“unearthed, precious and intimate”- Emma Cooper reviews ‘Thea Astley: Selected Poems’

Thea Astley: Selected Poems edited by Cheryl Taylor (UQP 2017).

Thea Astley UQPThis collection illustrates Thea Astley’s rarely acknowledged passion for poetry. The way verse contributed to her development as an Australian literary icon is often overlooked, let alone documented so insightfully. Editor, Cheryl Taylor, has compiled Selected Poems in so that Astley’s writing seems unearthed, precious and intimate. The poems are arranged in chronological order, along with careful biographical notes, documenting Astley’s growth from schoolgirl to celebrated and cerebral author. By tracing her making through her poems, the collection shows the formative writing processes that led to her renowned style. The book is an unfurling of Astley’s progress, in both writing and living.

Thea Astley is best known for her fiction. She published seventeen novels, received the Miles Franklin Award four times, more times than any other author in her lifetime, and wrote until her death in 2004. In 1989, she won the Patrick White Award for her contributions to Australian literature and her novels have received numerous accolades. Works such as The Well-Dressed Explorer (1962), The Slow Natives (1965), It’s Always Raining in Mango (1987), The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996), and Drylands (1999) are testament to Astley’s artistry. Unsurprisingly, her propensity for lush imagery and the precision of her syntax is well suited to poetry. Across the two modes, there is a persistence of themes and style: an affinity for water and the Queensland landscapes of her youth; a dexterity and opulence in her language; and a humour and ferocity in her social commentary.

Selected Poems were collated from Thea Astley’s archive in the Fryer Library, University of Queensland, which contains over two hundred poems, mostly from two lined schoolbooks. About twenty-five pieces were published during her lifetime. Most, however, were produced very early in her writing career. As expected in a chronological collection, the best work appears later in Selected Poems and most of these have never been published. The section Adulthood includes pieces from Exercise Book B in the archive. It appears Astley originally gathered these poems for a collection, but abandoned the project. These pieces, and Astley’s use of first-person narration within them, are the most revealing and eloquent in Selected Poems.

The first half of the collection contains the poems Astley produced in her childhood, adolescence, and student years at All Hallows Convent in Brisbane and her time at University of Queensland, until the age of 20. The initial poems, mostly from Exercise Book A, seem as if penned between the margins of textbooks: they are youthful, sentimental and full of zeal. It’s easy to imagine a teenage Astley, in wartime Brisbane, in the pages: her fondness for landscape and dreaming; her spirited accounts of first love. Phrases such as ‘shadows hurled/ With windy cloaks like swelling waves’ and ‘chained to a tottering world’ in ‘Poem [1]’ foreshadow the themes, style and sound patterning which feature in her later fiction. When Astley, interviewed in 1990, referred to writing ‘poetry in adolescence’ as though it were an affliction, she was likely recalling these poems. She referred to them as ‘a form of acne – I think I’m having a poem’. Although this hardly applies to Astley’s work – which, even so early in her writing career, is ripe with careful sensory detail and demonstrates her growing fascination with language and lyrical conventions – it is interesting to keep her dismissal of her early poetry in mind. There is a strong self-awareness in her adolescent poems. In ‘Creation’, she wrote of ‘loneliness’ and her impatience to experience the world, stating it ‘must be part of my making’. Her cry, ‘But O God! The pain in the making’ is satirical and self-deprecating; yet, as the ambition in her poems reveals, she was inspired and energised in her creative development. During her university years, this determination grew and she experimented with traditional forms and meter. Her work, which involves allusions to classic poetry and translations of French lyric poets, shows her honing her skills through emulation.

The poems in the second half of Selected Poems are sharper, wittier and, in their preoccupation with nature, stronger and more specific. From Exercise Book B, these poems were created between 1945 and 1957: a time of significant transition in Astley’s life. Her courtship and the early years of her marriage to husband, Jack Gregson; the resulting estrangement from her parents; moving to various parts of Australia; and her work as a high-school teacher: inklings of these biographical traits leak into her poetry. Astley’s poems move through remembered spaces and map the landscapes and seascapes of her youth. She wrote sonnets to Queensland islands in ‘Magnetic’ and ‘Whitsundays’; described ‘rhyming beaches’ and ‘the blue sea… sucking the shore’s white rind’ in her poem ‘Dunes’. However, when the scenery leaves her cold, such as that in ‘Hunters Hill [1]’, she is just as poetic:

When you see this flattened landscape
Creeping like a tired crustacean
Over a sea-bed; when you see
Tired claws of suburbs scrabbling
At the greenness; pray for us now.

