Deeper Meanings Under an Accessible Surface: Ron Pretty Launches ‘Cleanskin Poems’ by Laureen Williams

Cleanskin Poems by Laureen Williams, Island Presws 2016, was launched by Ron Pretty on 27th February 2016 at the Friend in Hand Hotel.
laureenIf you look at the brief bio at the back of the book, you will see that Lauren Williams has had a wide range of occupations, some of which appear in these poems; you will also see that her career as a poet has been interrupted, at least partly, by ten years or so as a song writer. So it’s no surprise that we have had to wait fifteen years for these Cleanskin Poems to arrive.

And it’s great to see them. If ever there was an appropriate title for a book of poems, it is this one, and I congratulate Lauren on its choice. I have spent the last few weeks considering the term ‘Clean Skin’, its various meanings, connotations and applications, and the way the term resonates with the poems and two articles that make up this book.

There are at least four different ways you can look at the term ‘clean skin’, three of which relate directly to the poems and articles in Lauren’s book. The other one, I’ll dispose of straight away. Those of you who know me will realise that I am now indeed a clean skin. Not from choice, I can assure you, but unfortunately, radiation therapy doesn’t give you much choice. I don’t think I have been this smooth of cheek since I was about one. The rest of the face & scalp is a different story: blame that on liquid nitrogen – and, I should add, the dermatologist’s sharp knife.

That wasn’t the first meaning that leapt into my head of course. Cleanskin immediately suggests wine – to me anyway. Good wine in plain bottles at a reasonable price. As an analogy for Lauren’s poems, it’s quite revealing. Her preference has always been for clear, strong poems: good wine in plain bottles. She writes poems that open out to her audience whether on stage or on paper. The trick with such poems, of course, and a method she has perfected over the years, is to suggest deeper meanings under an accessible surface. This is wine that will improve with being cellared, as well as wine that’s good for drinking now.

A poem of hers that I often use in workshops is a poem from an earlier book, Invisible Tattoos, I think it was. The poem itself is called ‘Shallow’, an amusing and somewhat self-deprecating poem, but a wonderful last line that gives a totally different way of seeing the whole. If you can find it, have a look. But there are a number of examples of the same method in this book.

See ‘Dental Record’ for instance (I love that ‘I don’t smile, I barracuda for the camera’) or the self-deprecation in ‘Some Harmless’, not so much in his cutting last comment, but in her earlier decisions to go along for the ride; or ‘On Chemistry’, its wonderful last stanza:

There is no chaperone more fierce
than age. I listen chastely
to my body’s late verse,
the exquisite ache of it, sad
as if speaking for the last time
on these matters, like someone
talking over their shoulder as they
quit the room, leaving the door
slightly ………. ajar.

Going back to the title, the term also suggests honesty and innocence, a suggestion that the ‘clean skin’ has not been corrupted by the world around them, or not yet anyway. As you read these poems, you will be struck by their directness, their refusal to pretend the experience was anything other than what it was, whether they are talking about other people, other experiences, or of the poet herself. See examples such as ‘The Belt’ or ‘Repetition Injury’ or ‘What the Trees Stand For’.

Finally, the title suggests – to me at least – the related term ‘having skin in the game’; and Lauren certainly has skin in the game. You don’t need to read the two essays to see that, for the poems themselves make it clear. Read for example, her long poem called ‘Say That Again’. It’s hard to quote from that complex satiric poem, but this will give you something of its flavour:

Does It Matter What Town I’m In?

If no-one understands
The first line, the poem
Is working

I don’t care for maps.
Get lost.

and engines,
That’ll do it…

Or read ‘Shakespeare Was a Performance Poet’ or – in fact read any of the poems in the last section of the book.

Having said that, you should read those two essays at the end of the book: they state her position – her skin in the game – very clearly. Whether or not you agree with her position, you’ll find them both interesting and challenging. I should add that I find myself agreeing with most of what she says there. Fundamental to both essays – and indeed to many of the poems – is the need for Australian poets to build their readership/audience, not as gatekeepers protecting a particular approach, or who dismiss other poets by attaching a label to them, but by entertaining people, moving them, challenging them … and giving them something both comprehensible and worth reading or listening to. It’s hard to argue with that.

Returning to the poetry for a moment, part of the pleasure of the poems in the book are their wide range of interests. Poems of childhood, autobiographical poems (many of which reveal that self-deprecating quality I mentioned in relation to ‘Shallow’; there are poems dealing with sex (including that wonderfully humorous poem, ‘Why I like talking to mechanics’ – who but Lauren could make car parts sound so sexy?); there are also poems of travel and of politics, poems exploring aspects of the art and life of Howard Arkley and many poems dealing with poets and poetry – her skin in the game, as I have just said. As you’d expect, there are also many hard-hitting poems – ‘Paddock Moll’ or ‘So You Want Blood’ or ‘What Gets Lost’ and many others.

Like a good bottle of wine, there is much pleasure to be had from Lauren’s latest collection. There is a lot of humour in the book – see for example, her poem called ‘New York City T-shirts 2002’ – a sort of never-ending poem, or ‘Last Tango in Wagga’ or ‘Young Female Poet II’; but there are also many strong, hard-hitting poems, well worth lingering over with a glass of good red. Buy the book, enjoy the fruits of the harvest.
I’m looking forward to hearing Lauren read some of these poems. Congratulations, Lauren, I declare Clean Skin a great vintage hereby launched.

– Ron Pretty

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

Cleanskin Poemsis available from http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm or ytou can message Laureen on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/mslaurenlee

Shining with Sensuality: Anna Kerdijk Nicholson launches ‘Painting Red Orchids’ by Eileen Chong

Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong’s was launched by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson at Gleebooks on 16 April 2016

Eileen ChongEileen Chong’s work—and this new collection, Painting Red Orchids—is lucid, refined and elegant.

Circumstance has allowed me to get to know Eileen Chong as a person, as well as an author. The circumstance—which you will grow to understand as you read through the poems in this work—was a difficult one for her and through it, we have become friends. Some months ago, Eileen said to me gravely: ‘Anna, I really don’t know whether I am a poet.’ In my view, this is preposterous. But I owe it to her and the work to be grave too, and offer her — and you — my formal response.

Eileen Chong’s poetic work suddenly existed in Australian poetry in 2009. Her work was born, it seems, fully formed. As I’ve read through her two previous books again in the lead up to this launch — Burning Rice from 2012 and Peony from 2014, it struck me again that the form of her work was, right from the first, considered, measured and placed. It is a measure of her craft that in these few years, Eileen’s work has been recognised in prestigious poetry prizes and has been sought out and commissioned.

Eileen came upon poetry when studying as a post-graduate at Sydney University. She took a subsidiary course in poetry, run by Judith Beveridge, thinking it would give her respite from academic study. But it was this decision, this side-step, which brought Eileen to her art form; and to one of its great teachers. It was also a fortuitous meeting, as Judy was a well-matched teacher for Eileen: they have a similar sensibility and aesthetic; and Eileen’s poetry has only ever known high-level craft as a result of Judy’s technical tutelage.

I am going to read you the first section of a poem called ‘Magnolia’ as an example of this porcelain crafting.

Magnolia

I rise from my pallet: it is still dark
and the men are asleep, their naked chests
inflating and collapsing like a smith’s bellows.

