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research fellow at both Griffith University and the Australian National University, also won the Val Vallis Award for Unpublished Poetry in 2011 for her suite of seven sonnets, ‘Tough Luck’, that form the third section of Free Logic.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

———————————————————————————————————

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.

.

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

Writing Elevated to the Label of Literature: Lyndon Walker reviews Late Night Shopping by Rhyll McMaster

Late Night Shopping by Rhyll McMaster. Brandl & Schlesinger. Poetry 2012.

I come to this book with all the worst qualifications of a reviewer – full of prejudices towards the book, both negative and positive – most of which I would like to put on the table up front.

At first glance  I am in love with the past, of the good days of poetry resurgence in this country. This book is the size and shape of the little UQP books that truly established their place in my heart with numerous volumes of contemporary poetry from modern Australian poets, often young, always original, always worth reading. It is a promise I want the book to keep.

Robert Gray and Michael Dransfield were two of the first authors I bought in the UQP series from the seventies and I loved their work and the books still inhabit a proud place on my bookshelf of favourite poetry. But those ghosts haunt the current publication.  Robert Gray is co-editor of the recent Titanic Anthology of poetry (Australian Poetry Since 1788) along with Geoffrey Lehman, who is scheduled to launch Late Night Shopping, along with a reading by Robert Gray, on the evening of Tuesday 10th April at Sappho’s Cafe and Wine Bar, 51 Glebe Point Road, Glebe, (Sydney) NSW 2037. 7.00pm (I break with a strong Melbournian tradition to here provide clear and accurate information to enable your attendance at the launch). Michael Dransfield is one of a number of excellent poets omitted from the recent massive volume. Another volume from the UQP onslaught was Brineshrimp from a young Rhyll McMaster in 1972, the same year I left Townsville for the big city of Sydney, and I still remember the astringent taste of that poetry; something new to say and a new way of saying it (and they were my criteria for excellence in poetry those days).

Exactly forty years later those criteria have broadened but the hunger remains the same. I am going to claim that this book is mostly about death. Death envisioned, foreseen, experienced as an involved and close participant and as a sometimes detached and ruminant philosopher. In this quest McMaster is up against some formidable forebears   in the likes of Eliot, Roethke, Dylan Thomas, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Ted Hughes and Christopher James, but when I read her poetry these are not the practitioners of the craft that quickly come to mind. More immediate to me is the brilliant and original Canadian poet Anne Carson.  Both poets have minds as quick and incisive as a scalpel but at times as light and elusive as dancing leaves on an autumn breeze. Both have the capacity to move quickly from the lyric exactitude of original description to the esoteric realms of the determined, urbane and educated philosopher.

The book begins with a single poem where we join the poet as a voyeur at the laying out (if not the autopsy) of the body of a woman soon after her death:

Her platelets desiccated and curled like dropped contact lenses.

This much that was invisible I knew like a fairy tale

.

But where was her mere self…..

And

When we tried to slip in her dentures they didn’t fit.

.

On edge, we laughed.

There was no disrespect – she wasn’t there.

The formality of death is due to emptiness.

.

When molecules cease their high humming

Dark space appears.

It radiates in waves and disperses in continuous air.

.

So, this episode of CSI as poetry, begins the book’s exploration of the space between being and not being, explored in variant ways in the following three sections. The first of these: Philosophy in A Ghosting Universe, explores memories of a dead and dying father and the ramifications for the mortality of the poet herself and for her relationships and loving attachments seen within this context. They are ramifications dealt with with subtlety, insight and intelligence.

She begins this section with a “Photograph”, presumably of the author as a young girl taken by the dead / dying father and follows with other poems that move through “His Ordered World” where:

Death invades the space

Of a serious human error, where terror lives,

.

And moves through the absolute particulars of that father’s world in that desperate attempt that humans make, to make sense of the existential journey, from being to nothingness, balancing sharply drawn particulars with abstract philosophical summary.

Halfway through this section there is a break, just a blank page, no titling, but the subject of the poems now oft times includes a lover, the games that lovers sometimes play and the futility of love in the face of death, which is a recent visitor in the mind of the poet.

The breeze blowing through the house

Strangely circulates.