As in her fiction, Astley’s poetry often describes the drudgery of suburbia and small towns. In ‘Hunters Hill [1]’, she writes of returning to a mythical Queensland, stating ‘my feet, time-tortured, crave / Familiar floors.’ The ambivalent feelings she conveys towards her surrounds – changes of residence, travel, nostalgia, her relationship with her husband – recur like the ‘rain’s incessant drumming’ in her poem ‘A Warning’. Rain and movement in bodies of water are enduring themes throughout the Adulthood section of Selected Poems; their descriptions are among the most memorable and moving of Taylor’s selection.

The majority of Thea Astley’s poetic output is included in this collection, offering a rare and very personal view into her life and creative process – more personal, perhaps, for the moments of imperfection in some poems. Watching Astley refine the skills and imagery she accomplished in her fiction is where the real pleasure in reading Selected Poems lies. While the collection may be unremarkable for readers indifferent or unfamiliar with her fiction, Astley’s innovative contributions to Australian literature and the full scope of her creative work deserve to be acknowledged and Cheryl Taylor does this elegantly.

-Emma Cooper

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Emma Cooper is a writer living in Sydney. She is working on a novel called The Horizontal Woman and studying a Master of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney. Emma is originally from Cairns, Australia.

Thea Astley: Selected Poems (2017) is available from UQP

 

“The writer-narrator takes the reader by the hand”: Carmel Bird reviews ‘Napoleon’s Roads’ by David Brooks

Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks (UQP, 2016).

napoleons_roads_david_brooksThirty years ago, I read a most wonderful collection of short fiction. I think I reviewed it. It was The Book of Sei by David Brooks. Since then, I have read most of David’s books. Reading Napoleon’s Roads was a bit like finding that, The Book of Sei had a glorious new compartment, to which I now had access.

On the last page of Napoleon’s Roads, the narrator says, that critics say the ‘writer’s’ books are “beautifully written, even haunting”, but that there is always some indefinable thing missing, an unspoken absence around which everything turns’. Note the ‘but’ in that sentence. It signifies that idea that those critics, are in some way, disappointed by, or afraid of, the ‘thing missing’. The stories of David Brooks can be read as turning on the mysterious thing, and many readers, myself included, celebrate the way the fiction is constructed around that thing. It’s death of course, un-named.

In the second, last story of the collection, ‘A Traveller’s Tale’, a narrator speaks directly to readers on the subject of how stories work. The tone is deliciously direct and instructive, and the story could be productively studied in fiction-writing courses. ‘I want you to think about that,’ says the narrator. The readers and the quiet voice are up close, as the narrator leads on to the moment when everyone must step out ‘into the wide world, the difficult terrain’ of the story which is ‘horrid, distressing, almost untellable’. Death, you see?

‘Is that what we came here for, to wander about in the shadowy streets of ourselves?’ These shadowy streets are the Dantesque internal and external pathways through which the fiction moves, the roads built by Napoleon’s men, the dreamscapes of the imagination, the ways to enter or to leave ‘the city’.

The first piece in the collection is one paragraph called, ‘Paths to Writing’. It signals the nature of what is to follow, invoking in poetic prose the hope that words can carry, and sometimes reveal, the deep information of the human heart. ‘A Traveller’s Tale’ contains a magnificent short discussion of the word ‘heart’. The heart is one of the ‘most durable organs of the body’ but the word is so often metaphoric; the centre of love, the heart that ‘in the human mind’ is ‘heart-shaped’. The narrator explains that, when the word is being used in the tale, the word ‘heart’ is an amalgam of the organ and the metaphor. So information, messages, move across the collection, holding the reader’s hand for the journey, sometimes letting go.

Threaded throughout is a signposting image of birds, those manifestations of the soul, harbingers of doom, messengers of hope. As I read, there seemed to be a lot of doves, but in fact when I counted, I found there were only four, plus one that was ‘almost dove’. That one stopped me in my tracks.

‘Lost Pages’ concerns a writer whose work constantly fragments and disappears. Here the storyteller has an idea of writing something ‘about The Language of Birds’, the medieval language of the troubadours. He doesn’t of course, but other characters in other stories see and hear birds, all kinds of birds. ‘Swan’ is a particularly elegant tale of longing, ending with the image of a man’s rumpled bed where in the morning, a ‘bird-like shape has formed itself’ among the sheets.