The moon hangs beneath the clouds: soon
autumn will arrive, winds rippling the fields.
Back in my village, the farmers are preparing

for the harvest. I press together strips of linen,
line it with moss I’d picked from the base of trees.
It is my time, and my secret. Tomorrow we advance

towards the border. The war-carts are loaded,
the horses will be tethered to their burdens.
Here the quivers of arrows wait to be spent.

I carry a skin of water and squat in the grasses.
Now it is safe to loosen my robes. Carefully, I clean myself.
Even in the dark, my hands are sticky with blood.

It’s written in three line stanzas throughout, looks neat and planned on the page, but I find no contrivance when the form is imposed over what is being expressed. Instead, the hard work is being quietly done in the lineation and enjambment. Firstly, at the line endings there is that almost imperceptible pause as the eye passes from the end of the line to the beginning of the next, giving the mind time to catch the meanings in the denseness of the words and images. Little pauses, minute emphases. Then, at the line beginnings, the continuation of the flow or the commencement of the next thoughts being worked out. Traditional poetic imagery is used in the early part of the poem —of the dark, the persona awake as others sleep, the moon and the onset of autumn. The descriptiveness coaxes us into the mood of being quiet among sleeping warriors only to discover the great secret of this poem that this ‘I’, this persona, this person, this warrior and leader of men, is menstruating. A woman hidden beneath robes in a man’s world. Subtly done, un-emphatic, nothing is overstated or overblown.

If I gave you the opportunity to read my scrawly handwriting in my journals, you would find I have copied down many definitions of ‘lyric poetry’. It is as though I collect them. Each definition differs from the others, each is sophisticated and conceptual. I keep collecting them because none really satisfies me. Yet, as I have been reading Painting Red Orchids, I have grasped that I am staring at lyric poetry. I am holding it my hand. There is in all the poems life intensely experienced. The poetry records the world mediated through the senses and the sense of the ‘I’, the person at the core of the experience and the understanding revealed by it. Even, as in ‘Magnolia’, biography and the move to the understanding of life’s patterning, is strong. As a body of work, now across all the three books, there is an autobiographical thread. The personal poems can be read almost like an autobiographical fleuve (akin to a roman fleuve), you gain an understanding of the pattern of the poet’s life.

Xiao Long Bao (Little Dragon Dumplings)

Behind the glass, men and women dressed like surgeons
(masks across their faces, hair tucked under caps)
roll out pastry into circles on a floured bench-top.

Cool hands: they cup the skin of each dumpling
in one palm then spoon a perfectly shaped
dollop of spiced pork into the middle

then deftly, invisibly, stretch the pastry and pinch
the top shut in a series of fan-folds. Sixteen creases
form the crest of each dumpling; eight dumplings

to a bamboo steamer lined with a cabbage leaf.
Circular trays stacked nine tall, straddling a wok
of boiling water, steamed for exactly eleven minutes.

Finely shredded young ginger topped
with black rice vinegar and a dash of soy
form the dipping sauce. I teach you

how to lift each dumpling carefully with chopsticks
into your Chinese spoon, to dress each morsel
with stained ginger, to bite through its skin with the tips

of your front teeth and suck out the hot soup
from the dumpling before placing it into your mouth.
I still remember the look on your face when you ate
your first little dragon dumpling. Sudden understanding.

The exactness of the method of making the dumplings is a nice metaphor for the making of the poem. Again the favoured 3 line stanzas but ending here with the weightier 4 line stanza. That single extra line permits time for the appreciation of the effect of the initiation on ‘the other’ in the poem and for the resonance of the poem to evolve from the lyric personal to the sharing of culture. That resonance is the ‘ah ha’ moment which we hear from an audience at the end of a good poem.

Life being lived so close to the senses, there is occasionally in the poems the awareness of violence. Somehow, the poetic beauty in the work is heightened by gritty, ugly reality: the death of a beloved cat, stones cutting unwary feet, a mother’s endless grief over a miscarriage, the pain of being unable to bear children. In ‘Spirit’, we enter into the family’s home in Singapore —

Spirit

We are far away in a country
with no name. Footprints

in flour appear out of thin air,
pointed in one direction, come

to partake of the offerings
at the altar. It is said that cats

can see spirits as solid
as living men. In a dream I saw

my grandfather unable to enter
our home, mirror above the door

deflecting his immateriality.
Moths landing on walls

were left alone lest they were
manifestations of his soul.

The canal behind the apartment
carried along all manner of things.

Once I saw a dog fallen
down the steep concrete sides –

dead before or drowned after
I do not know. Bent neck. Broken back.

The narrator of the film Amadeus, the court composer Antonio Salieri, is asked to comment on a work a youthful Mozart has just played to their patron. Salieri’s critique is that the piece has ‘too many notes’. To paraphrase Mozart’s retort in the film, these poems have neither too many words, nor too few. They are composed and shining with sensuality and a latent eroticism.

Bloom

“White dew covers the front courtyard
and dark descends silently over the chrysanthemums”.
 ………………………………………….– ‘New Moon’, Du Fu
Tonight, a sickle hangs in the sky.
The garden across the street is empty.
No lovers stand under the trees.

Last week, I watched a window
that framed a kitchen. Two young men
were vigorously making pasta: kneading,

rolling, cutting. A girl in a thin dress
ribboned their efforts on a stick.
Just out of sight, steam billowed

from a half-lidded pot. Two buildings away,
a man was removing the top from a woman.
Behind them, a room lit only by the flicker

of a television screen. Her breasts were small,
her stomach soft. He bent her over, slowly,
and buried his face in her sumptuous, pink skirt.

The metal rail is cold under my forearms.
I have finished my cigarette. Across
the street: only shadows and fallen blooms.

There is a telling little epigraph, in Eileen’s poem ‘Seven in the Bamboo’, from Raquel Ormella: ‘I worried I’m not political enough’. I have thought about Eileen choosing this ostensibly self-disparaging quote. In the poem, she traces the kind of day she might have, waking and putting on her clothes and walking to the water’s edge, sitting and facing the water and thinking and watching the clouds and the trees. She says of herself: ‘I don’t think about refugees or dead babies or chemical warfare or Iraq or Israel’. But then she offers these stanzas to conclude the poem —

I worry I live under a rock
even as my mind winds up the wooded paths and streams

of third-century China. I imagine I am packing a frame-
and-cloth bag full of books and two changes of clothes

for a long journey into the mountains. Seven of us meet
in a bamboo grove. Two of us make love in the moonlight

after we are all drunk from pots of rice wine. Someone watches
us, but we don’t care. We forget about society, about politics,

about government. We sow, we grow, we reap. We dream, we read,
we write, we paint. The notes of the zither shiver in the night air.
 ……………………………………..– From ‘Seven in the Bamboo’

I think this conclusion stands in defence of the lyric as she writes it and as a defence of her poetry as a whole. She writes poems which are artefacts. I hope, like the 300 year old bonsai pine she refers to in the poem Orchidaceae Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’, they will survive and live on and she will craft more in the decades to come.

I invite you to take home with you a copy of Painting Red Orchids. I would like you to read the poems in it and determine for yourselves whether Eileen Chong is indeed, really, a poet. I think you know my opinion but I’m sure she would like to hear from others, so write to her and tell her what you think. In my view, this book is another of Eileen’s exquisite pieces of art.

