drug Poems section in the Collect Poems. While Hall’s argument for this exclusion is, of course, perfectly reasonable, it means that the overall effect of the Drug Poems section in the Collected Poems is reduced.

Reading through the poems from streets of the Long Voyage and The Inspector of Tides I was once again struck by the balance Dransfield is able to find between the apparent simplicity of his individual images and the overall complexity of his most successful poems. This can be clearly seen in one of his best known poems, ‘Pas de deux for lovers’, which begins

Morning ought not
to be complex
The sun is a seed
cast at dawn into the long
furrow of history

A seed is, of course, a simple object. But it contains the potential to be something far more complex. So Dransfield’s morning sun becomes a planted seed and, as it sprouts, the day suddenly becomes far more complicated until we reach the final line:

…………Day
is so deep already with involvement

This overall richness of imagery, achieved by selective use of language and a careful juxtaposition of individual images, is one of Dransfield’s great strength in these first two books. One can recall numerous poems where he achieves it – ‘Chris’, “Surreptitious as Desdemona’, ‘Linear B’, ‘Death of Salvatore Quasimodo’, ‘Bum’s Rush’, ‘Ground Zero’, ‘Geography’, ‘Loft’ and ‘Inspector of Tides’ among others. While Dransfield, of course, was not the only one of his contemporaries to achieve this, the ease with which he achieved it again and again in these first two books, both of which were published before he was 22, is an indication of just how early he matured as a poet.

Dransfield was a self-declared romantic and the richness and delicacy of his imagery was an important part of his romanticism. The poems in his first two books are filled with what might be called clichéd romantic symbols – magic carpets, crystal wine glasses, Greek mythology, Vincent van Gough, ruined mansions , fallen aristocrats, candles and dukes. But Dransfield’s romanticism was not confined to his poetry. He increasingly attempted to live the romantic image of the ‘suffering’ artist cut off from mainstream society because of his/her sensitivity. This can, perhaps, be best seen in his drug poetry. Streets of the Long Voyage, The Inspector of Tides and Drug Poems contain some very powerful and moving drug poetry. ‘Bum’s Rush’, for example, is one of Dransfield’s best poems. But as his addiction deepened, drug related imagery began to dominate his poetry more and more.

In his earlier poetry drugs became a vehicle for his romanticism:

Becalmed now
on Coleridge’s painted sea in Rimbaud’s
drunken boat. High like de Quincey or Vasco
I set a course
or the Pillars of Hercules, meaning to sail
over the edge of the world

‘Overdose’

Even death, if it was surrounded by drug imagery, took its place in Dransfield’s iconography of romanticism:

last week, I think on Tuesday,
she died
just gave up breathing
toppled over
a big smashed doll
with the needle still in her arm
I made a funeral of leaves
and sang the Book of Questions
to her face as white as hailstones
to her eyes as closed as heaven

‘For Ann so still and dreamy’

Dransfield, in fact, clothed the life of the poet and the junkie in the same romantic imagery;

Once you have become a drug addict
you never want to be anything else

‘Fix’

to be a poet in Australia
is the ultimate commitment

‘Like this for years’

The inference here is clear, poets and junkies are really two sides of the same coin. This sense of the suffering individual artist/drug user, while clearly growing out of the milieu of the late 1960’s, has come, in time, to represent the less successful aspects of Dransfield’s romanticism.

On the acknowledgement page of the original Sun Books edition of Drug Poems, Dransfield states that a number of the poems “will appear in Memories of a Velvet Urinal to be published in the USA in 1972.” This was an overly optimistic note. According to Hall, Geoffrey Dutton had promised to take the manuscript with him to the US but, as it turned out, it was not accepted for publication. Memories of a Velvet Urinal was, in fact, to remain in a number of different manuscript forms until Maximus Books in a Adelaide published a version in 1975.

Shortly before his death, Dransfield gave Hall one of the manuscripts of Memories of a Velvet Urinal which Hall then sent to a British publisher. As this was clearly a later version of the manuscript than the one eventually published by Maximus Books, Hall has used it in the Collected Poems. The differences between the two versions are quite important. Dransfield had actually discarded a number of poems which appeared in the Maximus edition – “madness systems parts one, two, three, four and the last”, “Making it legal 1 &2”, “Flametree” and “To the great presidents” appear only as appendices to the Collected Poems. The situation is complicated by the appearance in the Collected Poems of another poem with the title “To the great presidents”. In the Maximus edition this poem appeared under the title

were no
mar
no more war

Hall argues, and the evidence would appear to support him, that this actually represents a separate concrete poem and not a title. At this point I would have appreciated a further note of explanation from Hall concerning the transfer of the title “To the great presidents” from one poem to another.

The Collected Poems version also rearranges the order of the poems so that the book is now divided into four sections. This is, in fact, the most important change as it brings Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal into line with both Streets of the Long Voyage and The Inspector of Tides, both of which were divided into sections. The Maximus edition has the feeling of almost being thrown together. It begins with ‘Epitaph with two quotations’, a poem which is physically difficult to read and one of the weaker poems in the book. The Collected Poems version, on the other hand, opens with the title poem, ‘Memoirs of a velvet urinal’, a striking poem about a homosexual encounter. Dransfield, by regrouping the collection, and rejecting a number of poems, has tightened the book considerably. Whereas it was quite easy to believe after reading the Maximus edition that all the poems had been written in the four-month period between May and August 1971 (which, in fact they had), the Collected Poems version has a much more crafted and professional feel to it.

There is also a tendency in Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal for Dransfield to move away from the heady romanticism of his earlier work. In a poem like ‘Play something Spanish’, lines like:

planes of light. yes. they were effective. yes. you
are lost in them, their obvious coast
led you away to a place you cannot identify. spain?
never. play something metaphysical…..

suggest that contemporary American poetry was beginning to have a greater influence on his work. Unfortunately, there are also poem, such as ‘Poem started in a bus’, which depends upon a heavily clichéd, moralist ending:

…..Its easy
to forget violence while violence
forgets you

It’s difficult to escape the feeling that Dransfield could still have done more to the manuscript of Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal. The evidence suggests that, in the face of a number of publishers’ rejections, this editorial process was well underway at the time of his death. If he had lived, Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, in time, may have been shaped into a volume which surpassed the achievement of his first two books.

Voyage into Solitude is the first of two collections of unpublished work which Rodney Hall edited after Dransfield’s death. In this first collection Hall assembled his selection from the period 1967 to 1971. In effect this represents the material that Dransfield, and those who helped him, rejected when editing material for those books he did publish during his life.

Overall it is probably fair to say that Voyage into Solitude is a tribute to the editorial process which went into the first four books. There are only a few poems in this collection which I would have been prepared to argue for. These would include ‘Sonnet’, ‘The sun but not our children’ and the wonderfully descriptive ‘Pioneer Lane’. For the most part, however, it is easy to see why these poems were left out. Many seem incomplete, an image doesn’t work properly or, as is more common, is too clichéd to be effective. Though it was obviously important for Hall to collect and publish these “rejected” poems, in the context of the Collected Poems, Voyage into Solitude remains a book primarily for the Dransfield scholar or enthusiast.

While Dransfield seemed to be developing, almost organically, away from the lush romanticism of his earlier work in Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, the poems in Hall’s second posthumous collection, The Second Month of Spring (UQP 1980), marks a dramatic change in both style and content. All the poems in this collection were written during the last year of Dransfield’s life. In April 1972 Dransfiield, while riding his motorcycle, was run off the road south of Sydney by an off-duty policeman. Besides some serious injuries to his head and leg, the pethadine he was given in hospital undid months of effort put into overcoming his addiction. As might be expected, the accident figures prominently in these last poems:

used to get through
three five six
books a day
now can’t read
much more than
one short poem
or an article
blame it on
medication
happens to all who happen here
it was the same
in darlo
months ago
since my last
accident
april
in fact
i write
cannot revise
they also serve

‘October elegy for Litt’

Dransfield stopped referring to his work as poems during this final period, preferring to call them raves. In effect the work in The Second Month of Spring can be likened to the final explosion of light a star gives off as it starts to collapse in upon itself. These last poems are, in fact, intensely personal, almost to the point of being a diary in verse.

As far as style goes they are poems cut back to the bare essentials:

even an
ugly joint
will get you high
as afghan
hills

‘imports’

Word plays often become an end in themselves, and even his earlier work is not safe:

look ahead
straits of the long
voyeur

‘cadlike’

While this is not great poetry, it is difficult not to be moved by the extremes of emotion – anger, hope, resignation – and, at times, the intense physical pain, which these poems highlight.

Rodney Hall, in his introduction to Voyage into Solitude, made the point that Dransfield is one of the few Australian poets to ever have “a genuine popular following….among people who do not otherwise read poetry”. The sheer size and scope of the Collected Poems, I believe, illustrates why Dransfield was able to build up this following.

Dransfield may have felt that being a poet in Australia was “the ultimate committment”, but there is no doubt that the late 60s were an exciting time to be a young poet in Australia. While most of his contemporaries saw themselves as “modern” poets, breaking the hold of the conservatives on Australian poetry, Dransfield was reading the romantics as well as contemporary American and European poetry. Though critics may disapprove of Dransfield’s romanticism, there is little doubt that, during the late 60s, it tapped a feeling among young people and, as a result, can be said to lie behind much of Dransfield’s initial popularity.

Perhaps, in the final instance, Dransfield’s greatest strength can be seen in the development we can trace in the Collected Poems from the early, richly romantic poems, through to the more hard-edged poems of Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal. Sadly, his tragic death in 1973 cut short this development. We should be grateful to Rodney Hall for editing this collection because, if nothing else, it has helped focus attention back towards the poems and away from the “Dransfield myth” which has come to dominate his reputation since his death.

-Mark Roberts (1988)

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and is working on a collection of poetry.

A quick search of the UQP website suggests that there are no Dransfield books currently available (even the John Kinsella Selected Poems is “currently unavailable for purchase”).

The best place to read Dransfield’s poetry would be the Sydney University based Poetry Library who have 398 of his poems on-line http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/dransfield-michael

Tongues of Flame: Mark Roberts Previews the 2012 Queensland Poetry Festival

One should perhaps suggest to Campbell Newman that he keeps well clear of the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts between 24th and the 26th August – though I would image the prospect of Mr Newman, or any of his cabinet, venturing anywhere near a Contemporary Arts Centre named after a poet would be remote under any circumstance. I somehow suspect that Premier Newman is not the sort of person that appreciates poetry or poets and that he would feel very uncomfortable surrounded by some of Queensland’s and Australia’s best poets at the 16th Annual Queensland Poetry Festival.

The 2012 festival kicks off on 24 August with the Official Opening at 6pm followed by “the opening night event”, Tongues of Flame featuring ‘national treasure’ Robert Adamson (NSW), African-American jazz poet L.E. Scott (NZ), ‘brilliant interdisciplinarian’ a.rawlings (Canada) and singer-songwriter Holly Throsby (NSW).

The Festival includes two paid workshops: ‘The Art of Reading a Poem’ with Robert Adamson on 24 August and ‘The Poetry of Politics’ with L.E. Scott on 25 August. Other poets appearing at various events over the three days of the festival include Kathryn Lomer, Ray Liversidge, Nathan Curnow, Paul Summers, Jean Kent, Marty Smith, David Stavanger, Steve Smart, L.E. Scott, Michelle Dicinoski, Carmen Leigh Keates, Philip Hammial, Brenda Saunders, Charmaine Papertalk-Green, Misbah Khokhar, Cameron Hindrum, Geoff Lemon, Jill Jones, Nicola Easthope, Robert Adamson and angela rawlings among others.

There are also a number of awards being announced during the festival, including the 2012 Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award for Unpublished Poetry which this year is being judged by Robert Adamson, Sue Abbey and Kent MacCarter, and the 2012 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for an unpublished manuscript with 2012 judges Thomas Shapcott, Felicity Plunkett, Justin Clemens.

Interestingly for a poetry festival there is also a ‘film festival/challenge’ with the Queensland Poetry Festival Filmmakers Challenge exploring “the arena where poetic expression and audio-visual technology collide”. Filmmakers, video artists, poets, and all multimedia practitioners were asked to create a short work which could include a record of poetry performance, a video text manipulation or their own interpretation of the challenge. The winner, along with a selection of shortlisted entries, will be screened at the festival.

In addition to the Brisbane program the festival for the first time while be going bush….or at least to Bundaberg, Gladstone, and Rockhampton to host workshops, readings, and performances as part of the inaugural QPF Regional Roadshow.

Of particular interest this year is a collaboration the Festival and Cordite Poetry Review which has seen the on-line publication of ‘Gibberbird: Of Birds and Other Strings’.(Special Issue 39.1). Gibberbird consists of a ‘source’ poem, written by Canadian poet (and 2012 Arts Queensland Poet in Residence) angela rawlings, together with ten poems responding to the source poem by a number of Queensland poets. As the title suggests the project is centred around birds and, as Cordite suggests in their introduction, the source poem represents “a foreigner’s first tenuous steps into Queensland’s ornithological lexicon via unorthodox categorization and linguistic sorting methods’. While Rochford Street Review will attempt a more in-depth review of this intriguing poetic collaboration in the new future, an initial reading suggests that this is a work that will repay multiple careful readings.

All in all the 2012 Queensland Poetry Festival promises to be an exciting few days for anyone who finds themselves north of the Treed River between the 24 and 26 August. Above everything else the Festival takes occurs at a critical time for artists and poets in Queensland after the new LNP Government declared their hand earlier this year by scrapping the Premier’s Literary Awards and then cutting a swath through government funding of arts organizations. Lets hoped that the QPF have their funding locked in for the next few years!

– Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.

Queensland Poetry Festival http://www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com/

‘Gibberbird: Of Birds and Other Strings’ http://cordite.org.au/content/poetry/gibberbird/