One of the most delicious (if I may, borrow the word from the restaurant review) stories is ‘Ten Short Pieces’. These tiny jewels flash across the reader’s mind like exquisite samplings of what might be said, or meant, or stated, or missed in the longer stories. The narrator-writer thinks of himself as ‘a man at a table in a workshop’, making a shoe, mending a watch, saying ‘over and over, what lines he has in the hope that one of these lines will run on, will spill over into something he has not yet imagined’. Now this is a description of how a writer works. Again, this little piece, consisting of only two sentences, is perfect for offering to students of writing. Not to mention, the pleasure of coming to the end of the long, second sentence, only to learn that the tools the writer finds in his cupboard might be ‘a piece of sheepsong or the end of a shower of rain, an owl.’ Note the last comma. Brilliant.

The word ‘sheepsong’ took me back to David’s 1990 collection titled, Sheep and the Diva – opening a doorway backwards into the apartment building of the work. Somehow, it does seem sometimes to be a vast building, or perhaps a city, through which the writer-narrator takes the reader by the hand. Dante again, I suppose. Sometimes, there is a burst through, into bright freedom ‘breaking through a veil of green words’, and sometimes (six times, actually) there is a dark image of a panther in a cage, pacing.

The story, ‘Napoleon’s Roads, begins with the panther, and the final story, ‘The Panther’, ends with the writer-narrator standing before a painting of a panther. Here, the collection ends:

‘I can see him there, in the shadows.
He does not look at me.’

I want to conclude by referring to the story, ‘Grief’, which is one, along with, ‘The Dead’, that is concerned, perhaps most openly, with mortality. This story ends with the effect of a man saying the Rosary at a funeral: ‘the fright and confusion become dignity, music moving through us in a kind of praise, making us instruments, wind, clay vessels, a kind of brooding bird, almost dove.’

-Carmel Bird

Purchase Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks
Read a sample of Napoleon’s Roads
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Carmel Bird is the winner of the 2016 Patrick White Literary Award. Her most recent books are the novel, Family Skeleton (2016) and the short story collection, My Hearts Are Your Hearts (2015).

Specialling the Special: Stevi-Lee Alver reviews ‘The Special’ by David Stavanger

The Special by David Stavanger. University of Queensland Press, 2014. 

Screenshot 2014-11-06 14.55.20Within the health system the word “specialling” implies that, for various reasons, a patient is provided with one-to-one care. The Special is concerned with the practice of specialling that takes place when people, at risk of harming themselves, are placed under continuous supervision. This occurs generally in prisons and psychiatric hospitals and is colloquially known as suicide watch.

The Special, initially propelled by urgency and speed, becomes obfuscated by unperturbed acceptance. The sentiments fuelling this collection are, if not obfuscated than at least, restrained by a seemingly transparent nihilism described by Stavanger as, ‘the loss of agency, the Seroquel / mandala, the thoughts that walk.’

This nihilistic tone meanders the entire collection, which is comprised of a prologue, Axis I to Axis V, and an Appendix. Drawing on professional and personal experiences, Stavanger’s poetry playfully embodies desolation, allowing voices and subject matter to emerge from the tensions within disparities, and forming concepts of self and being that don’t coincide with what is stable, unified, or permanent. The first example of this is in the prologue, which offers various definitions for the word special:

Latin specialis individual, particular

adjective English
of peculiar or restricted kind. being other than usual

adjective Old French
sweetheart; special person or thing, c.1300

noun
a featured attraction of dish, at a reduced price

urban adjective
euphemism for having a behavioural or mental disability

mental health terminology Australia
‘to special’ is to observe a suicidal or psychotic mental
health in-patient overnight with limited support or sleep

Free of absolutes, The Special continuously examines and challenges accepted notions of sanity, disturbing and shifting binary oppositions such as sane/insane and doctor/patient, and exposing the nuisances and incongruities existing within the mental health net. As if playing tour guide, Stavanger’s poetry takes us from the courtyards of psychiatric wards to the front doors and neighbourhoods of people living with mental health issues; from the i-dotting and t-crossing of paperwork to the debilitating side-effects of psychoactive medications; from the utterances of doctors to the inhumane history of psychiatric treatment; from therapy sessions and online dating to the dissevering of familial ties. This book, rather than sinking under the weight of such heavy topics, is kept afloat with precision injections of humour.

RSVP

You

Seeking a relationship with a              Psychotherapist

My current relationship status           Hyper-vigilant

My height                                           ….Reduced
My body type                                     …Venus flytrap
Do you have children                        ..One previous episode

My personality                                 I like it when you smile,
…..                                                        .  I love it when you don’t

My Hair
My eyes
                                             ….A colour that doesn’t run

My desires                                          ..Citrus fruit but not in a
…………………………………………………weird way

Religion                                               .Marked obsessive traits

Pets                                                     ..Mild panic attacks

Zodiac sign                                          Cipramil

Here the contemporary imagery of online dating is eclipsed by the dissidence within the RSVP profile. Throughout the book the absurdity of personality questionnaires, surveys, and box-ticking diagnostics develop a running commentary.

11. To be human is to
a) wear the right name tag
b) shower daily
c) give what you can’t give
d) fold back into the white

However, the power exerted by such surveys in assessing sanity, categorising, diagnosing, and changing lives soon extinguishes momentary humour. The first of nine staccato prose poems, ‘out of danger’, uses a curious combination of random phrases, performing what is known as “word salad”—a symptom of certain neurological disorders. This poem, embodying the possible severance between intended communication and actual communication, illustrates the absurdity of current assessment practices.

thinking. using a microwave. drinking. not drinking. voices
from the pillow. not talking to yourself. talking to yourself.
talking to taxi drivers. parenting. going to a lecture. enjoying
it. declaring yourself a legend. believing it. sensing you have
an erection when you don’t have a penis.

Stavanger explicitly refers again to this phenomenon during the second prose poem, ‘nobody whistles in the dark’, in the sentence: ‘in the ward no new words are welcomed, you can talk like a salad but you can’t ask for water.’ The discomfort produced by this sentence brings the reader’s attention—once again—to the undeniable power play resulting from discourse disjuncture: if one talks ‘like a salad’ and ‘can’t ask for water’ what chance do they have of appropriately answering the questions of generic assessments.

However, there are instances when attempts to denounce the system, destigmatise mental illness, give the disenfranchised voice, and expand audience awareness feels slightly dogged and laboured.

the Psychiatrist can sign you away
the Psychiatrist can give you a script
or several pills depending on diagnosis

Occasionally, Stavanger’s use of repetition feels rhythmically counterproductive and forced. However, his poetry is accessible and his point is clear.

the Psychiatrist can give you a title
the Psychiatrist can give you a new name
so that when you start barking on the train
you can introduce yourself on your own terms

 

An eclectic collection, Stavanger’s poetry vividly portrays the reality of dreary confinement, lack of rights, and height of vulnerability that people suffering mental illness can be subjected to. Ultimately a denial of absolutes, the voices of The Special—at odds with the subject matter—form tight bonds through loose associations, create a multitude of tension within language, and encourage multiplicity in interpretation.

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Based in Bangalow, Stevi-Lee Alver currently studies at Southern Cross University and nurses at the North Coast Cancer Institute. Her poetry and fiction have recently appeared in Writing to the Edge, Jabberwocky, and Northerly, and will be forthcoming in Coastlines 5, Homegrown Ghosts, and Questions.

The Special is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/Book.aspx/1305/The%20Special

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Traversing identity and surrealism: Libby Hart reviews ‘Free Logic’ by Rachael Briggs

Free Logic by Rachael Briggs, University of Queensland Press, 2013.

free logicIn a recent radio interview English novelist, Zadie Smith, argued that book prizes are now “everything” to up-and-coming writers. A prize is ‘not some kind of cherry on the top,’ Smith explained, ‘it’s essential to getting noticed, to getting readers.’ Rachael Briggs can attest to this as several doors have opened for her—in the way of commissioned writing, teaching and judging opportunities—since she won the 2012 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for Free Logic, which was originally titled Cryptids of the Interior in manuscript form.

Thirty-one year old Briggs, who is US born but divides her time between Brisbane and Canberra where she is philosophy research fellow at both Griffith University and the Australian National University, also won the Val Vallis Award for Unpublished Poetry in 2011 for her suite of seven sonnets, ‘Tough Luck’, that form the third section of Free Logic. Only one poem (‘Singularity’) is acknowledged as being published in a journal prior to the publication of Free Logic. This seems quite remarkable on two levels: Free Logic is a 118-page collection and collections by other poets would require a succession of published works before any publishing house would consider reading their manuscript. I guess this is the beauty of having manuscript competitions because it fosters opportunity and egalitarianism.