 – Anna Kerdijk Nicholson

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Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s book, Possession (5 Islands Press 2010) , won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry and the Wesley Michel Wright Prize and was shortlisted for the NSW and ACT Premier’s Prizes for Poetry. Her latest collection, Everyday Epic, was published by Puncher and Wattmann and was launched by Judith Beveridge  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/04/20/a-resonance-that-lingers-judith-beveridge-launches-everyday-epic-by-anna-kerdijk-nicholson/

Painting Red Orchids is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/eileen-chong/

Fusion of the Personal and the Imagined: Robbie Coburn Reviews ‘Lilies and Stars’ by Rebecca Law

Lilies and Stars by Rebecca Law, Picaro Press 2013

Lilliey-coverIt seems rare in modern verse to see a poet approach language traditionally, or at least follow the university-taught guidelines of how to construct a poem; be that through a refusal to use capitalisation or experimentation with form, it seems now the traditionalist might be the one breaking the mould.

Filled with a deep sense of romanticism, desire and longing, Rebecca Law’s second collection of poems achieves this in its evocation of a charming series of landscapes where the correlation of the imagined and ‘real’ world runs through the lines.

Law seems to be following a tradition of romantic poets, using sometimes familiar imagery but with a unique and expressive originality.

Constructed musically and always bearing an assured, clear grace, it is as if Law has crafted a unique theology, drawing on her own beliefs as a practicing catholic, and there is a kind of sacred atmosphere one inhabits when reading Lilies and Stars.

The collection opens with the question ‘what can one make with a bucket?’ (“The Shivering Song”), proceeding to reveal a love poem filled with stunning imagery of water and a subtle exploration of connection.

A great sense of longing underpins the lines and human relationships are dealt with carefully, constantly using the land and the elements to frame them.
The shorter love poems within this collection are by far the most effecting and employ a level of honesty often rare in much modern work. “Form of” simply and effectively recounts a former love, expressing longing and an aching desire:

Last night
I wanted not to love you
your distance and silence:
then conversely
it was this howling
I wanted to love forever,

heaving my backbone
in my sleep.

Regardless of the content of the poem, the real strength of the work is its precise rhythm, like Yeats, where the personal and the natural exist as one and aren’t afraid to dream: ‘The world/is everything/within azure/reaching higher’ (“The Road”)

Although Law now resides in Sydney, these are poems that could be written about any environment and there is a timeless quality in the traditional approach of the verse. This lies in the fact that, although Australian, Law seems to write outside of any existing timeframe, combining the personal with an expert understanding of mythology. The presence of symbolists such as Baudelaire and Verlaine as influences contribute to what Law has described as an “[interest] in the surreal, the symbolic and the sublime as romantic concepts that displace and liberate the word from a human preoccupation with living and dying” (Overland, September 18 2012. ed. Peter Minter).

This careful use of imagery that comes as a result is both powerful and mesmerising. A beautiful example of is displayed in “Ocean, Sky & Wreath” in which the poet plays with images, creating an atmospheric music for the reader:

Where the whale sinks,
stars are a floor,
ceilings, cloud,
daylight an aura

Family is a constant source of light and dark shades and runs below the surface of much of the work, as the poet recalls people and times, asserting that ‘The flight away and back towards home [is] an exercise in learning grace’. 

“Infusions of Shoreline Fauna” is a moving tribute to the poet’s mother and one of the finest examples of what Law manages so well in her approach to her subjects:

This lowly tree reminds me of mother,
white pebbles and sprouting grass….


Mother you are always old
for your years, my own growth
distanced more and more
into adulthood

A highly confessional and moving piece, the careful use of spare verse to describe the personal entwine with natural imagery to create a beautiful balance and resonance. Again a haunting longing seeds the lines as ‘lavender bouquets outlast/hours of any starry night/for whomsoever mutters a wish.’

A startling marriage of the earth, the sky and the imagination, with this collection Law’s touch is gentle and affecting, consistently displaying a polished sense of line and metre.
With such assured lyricism, perhaps the ultimate triumph of the work is the blending of personal experience with fantastic imagery.
It is as if Law is attempting to recapture the romantic notion of poetry so many fall in love with, however unfashionable this kind of writing may appear beside other contemporary work.

With its mystical imagery and passionate lyricism, Lilies and Stars is extremely effective in achieving what it intends to.

-Robbie Coburn

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Robbie Coburn was born in June 1994 in Melbourne and grew up in the rural district of Woodstock, Victoria. He has published a collection, Rain Season (Picaro Press, 2013), as well as several chapbooks and pamphlets – Before Bone and Viscera (2014) is available from Rochford Street Press – https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/07/18/ rochford-st-press-is-proud-to-announce-the-publication-of-before-bone-and-viscera-by-robbie-coburn/. His latest chapbook is Mad Songs (Blank Rune Press, 2015). A new collection of poetry The Other Flesh and a novel Conversation with Skin, are forthcoming. He currently resides in Melbourne and can be found at www.robbiecoburn.com.au

Lilies and Stars is available through Rebecca Law’s website http://rbcclaw.wix.com/rebecca-kylie-law

Poetry as Needlework: Simon Patton Reviews Lucy Dougan’s ‘The Guardians’

Lucy Dougan’s The Guardians Giramondo Press, 2015. 

GuardiansThe Guardians is Lucy Dougan’s seventh book and in it there are a surprising number of poems featuring the motif of sewing. It comes to the fore in “Sewing the Dog”, a tender presentation of a boy’s interest in needle and thread, while another poem, “Bump and Grind”, mentions “the rose buds / of which the sewing on / gave me so many small wounds”. In “A Renovation (Girl’s Work)”, the speaker declares that she will devote herself to mending things, for “there is something so / beautiful about the flawed work / human hands can do”. Significantly, the same poem also quotes the artist Louise Bourgeois in an epigraph: “I’ve always had a fascination with the needle. . . . The magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage.”

Dougan’s evident delight in needlework seems to influence her own conception of poetry as a kind of stitching together of two dimensions: an event or life situation (sometimes, but not all ways, damaging) on the one hand, and some reflection on the broader meaning. Although not all her poems are written this way, many of the ones that appealed to me made use of this approach.

A simple example of this procedure is provided by “At Villa Bruno”:

At Villa Bruno
the presiding nymph
has black texta circles
around all her bits.
She watches us
with her nipples, her navel,
as we trail on opposite sides
of the long garden bed,
swapping names:
my bay for your lauro,
your arancia for my orange,
until our paths meet.
We fall into the spaciousness
of another century.
We might have trailing skirts, masks.
I take the crushed leaves, the proffered fruit,
and feel the blind nymph’s
cool bemusement
as we step outside all drawn rings.
Nothing before
has tasted so close
to its wild estate.

In this gently exultant poem, a kind of geometry of correspondences is sketched out to make sense of the bare facts of what happened. Firstly, the “black texta circles” of the opening become much more meaningful in the conclusion when they are echoed in the phrase “as we step outside all drawn rings”, a reference to the charmed circle of conventional behaviour that the speaker is inspired by her feelings to transgress. Secondly, as the speaker and her friend walk on opposite sides of the garden, they swap names in English and Italian for the trees they see there, an act that involves a simple linguistic stitching together. With the line “until our paths meet”, the central moment of the poem is literally sewn up, and the two people come together to exchange gifts in a manner that hints at a strongly intimate bond.

Apart from the skilful embroidering of correspondences, Dougan employs another device to heighten the significance of her work: tension between opposites. In “At Villa Bruno”, there is an understated tautness throughout the poem between the conspicuous, civilized splendour of the setting with its classical sculpture and formal gardens, and private, passionate feelings. Dougan is also often able to encapsulate such tensions in a single word or phrase: in this case, “wild estate” merges with impressive inventiveness the “wild state” of untamed human nature with the “country estate” in which urbane values predominate. We see the same thing in “Guillemots”, where the word “clutches” refers to both the menacing “seeker of eggs” as well as the set of eggs in their own right.

This thoughtful organization of the text is the prime means by which Dougan adds significance to the low-key incidents described in the poem and brings out their deeper meaning. In contrast, the rhythms of the poem are strictly controlled in the use of short line-lengths, and the diction throughout is insistently plain. The only real source of verbal excitement is provided by the use of Italian words and by the occasional abrupt switch of register: once in the form of the crudely colloquial “all her bits”, and a second time with the elevated “proffered”, a word-choice which effectively complements the shift back in time to a presumably more formal age of “trailing skirts”. On the whole, the voice of the poem is quiet but exact, considered and contained rather than unguarded and expansive

Dougan’s sewing dynamic often involves the creation of a key image or symbol that is at once concrete and emblematic. Such images serve as a bridge between Dougan’s two dimensions. “Nettle Soup”, for example, makes use of such a bridging sign in its presentation of the theme of discord between a parent and her child:

And then I think
I will just take off
because I am sick of your merde.
What gives me the idea?
You’re running with a bad crowd,
who think the word juvie
has a cute ring to it
but at least they are stylish.
You bring home Vogue Uomo
and there’s my escape
in a spread of pages:
nettle soup in big white bowls
with the sting cooked out.
I rewrite my life
in grass-green drizzle round the rim
as the hedgerows beckon.
The other ingredients
are not so hard on the hands.
A big skirt and a lupine-looking man,
an art-directed caravan
with Tom-Tom on tap
so that when the soup gets thin
(and believe me, it will)
we can find our way
to the next stinging patch.

Just as the sting of the nettles can be removed by cooking, the speaker of the poem imagines that the irritation of her family situation can be eased by a flight into fantasy — in this case a fantasy of a Romantic pseudo-gypsy lifestyle where “hedgerows beckon”. This withdrawal from reality, complete here with “lupine-looking man” and “an art directed caravan”, allows her to rewrite her life and so find temporary relief from her problem. The poem carefully prepares for the appearance of the emblem; there is no unnatural forcing of it into the poem. What is more, it conveniently lends itself to the elaboration of a series of other images and phrases in the manner of an extended metaphor: relief is implied by “with the sting cooked out”; the artful drizzle of soup on the rim of the bowl links up with the idea of re-writing one’s life-story; and “the soup gets thin” neatly conveys the idea that the irritating problem is bound to return. In other words, most of the key moments of the situation are “sewn up” with the text’s central image.

In the final lines, the speaker is forced to acknowledge that her nettle-soup daydream will not make her frustration go away. Dougan is generally very attentive to the formulation of her conclusions, and in this poem, the lines “we can find our way / to the next stinging patch” add one final element to the overall meaning, presenting the bitter, double-edged realization that the desire to escape into the dream-reality represented by the bowl of nettle soup is as sure to return as the trouble is.

Readers particularly interested in the push and shove of family relations will enjoy other poems in this vein, including “The Patch”, “The Ties My Sister Makes”, and “Guillemots”. Elsewhere, this approach, reminiscent of the to-ing and fro-ing of a sewing needle in action, lends itself to the deft contemplation of more intellectual topics. For me, “Tate Modern” is one of the most memorable poems in The Guardians:

Bourgeois’ Maman
her spider mother
crouches diabolically over London
you can walk right in to the gallery
through the sinister entrance
of her legs
it’s that game all children play
making the miniature monstrous
inside you can line up
and buy handkerchiefs
bearing the legend
I’ve been to hell
and back
and I can tell you
it was wonderful
all that satin stitch
would be hard on a nose
with a cold I thought
and then of coffee long ago
with an arts bureaucrat
sod the exhibition
let’s cut to the merch
merch here, I discover,
is a kind of love talk
and I am requisitely seduced
by two pink magnets
art is a guarantee of sanity claims one,
the other commands be calm
then joke with the man in the line
behind me who wants to buy
be calm too
that we got spat out of the exhibition
at a video spool of the artist
dismantling her studio
in rock-god style
he holds the magnet up
to the glossy indifference
of the Thames
like I need this
he laughs
do you?

Again, the organization is of great importance here. Art — at least as it is exemplified by an influential contemporary gallery — is largely reduced to horror and ugliness (Bourgeois’ spooky spider sculpture, handkerchiefs embroidered with a message from hell, mindless studio destruction) in the exhibits and to the avid consumption of trite, ruthlessly marketed “merch”, a term alphabetically so close to Dougan’s merde in “Nettle Soup”. As the speaker negotiates her way through the Tate, she is at the same time surreptitiously threading a course between these two despairing notions in search of what her own art could mean. She seems to find an answer of sorts in a kitsch pink magnet proclaiming art to be a kind of safeguard of sanity. Although she is “requisitely” seduced — the formal register of the word signals that her acquiescence is not mindless — and although the form of the object is designed to demean the meaning of the message it conveys — she manages to write a poem that achieves a less deranged point of view. Acknowledging some of the conspicuous problems that plague art, as well as the atmosphere of indifference that pervades a profit-obsessed society, is at least a step towards a basic level of sanity.

Lucy Dougan - Photograph University of Western Australian

Lucy Dougan – Photograph University of Western Australian

Guardianship serves as the umbrella concept for this book, and some of Dougan’s reflections on it are touched on in these three examples. We see it perhaps primarily in the relationship between parents and their children, as well as in the interrelationship of generations. For instance, Dougan writes in her opening poem “The Mask” of “each of her mother’s mothers / stretching right back”, while in “Old Sarum” she writes of her childhood self looking forward to becoming a grandmother with a wallet lined “with the concertinaed faces of grandchildren”. Elsewhere, in “Fritz”, the young girl who speaks the poem recalls an incident which brought out in her a precocious maternity, and in another poem she has a brief vision of a river of heredity: “the dazzling way in which / the lights halo now on the river, / the dazzling way in which / genes that stretch right back / perpetuate . . .” (“Tower Bridge to Greenwich, 24.01.11). Dougan is oddly haunted by the idea of inherited traits and the sweep of human continuity, and feels spooked by this inheritance: “foolish to think / that your stubborn body / with its genetic hand-me-downs / is not implicated, / is not the haunted house” (“Poem on All Souls’ Day”). This heightened generational awareness has both positive and negative sides to it: it is certainly a factor in human solidarity, but it can also undermine individuality, reducing us largely to a set of inherited traits. It seems to me to be one of Dougan’s most original contributions to Australian poetry.

Secondly, Dougan explores the notion of guardianship with regard to the wild. As we have seen in the poem on Villa Bruno, wilderness can also be a quality that belongs to human beings, especially in terms of their bodies and physical desires. A childhood memory — the release of some pet mice — serves as the impetus for “The Mice”. When the speaker returns to the scene of this incident as an adult, she finds a man sitting “just at the edge / of where it used to be wild” and this loss of some link with nature brings with it a palpable sense of artificiality: “from the poshed-up frontage / there was something wrong / with the man / he seemed to be doing an imitation / of a man sitting in the sun”. A pair of foxes glimpsed from a window in Westbourne Grove impresses the speaker with “candour”; at the same time, she is reminded of the less remarkable wildness of “those unknown other lives” happening in the flats across the road (“The Foxes”). If we fail to protect this wild quality, we lose something fundamental to our make-up.

Finally, as the title poem makes clear, the idea also takes us into the territory of “guardian angels” and their role as a source of consolation in the encounter with serious pain and death:

I could not bear the empyrean capped,
not after living so long under the ground.

You were away
when I found the lump.
You came back with a wooden duck
and a black toy dog.
In the thick of it
the duck would come to live
with the small plastic shepherd
and the stone our daughter found out in the river —
its shape sat safe in my hands.
The piggy bank was another gift.
My friend said put a coin in it a day
and smash it when you need to buy the dress
for your daughter’s wedding.
But the dog — the dog was quite something.
Being stuffed, it said nothing.
In a dream it sat quietly by our own living dog
and she looked at me straight out of her old eyes and said
Go on — it’s OK to pick it up.

I’m not sure what to make of this. The opening underworldly lines about not being able to bear “the empyrean capped” seem mythological in tone, but the texture of the rest of the poem is resolutely mundane. The unengaging description of an incongruous set of objects — wooden duck, toy dog, piggy bank — may indicate an overwhelming yearning for privacy; the focus on such objects also suggests an unusually intense state of mind, an intensity perhaps triggered by anxieties about her health. To me, the poem reads like an attempt to commemorate a very strange and extremely crucial experience, but both the privacy and the particularity of the experience have resisted any attempts to sew any broader pattern of sense in to it. Privacy itself constitutes another important part of the notion of guardianship in this book and, in an age of advanced technologies of surveillance and data collection, it too is another aspect of our lives that needs to be looked after. Writing privately, however, brings with it some technical challenges: personal references and memories can work to exclude the reader, especially in the case of poems explicitly dedicated and or addressed to family members and friends. They can also seem trivial when the significance they so obviously hold for the poet is not matched by any pressure or vitality of the phrase-making: “Now your feet have outgrown / these kitten heels, / sensible purchase from a stalwart aunt, / so I wore them all next winter / in another hemisphere [ . . . ] / They are good for gardening, / dashes to the shops . . .” (“Julia, Reading”).

T. S. Eliot’s well-known theory of the objective correlative — “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” — may be an influence here. Eliot’s idea may help to explain several conspicuous features of Dougan’s poetry. First of all, there is the general staidness of the language. It seems that verbal excitement of any kind is equated with an undesirable emotionalism and so is suppressed in favour of an objective “formula”. This restraint is clearly present in the poetry’s presentation of objects, often characterized by a fairly banal use of adjectives:

“her mother had dragged out an old brown trunk”

(“The Mask”)
.

“I laugh and say nothing / as he hands me the little green slip”

(“The Forge”)
.

“Small white flowers dot the lawn / and the gravestones, leaning / willy-nilly like bad old teeth, / stretch beyond you”

(“Julia, Reading”)

.
“I was getting to know the cramped proportions / of old lives in this little eyrie”

(“London, Misbooked”)

.
“Their gaze was not territorial / or neutral but simply there / as the grass was there, the trees / were there, and the old summer furniture”

(“The Foxes”)

.
“Too soon it would be time to move on / and sit on the wheel humps / inside the old red postie’s van”

(“Fritz”)

.
“The dog ran in there. / It had been a mistake / to take his old trail. / He had picked up the scent / and bolted; / down the loved path, / through the painted green door / and the black and white tiled hall.”

(“The Old House”)

.

This subordination of detail to design has the advantage of focusing the reader’s attention on what the back-cover blurb calls “cumulative effects”, but at the same time results in a lack of intensity, since the images are often generic and anonymous rather than keenly perceived and registered. This in turn ultimately weakens the overall appeal of the work, even when the design is strong. Unity, or what Jane Hirshfield calls “a glittering, multifaceted expression of interconnectedness”, is for this reason not achieved.¹

Pre-eminence of design together with documentary diction may also explain the weakness of the openings of many of the poems. There are exceptions here and there — “Belly down on the graveyard lawn” makes for a memorable start to “Julia, Reading” — but frequently Dougan’s beginnings are workaday, to be read through quickly so that the links of central chain of events can be put in place. Titles too tend to function as simple short-hand labels without any true poetic function of their own, forgetting that they too can be whole poems in miniature.

Of course, any book of poems will also contain things do not conform to the established techniques and explicit concerns of the bulk of its contents. Poems such as “Wayside”, “A Bourne”, “Dearest” and “From the Queensway” operate in other, sometimes more lyrical, modes. In my view, a very interesting moment is provided by “Atavism II”:

That boy lazing
in the truth
of his tattoos
(deep inside himself
deep inside the way light
from the sheet of water
talks to the ceiling)
and in the change-room
small shoes
side by side
with the larger pair
that walked here
with them.

Bodies tiled in placed:
a man mid-dive,
a woman alert to a child,
each attitude repeating
an anonymous civic grace
old as mosaics
we have uncovered.

I don’t think there is anything else in The Guardians like the first part of this poem. It has a powerful suggestive quality, a quality supported by the freshness of some of the phrasing (“lazing / in the truth / of his tattoos”; “the way light / from the sheets of water / talks to the ceiling”; “side by side / with the larger pair / that walked here”), as well as the wonderful power of “change-room”. There is also greater “musicality” in the lines, with the repetition of vowel sounds in the pairs “truth/tattoo” and “water/talks”, as well as the occurrence of off-rhymes such as “light/sheet” and “pair/here”. The images seemed charged with meaning, but it is difficult to narrow that meaning down to a single simple idea. In his Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain writes of the “humble revelation”, “a particular flash of reality bursting forth in its unforgettable individuality, but infinite in its meaning and echoing capacity”.² I feel that Dougan achieves this here: the details are realized with precision and distinctness and at the same time they are imbued with a paradoxical resonance that gets the reader thinking.

In contrast, the second part of the poem resorts to her more familiar stitching and depends mainly on the ingenious linking of images and ideas, especially through the verb “tiled in” which at once evokes a crowd of bodies gathered around a public swimming pool, and prepares the way for the reference to the old “mosaics” of ancient cities. Again though, the details possess no real individuality or immediacy, and I can’t help feeling that the abstract theme of atavism tends to overpower them: to me a dive is not really suggestive of a civic grace, even though it may be graceful as an athletic gesture.

Importantly, this poem hints at two different orders of poetry: infinite echoing capacity in the first stanza, and a conscientious embroidery of events with an externally-derived significance in the second. I prefer the first type: it doesn’t reduce the specifics of the poem to a secondary position, nor does it pin the meaning too insistently onto one clearly defined idea. The two dimensions are fused in a way that seems seamless. What’s more, readers are left with more scope to savour the possibilities of the poems for themselves, in their own unguarded ways.

.
¹ Jane Hirschfield: Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry: 8.
² Jacques Maritain: Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry: 115.