It means to turn things inside out.

‘Flight on the Wind’

.

I like ‘Red Socks’ and no – no bits – it’s just a little poem – go on, buy the book and read it. ‘Well Met by Moonlight‘ is a “Sliding Doors” poem looking at what might have been if the lovers had met earlier. ‘Love Poem No.9’. invokes a pop song from a time when both I and the poet were young. ‘Darwin Fulminates on Hybridism’ again describes a world informed by the poets scholarly knowledge or reading, as does ‘Re-arrangement in the Emporium‘. We are given here (and on the poet’s website : http://www.rhyllmcmaster.com/ )  little biographical linkage to this knowledge beyond she has been a nurse and a farmer.

‘Arrogant Animals‘ dances on the edge of the promise that postmodernism offered but mostly failed to deliver –not here – here it succeeds because it is warmed by humanism or at least loving and playful observation.

‘Amazing Grace’ is a tiny poem:

There’s no dispute

Our brains are a maze

Of raw electrical connections

In a base of critical soup.

.

The question remains

Why don’t we

More often

Get electrocuted?

.

Well, for those of us with a working knowledge of neurochemistry, the definite answer, through faith or science, is the little insulating miracle of the myelin sheath. What’s disturbing is the world of chaos unleashed when this little biological insulator is attacked or eroded (as in Alzheimer’s or Dementia). This theme is carried on in the title poem of the section: ‘Philosophy in a Ghosting Universe’:

Not clever enough

That flash of intuition

An electrical storm in a teacup.

.

There is a marvellous poem on the toestubbing mysteries of gender: ‘Boys Own Annual‘, which my students would do well to read:

Boys know girls are the enemy

Because girls keep calling in the debt.

Girls block the light that’s shining

Straight down on Boys Own Mighty Heaven

That glazed place where time’s ephemeral, yet set.

The section ends with ‘Comfort Station’, which makes a clever essentialism of the further mysteries of life and death and nature and the vehicle of our journey through them:

In the comfort of my body, glistening

In this shelter, my exemplary shed artefact

I disintegrate intact.

The final two sections of the book are poetic reflections on visual art, both painting and photography. The first; ‘Evolutionary History of Edward Kelly in Primary Colours is a commissioned piece (by the Nolan Gallery) which has previously been published as a limited edition with colour reproductions of the paintings.

Again my positive prejudices are brought into play. Whenever I travel to Canberra (about once a year) I make a point of going to the National Gallery and viewing the Nolan Kelly paintings there on display. They are somehow quintessentially Australian and the powerful images in their rough and ready presentation, the primary colours, the violence depicted, the conflicts portrayed, the corruption of power : all hold my gaze and intellectual engagement throughout the process. For a poet to do justice to all this is no mean task. The successful and sparse evocation of these paintings is so complete in McMaster’s hands that they stand up strongly in their own light. Something which if read well to a blind person (who had experienced a world of colour before darkness) would give them the momentary gift of sight.

The stiff constable holds a white

Note for his rescue.

Chrome yellow death.

.

Round his retraced head,

Red poppies, yellow daisies

Blue-white babies breath.

‘Mesozoic Territory – Policeman in Wombat Hole, 1946’

Nolan may well be our Van Gogh but there is no soft romanticism here, in the paintings or the poems. Both are stark indictments of harsh behaviour in a harsh and unforgiving land, committed in the defiant face of cliché.

Five Acts of Faith are small, deep poems that explore the attempted capture through the medium of photography, by Terry Milligan, in his portraits of subjects involved in very different ways of pursuit or contemplation of the spiritual.

Liberation Theology

.

This a sanctuary

Let no evil seep

Under these doors

No river of blood

Run like the shallows

Across the glassy floor

Save me from myself

Save me from mankind.

These are spare and complete poems reflecting the intent and attempt of walking various pathways to spirituality and, I think, invoking Ray Carver’s book and poem Many Paths to the Waterfall. I am not sure they entirely work . They do invoke the paths nominated but they are so small in scope which attempts to encompass such large ideas and concepts that they all seem so esoteric as to be simply impressionistic sketches towards the whole. The exception of course is the poem called ‘Zen‘, which, since it entered our cultural lexicon in the sixties, is now almost a joke or a reference to the work of Earn Malley. Perhaps you need the photographic images as a guide but a fairly concerted effort via Google failed to materialise the specific images. They exist but do they add to what we already know or how we know it? I think the earlier section Philosophy in a Ghosting Universe succeeds far more in existential contemplation within the context of life, as we here in Australia, know it, but then it is also balancing science and humanism as opposed to particular structured forms and practices.