According to the University of Queensland Press media release for Free Logic, ‘the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize is recognised as the leading award for discovering the best new Australian poetry talent’. It is also a publication prize for first poetry collections.

The first collection is a fragile creature and Free Logic brings up a really interesting quandary for this reader. When compiling a manuscript do you include everything—or mostly everything—you have ever written thus far? Or do you only include those pieces that you believe will last and will provide a touchstone for your overall voice and preoccupations? Do you kill your darlings? Or do you nurture them? It is a very personal decision to make and only the poet concerned can make it.

What is evident though in Free Logic is that these pieces have been written over a length of time that includes adolescence and fledgling adulthood; as such this collection has the feel of a much younger writer than someone in their thirties. Throughout the collection Briggs has an incredibly angry voice that unfortunately echoes angst-ridden confessional and semi-confessional teenage poetry.

In every sense Free Logic is about navigation and finding a way through the world we live and love in. A sizeable landscape of identity and body politick (same sex and third gender), love and loss, surrealism and popular culture, as well as philosophy is charted throughout its pages. The collection is made up of nine sections that total 76 poems overall. Briggs treats these nine sections as individual suites and this brings a thoughtful touch to the collection that is admirable.

Free Logic begins with, ‘Twelve Love Stories’, that venture through one year of linked and seasonal narratives about love. Section two, ‘Solve for X and Y’, acts as a suite of micro stories that are both futuristic and surrealist. Here Briggs discusses private burdens often held within the body. This is best illustrated through the poem, ‘Minnow’:

Simone, always terrified of fish,
caught a pink minnow
in the deadfall of her stomach.

… To fling it out to sea,
said the doctor,
would require either a completed parental notification form or a judicial
…………bypass, in addition to an ultrasound and two counselling sessions
…………with a clinically-trained psychologist …

She leaves the doctor’s surgery with the fish still inside of her, punching ‘… it in the stomach, / but each morning, it failed to appear belly-up in the toilet bowl’. By the poem’s end the reader begins to understand the reasons for Simone’s misfortune:

When it reached the size of a largemouth bass,
the minnow swam for land,
slicing Simone
with its fin, thin as the one
Simone has drawn through her mother.

Fish as subject matter appear elsewhere in Free Logic, making up one section or suite of poems, ‘Toothfish’, about the tale of a pet fish that reads a little like Finding Nemo and Godzilla with a (Tim) Burtonesque twist. Like the poem, ‘Minnow’, (above) not all is what it seems.

What is clear is that Briggs is a storyteller. A lot of the work is best suited to and written for performance poetry in mind. However it is the same sex love poems and gender poems that bring out the authenticity of Briggs’ voice. In the award-winning suite, ‘Tough Luck’, she explains: ‘I twist / the bandages around my chest—too tight— / can’t breathe—unwrap and start again // … I check the mirror. Half a man looks back’ (from ‘King for an Evening’).

Similarly in the poem, ‘Confessional’ from the ‘This Poem Is Not About You’ suite, Briggs explains: ‘Forget Rachael. I’d rather be Rae, or Ray: / a brass flourish that could announce anybody.’ Elsewhere within the ‘Tough Love’ suite Briggs discusses wearing a dress to a wedding and how it makes her feel like she is in drag (‘Thanks for Inviting Me’); and in a memory of herself as a young girl written in the third person she describes how, ‘she cracks her / knuckles, acting butch, but then, / she’s crying in the bathroom yet again’ (from ‘My Feet are Three Sizes Too Small’).

Free Logic ends with the poem, ‘Third Gender Roles’. The last three lines of the book encapsulate what is most pressing for Briggs and what are her major preoccupations: identity and exploration for what is most authentic to Briggs as an individual and as a poet:

Let’s do it. Let’s be anything
…………except the boy and (God forbid)
…………………..the girl.

Overall, Free Logic does feel for this reader like two collections in one; as such it leaves the impression of being a little too corpulent. For a more intimate and rewarding read the work could have been separated into love and loss poems as one volume and fabulist pieces as another. But Zadie Smith is right, book prizes are “everything” now, and Rachael Briggs is sure to gain a lot of attention and readership through the publication of Free Logic.

– Libby Hart

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Free Logic is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1262/Free%20Logic

Libby Hart is the author of two books of poetry: Fresh News from the Arctic, which won the Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Prize; and This Floating World, which was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Awards and The Age Book of the Year Awards, and longlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. This Floating World was also devised for stage and received the Shelton Lea Award. Her third collection, Wild, is forthcoming in 2014.

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