 – Simon Patton

—————————————————————————————————–

Simon Patton translates Chinese literature. He lives with his partner, two cats and Sealyham the Terrier near Chinaman Creek in Central Victoria. Three of his Hong Kong poems appeared in Australian Poetry Journal 5.1 and another four are about to come out in the “Long Distance” issue of Contrappasso.

The Guardians is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/poetry/the-guardians/

Lucy Dougan’s previous collection, On the Circumvesuviana, has previously been reviewed on Rochford Street Review:  Searching for the Past: Robbie Coburn reviews On the Circumvesuviana by Lucy Dougan

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The Duality of Things: Jennifer Strauss Launches ‘Lupa and Lamb’ by Susan Hawthorne

Lupa and Lamb by Susan Hawthorne, Spinifex Press 2014, was launched by Jennifer Strauss on 24 August at the ACMI as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival

lupaOne of Susan Hawthorne’s defining characteristics has always been courage, a spirit of adventure.After all, it takes a brave, some might even say foolhardy, person to persist as a feminist publisher well past the heady days of the 70s and 80s into and through the years of lost ardour, the voices saying it was all done and dusted, so we could shut down the Women’s Studies Departments and just get a life.

Perhaps as a publisher, even though the Spinifex press list is remarkably diverse, you might risk summing her up as having the courage of conviction declared in the final words of “performance poem by Curatrix: slut but but”:

and I say
you got it boy
you got it girl
sono una femminista
now fuck off

This is, however, not nearly enough to convey the poet’s complex sense of female experience. That has been there in all the different themes and modes of her previous collections, but the waters have never been so deep as those into which Hawthorne plunges us in Lupa and Lamb, a collection that brings into triumphant coalescence qualities demonstrated in differing ways in preceding volumes.

In Lupa and Lamb she takes full advantage of the expertise already developed in working in different genres, plunders poetic booty from her academic studies of mythology, psychology and language, and draws wonderfully inventive inspiration from Rome, the city to which she came in 2013 as a BR Whiting Library Resident.

Out of Ancient Rome, Hawthorne draws a set of five female figures to provide a structural framework for her ambitious project. They are figures mythical, historical and fictional; each multi-faceted; each involving a certain amount of word-play; each drawing in her wake a train of associated female figures that transcend time’s limits.

Lupa is the she-wolf, wolf-woman, wild predator who – in the founding myth of Rome — finds and nurtures Romulus and Remus, the abandoned twin boys born to Rhea Silvia, the vestal virgin raped by the god Mars. Associated with Lupa is the figure of the goddess variously named Diana/Artemis, the goddess of the forest, of wild animals – but also of the hounds that hunt them.

The Lamb is Agnese (from Latin agnus). As a Christian symbol of innocence, she morphs into Saint Agnes, virgin saint and martyr and patron saint of virgins and all rape victims, rape being a recurrent motif in the sequence. Notable in the train of the Lamb are Saints Cecilia and Barbara.

Then comes Sulpicia, the artist, the only woman poet of ancient Rome whose work has survived. Her six love poems are translated here by Hawthorne and re-interpreted as definitively lesbian under the aegis of Curatrix, the fictional creator/ curator of the Musæum Matricum (the Museum of the Mother).

Curatrix, as a healing (curing) retriever of women’s lost past, also assists in the “discovery” of a seventh poem by Sulpicia. There is enormous pleasure to be gained from the inventiveness that Hawthorne has practiced in this and in her creation of the other “lost” texts dotted throughout the sequence. Anyone who has ever struggled with partially preserved texts in a dead language must be highly entertained by the manipulation of lacunae in Hawthorne’s cheerfully impertinent but very convincing imitations of these dusty scholarly fragments.

Curatrix’s Musæum Matricum functions as one of the two locales at which a continuum in women’s history and experience is asserted:

Curatrix has everything here
rooms filled with our treasures
hidden for so long in the dark corners
of their neutered museums

winged ones wolves lions horses
even flying cows with shining mouths
I remember no fear in the lion’s den
and there are no gilded cages

among them new works with names attached
cow heads by Georgia O’Keeffe Frida Kahlo stands
among butterflies Suzanne Bellamy’s porcelain women
discuss astronomy with the old ones

The other such site is provided by the fifth structural figure, the Empress Livia, wife of the Emperor Augustus and a powerful figure in Roman society. Here she is the party giver, staging the event that brings together the widest single assemblage of female figures in the sequence. Livia’s connections are good, so good that they even extend and a wangled invitation to tea at the Vatican with “this new guy Francisco”.  The women, aware of old scores with the Church, hesitate until Curatrix casts a deciding vote:

Curatrix says let’s drink their coffee
teas wine eat the cakes and pastries
but remember even this pope forgets
women are the poorest of the poor

– Livia’s connections

The party, with its sociability, is an important affirmation of the often-denied togetherness, the friendliness, of women. It is full of celebration and laughter, although the laughter has multiple functions. In “craft” we see laughter as subversive.  For the women excluded from “the high arts/ the public world/the official histories”:

craft saved us
………..we spun and sewed
………..wove patterns on fabric
………..cooked and healed
………..drew on pots
………..sang and told old wives’ tales
………..to our daughters
………..we were ignored
………..we were inventive
………..and we laughed

Female laughter as subversive? Recently, the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey listed among his requisites for women’s modesty that they should not laugh in public. There has been a tendency to treat this foray into sexual politics as simply absurd or bizarre. On the contrary, it constitutes a surprisingly open revelation of an abiding masculine fear that the feminine refuses to pay sufficient respect to masculine solemnity and authority.

There is, however, another story to laughter, which we hear in “Baubo”. The party-goers join in a ritual of laughter:

laughter ricochets around the circle
infecting each one of us
Baubo makes Demeter laugh again
Medusa laughs her head off

La Befana is running around
with her other half Perchta
handing out honeyed figs and dates

their broomsticks are for
sweeping the sky
not sweeping floors

we laugh at our pain
we laugh to stay sane

The sense of the duality of things is strong throughout. The other face of celebration of love and laughter is commemoration of violence and terror.  People and divinities are not one-dimensional; so it is with roles in “Demeter and Santa Dimitra”, a poem that allows the introduction of Hawthorne’s ecological concerns, with the rape of Demeter’s daughter identified with the rape of nature by modern technological agriculture:

some have dual citizenship
saints and goddesses
demons and goddesses
witches and goddesses

witches and saints
the line all a-blur

And so it is that the most important duality of the sequence is not that between Lupa and Lamb but the one within each of them, so that they come closer and closer to each other as the sequence unwinds.

Lupa is, as already indicated, both predator and nurturer, hunted and hunter: Agnese is not pure victim. As Saint Agnes, she proves miraculously impenetrable when sentenced to a brothel as a punishment for choosing celibacy.  As the Agnese of “salone” (the poem that introduces Sulpicia) we find her laying claim to a new life as artist, “traipsing the boards singing her heart out”. And here she brings to mind those new writers whose books fed the emerging women’s movement– books like The Women’s Room, The Good Mother, The Colour Purple, Woman on the Edge of Time. Too often dismissed as “whingeing”, these certainly contained complaint, but they were complaints that led to action, to challenges, to ideas of female passivity and marginality, of a woman’s dependence for significance on her relationship to dominant men –father, lover, husband, son.