The title poem of the book; ‘Late Night Shopping’ begins the final grouping of eleven poems that complete the book. It’s clever in its attempt to personify words of emotional or behavioural description as competitive or accidental late night shoppers in a supermarket: Malice, Obsession, Hate, Revenge, Doubt, Panic, Anxiety and  Fear all appear and play their part in this mildly amusing toying scenario. I must admit I would have like to have been with Rhyll on the little trip that gave her the idea for this poem and the poems existence does give the reader this opportunity. The final poems revisit the books central concerns and keen observations in different locations: Glebe, Broome, Traffic in George Street. In ‘In the Inner West’ the imageric word film is almost too rich to be believable. In a few short lines we have:

.…pedestrian crossing with speed hump

 .

Recently installed by Muslim council workers

Late of Lebanon

They speak Arabic and it sounds like chocolate

 .

In the enclave of Chippendale

Where Indonesian Australian

Babies named Chloe

 .

Sleep beneath the rain laden ominous….

But it is a challenge. Do we recognise our own community and what it has become? Here is globalisation made manifest in our suburban lives. Here is a vision of hell for the shock-jocks and xenophobic cringers fearing change. Here we have found ourselves living in the future with Rhyll McMaster as our tour guide. It is almost enough to make me quit singing for the first night in three years to fly up to Sydney to simply hear her read this poem aloud.

All in all it is a brave book. It occupies territory often reserved for the male in our little post colonial literary colony. But it is written by that most dangerous thing in the Australian literary world: A smart woman. This book does not suffer fools gladly but it is kind enough to actually take prisoners. It performs that task of writing elevated to the label of literature: it helps us recognise ourselves in the place and circumstance in which we live. It also thinks in answer to those questions we have all wondered. It risks the answer in heightened, well crafted, visionary language. Thank you for it Rhyll McMaster. Bless you and all who sail with you.

—————————————————————————————

Lyndon Walker Is a Psychologist, Psychotherapist, Educator, Writer and Poet living in Melbourne. He has five published books of poetry and was awarded the Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry in 1996. He is currently working on two novels.

Poetry Conferences each side of the Tasman: Short Takes on Long Poems and The Political Imagination

Over the next few weeks there are two poetry conferences you shouldn’t miss…unless like me you are in Sydney and the conferences are being held at the University of Auckland and the Melbourne campus of Deakin University.

First to Auckland…next week, on the 29th and 30th March I will be missing Short Takes on Long Poems: A Trans Tasman Symposium at the University of Auckland hosted by the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc). This  is the sixth symposium nzepc has organised (the others being Auckland 2004, Christchurch 2005, Bluff 2006, Auckland 2010 and Sydney 2010).

According to the conference organisers Short Takes on Long Poems will focus on “short long poems and long short poems; in epic and seriality; in the book-length or site-specific poem”. They continue:  “we like the challenge of folding the universe into a matchbox. We like matchboxes made of dark matter. We want to be surprised, diverted and delighted by what we can bring to points of exchange, and we want to bring those points – before, during, and/or after our symposium – into digital renditions”.

Some of the highlights, from an Australian perspective include John Tranter talking about his poem ‘The Anaglyph,’ collected in Starlight: 150 Poems (UQP 2010). Also on the program is Pam Brown who will presenting Kevin Davies’ long poem ‘Duckwalking a Perimeter’, the penultimate section of his book  The Golden Age of Paraphernalia,  Philip Mead on John Kinsella’s 400-page Divine Comedy: journeys through a regional geography, Hazel Smith on ‘The Film of Sound’ – the contemporary long poem exists not only on the page,” but has also evolved off the page through performance, intermedia work and new media writing”,  Sam Moginie and Andy Carruthers on Jas H. Duke’s Destiny Wood and Australian Experimentalism, Toby Fitch reading from his work ‘Rawshock’ a long poem in 10 parts, Martin Harrison on the question of endings, Jill Jones  on the intersection of the long poem  with “other art practices, other modalities”, Ann Vickery on on a series of collaborative longish poems written and performed by Australian poets Pam Brown, Carol Christie, Jane McKemmish and Amanda Stewart,  Ella O’Keefe on John Anderson’s book-length poem the forest set out like the night and Jessica Wilkinson on her long poetic-biography of early cinema actress Marion Davies,  And this is before we start looking at the New Zealand and other international presenters.