In “Wolf Pack”, Lupa and Lamb finally take their stand together against a male attempt to gate-crash Livia’s party, but in one of Hawthorne’s frequent verbal surprises, the wolf pack is not the male would-be invaders, but the wolf-women guests. “wolves have come in a pack/ leading them is Guadalupe”:

with full pageantry comes Virginia Woolf
dressed in an Ethiopian jalaba
instead of standing to attention
she relines in a wicker chair smoking
declaiming the end of war

Christa Wolf bursts in bringing with her a trainload of workers
who carry banners with the word
PROLETARIAT written in red
Anna Wulf too has a banner
WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE
but it’s torn and dragging along the ground
increasingly shredded with each step

And so the list grows: hags and fairies, La Donna Lupa Paleolitica, Vassar students, Marxist lesbians, Medea, all in a hubbub of conversation until:

there’s a noise at the gate voices of a different timbre
a group of men is shouting their weapons visible
Diana Hippolyta Minerva and a crush of Amazons
bar their way they bear no arms
but there’s that no-nonsense stance

then the martyrs step forward
you don’t scare us any more
put down your weapons

Instead of submission, the men receive lectures from Agnese and Saint Barbara to the effect that it’s time for them to fix the economy whose values they have corrupted. Despite a few recidivists who think that rape would teach these uppity women, the men

. . . break off into groups
begin to talk
they’ve a bit of ground to cover
so let’s leave them at their own party
they can send us an emissary when they are ready

This is of course not the end but only one imagined way into an unsung and uncalculated future glimpsed in the poems of the remaining twenty or so pages.

I have offered one kind of reading of this richly complex, witty, painful, learned, playful extravaganza. Other readers may well have other accounts to give, see different poems as central. Be one of those other readers and go figure the challenge of the last poem of all, “the calculus of lambda”.

For my part, I’m pleased and honoured to launch into our troubled word Susan Hawthorne’s Lupa and Lamb and congratulate both author and press on a fine achievement.

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

Jennifer Strauss’s numerous publications include four collections of poetry, critical studies of Gwen Harwood and Judith Wright, editorship of The Oxford Book of Australian Love Poems and the Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore and co-editorship of The Oxford Literary History of Australia. At Monash University she taught courses in Medieval and Australian Literature and women’s writing.

Lupa and Lamb is available from http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=268/

Lupa and Lamb is also avialble for review. If you are interested in reviewing it please email us to discuss rochfordstreetpress@gmail.com

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Carol Novack – A life remembered. Tributes from John Jenkins and Rae Desmond Jones

Carol Novack, ca. 1974 / 1975, Adelaide, Australia (photo: Terry Bennett). Source Mad Hatters' Review

Carol Novack, writer, poet, editor and luminary publisher of the alternative and edgy Mad Hatters’ Review, MadHat Press and the MadHat Arts Foundation,  died on 29 December last year. Although she was born in the USA, and spent much of her life there, she spent a number of years in Australia during the 1970’s and made a major contribution to the development of Australian poetry during those years. During these years she worked as an editor for the Cosmopolitan, and began publishing her poetry.  Makar Press published her collection, Living Alone Without a Dictionary, as part of the Gargoyle Poets Series in 1974, and her work was included in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets.  She was the recipient of an Australian Council of the Arts writer’s grant. She left Australia in 1977.

After a traveling in India and Europe, Carol returned to New York City where she completed a law degree. As an attorney, she worked first in the Criminal Appeals Bureau of the New York Legal Aid Society and later as a solo practitioner, championing the causes of artists and the underprivileged.

She went on to receive her master’s degree in social work (community organizing), and teach lyrical fiction writing at The Women’s Studio Center in NYC, returning to the serious pursuit of her own writing in 2004.  “The muse just suddenly reared her jerky head again,” she said.

From the mid-2000s, she began publishing her gender-bending hybrid metafiction— “her little aliens,” as she called them—in many journals and anthologies, including: American Letters & Commentaries, Exquisite Corpse, La Petite Zine, LIT, Missippi Review, Notre Dame Review and Caketrain.

In 2005 she founded the Mad Hatters’ Review, one of the first online journals with a true multimedia approach, marrying literature, film, art and music in an annual collage of some of the most explosive arts on the web.“

Carol curated the successful Mad Hatters’ Review reading series at KGB Bar in New York, and performed herself at many venues in New York City and elsewhere.  After re-settling in Asheville, North Carolina in 2010, she began a new reading series at The Black College Museum & Arts Center and founded a non-profit arts organization, MadHat, Inc., which now includes the Review; MadHat Press, a print publisher; and an artist’s retreat at her mountain home in Asheville.

Before her death,  Carol was working several new projects, including the novella Felicia’s Nose, in collaboration with Tom Bradley.  Both Felicia’s Nose and a collection of  Carol’s shorter works are anticipated for publication in the near future.

Thanks to Marc Vincenz for allow Rochford Street Review to run an edited version of his tribute to Carol which was original posted on Mad Hatters’ Blog on January 5 2012

Carol’s impact on Australian poetry can be measured by the number of moving tributes posted on the Mad Hatter Review following her death. John Jenkins and Rae Desmond Jones have given Rochford Street Review permission to republish their tributes.

Tribute to Carol Novack by John Jenkins

I first met Carol Novack in 1974 in Melbourne, at a literary party hosted by Meanjin magazine, an Australian literary institution published by Melbourne University. The new editor wanted to refresh and revitalize it by including new talent and directions. I had recently had a short story published, and was introduced to Carol by the novelist, Finola Morehead.

I remember leaning beside a settee, drinks poised; people chatting intelligently around us, as Carol and I hit it off from the first word: the attraction immediate and mutual, our conversation bright and animated. I was delighted by Carol’s effortless style: her quick intelligence, zany humor and ready smile. She was indeed a New Yorker and pure oxygen to me. Her urbanity was polished and real, yet refreshingly free of anything po-faced or ponderous. Indeed, there was always a hint of something wicked and unexpected: together with an infectious relish and enjoyment of people, life, conversation, everything.

She was on a visit to Melbourne, down from Sydney for just a few days. So I invited her to dinner, to discover if the attraction wasn’t something I had imagined, or just the sort from a wine glass. A few days later, we agreed that I should accompany Carol back to Sydney. Everything was moving very fast: but such throw-the-dice impulsiveness was often the badge of our relationship.

We set off in my old car, which nearly ended the story at the very start. At one point, I became fatigued, and asked Carol to take the wheel. She readily agreed, then struck something on the next bend. We ended flying through space and emerged, somehow, by the side of the road, as my car span slowly around on its roof in the middle of the highway, and a truck blared down upon us. The world might have stopped shunting into eerie slow motion by then, but—miraculously—neither of us was hurt.

We just sat by the roadside, wide-eyed, in utter disbelief to still be alive. It seemed we sat there forever, and might still be there today, but it was really only minutes. There was a pub nearby, with a tow truck parked outside. Almost casually, as if it happened every day—and maybe it did—the tow truck driver put up some barriers, righted our car and towed it back to his workshop somewhere. ‘It’s a total right-off mate’, he said, ‘but I won’t charge you if you let me strip it down for parts.’ I agreed, and the driver of the truck that nearly ran us down offered us a lift to Sydney.

Carol had been living in the palmy suburb of Woollahra, in a comfortable house she co-rented with the poet Joanne Burns, but the lease was almost up, so Carol and I moved into a small and comfortable place not far away, in the fashionable suburb of Paddington. We lived together there for about a year, and Carol told me how she came to Australia. Apparently, not long before we met, she had married an Australian academic in New York. Her husband then took a senior post at an Australian university. Carol said he was a terrific person, but she soon realised the path marriage paved for her was not the one she really, ultimately, wanted. The domestic life of housewife was not to be her destiny. She was much more artistically inclined; and very adventurous: so had parted from her husband after mutual agreement.

Our life together in Paddington was certainly never dull, as it happened, and not very domestic either. There were many parties, which we either hosted or attended; ferry voyages around Sydney harbor to meet poets and writers; always lively discussions of art, politics and writing – and it was sometimes hard to say whether the arguments or agreements were the more heated. A heady round of restaurant and café meetings where the wine and conversation flowed freely, and spirits were often high. Generally, the mid to late ‘70s were sunny and exciting years in Sydney literary life. Even when we moved from Paddington, after finding lower-rent places in down-market Ultimo then Glebe, the excitement continued.

We met, and often socialized and partied with, some of the most talented and interesting people connected with poetry and writing of those years: Frank Moorhouse, Joanne Burns, Michael Wilding, Rae Desmond Jones, Ken Bolton, Pat Woolley, David Malouf, Bob Adamson, Clive Evatt, Nigel Roberts, Anna Couani, Dorothy Porter, Kerry Leves, Bruce Beaver, Dorothy Hewett, Merv Lilley, Rudi Krausmann, John Tranter, Mike Parr, Dave Marsh, Vicki Viidikas, Dennis Gallagher, Laurie Duggan, Alex Danko…far too many to list here…but collectively creating an effervescent milieu both absorbing and upbeat.

Of course, Carol and I had also to earn a living. This proved relatively easy for Carol, who had always been an academic high-achiever, and proved an equally fast learner when moving from one profession to another. Her research skills were considerable, and she put them to work for Lachlan Vintage Village, a re-created historical attraction in Forbes, New South Wales, built according to historically accurate specifications Carol supplied to the architects. Meanwhile, I worked as a book distributor; before we somehow hit on the idea of writing (or sometimes co-writing) articles for Cosmopolitan magazine.

Cosmo liked Carol so much, they happily hired her, as staff writer and sub-editor; and she then arranged full-time work for me in the mag’s umbrella company, Sungravure, which had a big stable of magazines; and was further owned by the Fairfax group of magazine, newspaper and radio media. And this, effectively, is how we both entered well-paid commercial journalism. In parallel with this, we both continued writing poems, articles, stories and whatever took our fancy.

I remain forever grateful to Carol for opening this new career door for me, as I was rather directionless at the time, never quite knowing how to balance means and ends, or make the latter meet. It was only in the last few months of our time together, that things got really rocky. One of Carol’s favorite movies was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and we would sometimes have hilarious mock arguments in a parody style of Albee’s famous play. But it was sometimes too real, too close to the bone; such as one night Carol’s dramatic finale was to throw all my clothes out a second-storey window, down into the street. No doubt I had committed some misdemeanor or other, and thoroughly deserved it. I was often ‘a handful’, and emotionally unpredictable. Such as the night I splashed Vodka over dumbstruck friends, while staggering into an incoherent and feverish tirade against the world, with Carol chuckling wildly to one side.

Eventually, we decided neither of us was ready to settle down, into even a casually de-facto version of married life, as we both had wild oats to sow, if not so carefully nurture or cultivate. Besides this, I wanted to travel to Indonesia, while Carol began longing for family, and familiarity, in New York. Eventually, we sat down together, and after a long, sober and rather melancholy conversation, agreed to part; but it was in a spirit of true friendship, and without bitterness.

Carol always had a wonderful sense of humor. She was also naturally kind-hearted and had a great capacity for joy and happiness. She was generous to a fault, both in spirit and materially when people needed help. Though always a ‘straight talker’, very frank and to the point when she needed to be, she was also a fiercely loyal friend. Once she liked and trusted you, you were there for life. All these fine qualities in her nature, and many more beyond listing here, were always evident to me, as they were to all who knew her well. And Carol had a talent for attracting friends to her warm and generous and outgoing nature, which always illuminated her wonderfully buoyant and creative life.

I saw Carol on two occasions after we had split up, and she had returned to New York. The first time was at her West 13th Street apartment in New York, when Carol introduced me to her (decidedly zany) friends, then took me around town to see the sights. At that time Carol was a member of ‘The Party Line’: nothing political, but a group of amusing ‘party animals’, who rang each other to pass on addresses of the best gigs in town.

I went along for the ride, ending up at a ‘do’ thrown by novelist Joseph Heller, at the swank Four Seasons Hotel; and another bash for friends of Lou Reed in some ratty, black-painted room downtown where the amplified sound of smashing bottles rang from the walls as one-time Velvet Underground singer Nico wailed into a frenzied, feeding-back microphone.

The very last time I saw Carol was in Ireland, in 2004. A quiet meeting. We both happened to be in Dublin at the time, and our paths crossed almost by chance. It was a happy reunion; and we took a coach tour, on a rare sunny day in Ireland, to some interesting historical sites. We were clearly both older and wiser by then, and spent a gentle afternoon reminiscing about good times and bad, about what had come to both of us, and friends past and present. Carol studied Asian culture, and even spoke a little Mandarin. She often quoted one of her favorite poems, I think it was by the Chinese poet Ouyang Xiu: ‘Life is best like a drunk falling off the back of a wagon, who rolls to the roadside, and by chance sees only the star-filled sky.’ I can’t remember the exact quote, but this might be close: and I always think of it when I think of Carol.

—John Jenkins, Melbourne, Jan 2012

Memories of Carol Novack – Rae Desmond Jones

I set eyes on Carol Novack one warm evening late in 1972. My first chapbook had been published, and I was invited to read at a forthcoming Adelaide Festival of Arts. I had never read out loud before, and needed practice. This took place in a semi derelict Protestant Church in one of Sydney’s less desirable suburbs (things have changed). I was sitting in the front pew shuffling poems when a striking woman draped in flowing clothes with long raven hair walked onto the stage and began to read. Her poem was a tapestry of chthonian images, showers of light and darkness.

Our friendship proved deep and enduring. Through 1976 she shared a small white terrace house near Bondi Junction with the poet Joanne Burns, where the conversation and the wine flowed well into the early hours. The house was a vibrant centre of literary and cultural ferment. Carol loved the company of poets and artists and frequently encouraged others before fully developing her own considerable talent. The late poet Vicki Viidikas heard her read in a small studio and asked her pointedly why she had not written and published more of her truly astonishing poems. Carol was unable to respond, a rare event.

Carol had courage. After she returned to the United States she contacted me from New York. On 9/11 I phoned her. She was calm and controlled, despite ash and dust and smoke in the air. She also was able to know and accept individual weaknesses and failings with humour and sensitivity. Once you were Carol’s friend, it was for life. This may have been linked with her literary gift, in which she examined and sought to reconcile her own complexity and ambiguities. Like her personality, her writing is complex and demanding: it lives.

– Rae Desmond Jones, Sydney, 2012

Other tributes from Australian writers have also been published on the Mad Hatters’ Review Blog:

Link to Mad Hatters' Blog

Link to Mad Hatters' Review