Even before I will be able to start to get over my disappointment at missing Short Takes on Long Poems, I’m going to have to confront even more disappointment when I  wont be able to make the trip to Melbourne for  The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries  at Deakin University (Deakin Prime in Melbourne) on 12th and 13th of April 2012.

According to the organisers ‘The Political Imagination’ will bring “together some of Australia’s leading poets and poetry scholars to investigate the state of contemporary postcolonial and diasporic poetries. It aims to explore the contentious, at times controversial, issues surrounding the production and discussion of poetry and poetics in work that engages with the politics of the postcolonial, the transnational and the diasporic. Among the topics addressed by symposium participants will be opposition, identity, subversion and hybridity”.

One of the potential highlights, as we approach the 39th anniversary of Michael Dransfield’s death later in April, is Michael Farrell’s presentation on ‘‘a needle spelling XANADU’: Reading Michael Dransfield’s ‘Courland Penders’ through the Neobaroque’. To quote from the abstract to this paper:

The neobaroque, also known as the colonial or counter-baroque is posed, in Latin American literature, as a counter-conquest mode. In this paper I attempt to reframe what has been seen as Dransfield’s romantic myth of Courland Penders as a neobaroque space: one that extends, critiques and parodies the colonial. As Alejo Carpentier writes in the Latin American context, ‘Let us not fear the Baroque, our art, born from trees, timber, altarpieces, and altars, from decadent carvings and calligraphic portraits, and even from late neoclassicisms’. Is this art foreign to Australia, or does it exist in imaginary inventions (or ‘folds’) like Courland Penders?

Two more quotes are relevant: Cuban critic Severo Sarduy writes that ‘Baroque space is superabundant and wasteful. In contrast to language that is communicative, economic, austere, and reduced to function as a vehicle for information, Baroque language delights in surplus, in excess, and in the partial loss of its object’; Irlemar Chiampi describes the neobaroque as ‘the aesthetic of countermodernity’. The former rejects the economic model of settlement; the latter affirms the former’s style. The specific poems I consider in seeking to read Dransfield as a producer of Australian baroque are ‘Portrait of the artist as an old man’, ‘Courland Penders: going home’, ‘Tapestry at Courland Penders’, and ‘Birthday ballad, Courland Penders’, all from Dransfield’s first book, Streets of the Long Voyage.

The other presentations look just as interesting:

  • Adam Aitken  “(un)becoming hybridity in my poetry”
  • Ali Alizadeh on “Metapolitics vs. identity politics: (re-)radicalising the postcolonial”,
  • Michelle Cahill on “The Poetics of Subalternity”
  • Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawers on “A migrant poet and the fine art of escapism”
  • Bridie McCarthy on” Border Protection: Neo-Colonialism and the Canon”
  • Lyn McCredden on “Poetry and the Nation”
  • Peter Minter on ‘Toward a Decolonised Australian Poetry’
  • Lucy Van on “‘Why Waste Lines on Achille?’: Tracing the Critical Discourse on Postcolonial Poetry
  • Ann Vickery on “Postcolonial Lovetypes: On Doing and Not Doing Her Kind in the Poetry of Juliana Spahr and Astrid Lorange”
  • Ania Walwicz on “cut tongue”-fragmentation, collage and defence”
  • Sam Wagan Watson on “Fight Club”

If, unlike me you are able to make the trip to Auckland or Melbourne, or if you are already in those cities, then it would be almost unforgivable not to make an effort to attend these conferences. For further information check out the relevant websites and book your tickets!

Short Takes on Long Poems: A Trans Tasman Symposium

The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries