This may sound like something from “The Twilight Zone”, the image of the Virgin Mary appearing in a fence post at Coogee Beach in Sydney, at a monument to the terrorist attacks in Bali, one year after the 9/11 attacks in New York, killing 202 people including 88 Australians. Yes we do things a little differently here in Australia – if you’re interested in the newsworthy event here is a link to a commercial news report of the time.
J.H. Crone’s “Our Lady of the Fence Post” debut poetry book is a “response” to the news reports. Taking the Marian apparition report, the documentary maker and poet, has created a collection of poems using part fact, part poetic licence to reflect on a range of political issues, the “war on terror”, the ingrained and ignored domestic violence, ISIS suicide bombings, terror cells in Australia, and a whole lot more.
A narrative sequence of poems, using a range of poetic forms (more on them later), the main players are; Joe, who paints the memorial, Mari who runs the local bakery and sells photographs of the apparition, Jesus (short for Maria de Jesus) who lost a son in the Bali bombings, and Mae the news reporter.
Jesus originally notices the apparition and points it out to Mari, and early in the collection we know that domestic violence is prevelant, even though ignored, in ‘Dough’ “Joe gave her the briny taste of a fat lip.” And in ‘An Odd Looking Sight’… “…she’s too full of grief to notice the tawdry,/mauve-rose bruise on Mari’s lip.”
Inherent racism is also simmering just below the surface, for overseas readers the East of Sydney was the scene of race riots in 2005, with the poem ‘The Silly Season” telling us “Squinter, towel-heads even/ crawling over Sunshine’s clean sand,/ looking to a post to save us./He’s not a racist, but who can say/ they’re not terrorists? Wogs should have/ never been let in this country.”
The feminist themes coming to the fore in the long poem “The Inquisition”, a verse exploring the Virgin Mary through many historical lenses;
…The more the
is elevated, the lower the status of women of ordinary birth.’
Feminist theologians discover that the ‘Virgin’ was given birth
by a Greek mistranslation of the Hebrew word
for girl. Yet, even as virgins,
we are not allowed to breathe
a homily to life.
Wearing dresses, you priest appropriate the female sex.
Mary’s rebirth at Sunshine Bay encourages our sex.
Trick of the light, or apparition, our words are freely given life.
Cardinals, tend your marble Virgins with bated breath!
As J.H. Crone explains later this narrative includes many poetic forms, the French triolet and rondelet and the English roundel, a Ghazal, a triple sestina (the poem quoted above “The Inquisition”). For the non-poetry readers here how about a short lesson to demystify three of those terms?
The French triolet:
The triolet is a short poem of eight lines with only two rhymes used throughout. The requirements of this fixed form are straightforward: the first line is repeated in the fourth and seventh lines; the second line is repeated in the final line; and only the first two end-words are used to complete the tight rhyme scheme. Thus, the poet writes only five original lines, giving the triolet a deceptively simple appearance: ABaAabAB, where capital letters indicate repeated lines. (Taken from Poets.org)
The sestina (triple is three of them)
The sestina is a complex form that achieves its often spectacular effects through intricate repetition…[a] thirty-nine-line form…[which] follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi. The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction. The form is as follows, where each numeral indicates the stanza position and the letters represent end-words:
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE
A poetry publication that not only uses multiple forms it also approaches multiple themes, from the role of females in the church, terrorism cells in Australia, the role of the media, sexism, racism, violence, this is a complex multitude to explore. J.H. Crone is throwing out bait, can you take the little enticement or is it worth awaiting a tastier titbit offered by the very next poem?
This debut publication forms part of a new initiative by UWAP (“University of Western Australia Publishing”), the “Poetry Club”, established last year “in response to the reductions in poetry publishing nationally”, with eight collections published each year, released as a set of four. I will review the others from the initial collection here also, hopefully including interviews with the poets.
J.H. Crone kindly answered my questions on the collection via email, as per all my “interviews” I publish these unedited, the questions and replies are below.
Q. The violence happens on many levels, domestic, Bali bombings, Cronulla riots, what attracted you to this theme?
I wanted to write about the changes that I saw happening in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and more generally across Australia during the crucial ‘war on terror’ period, which has played such an important role in shaping the ways Australians understand ourselves and our place in the world as well as producing ongoing crises or perceptions of crises in relation to terrorism both domestically and abroad. We are still living through the era shaped by those events. It seems clear to me that these aspect of violence and ideas about violence don’t only play out on the world stage. They affect people on domestic and psychological levels as well. For example, I don’t think it is an accident that women became worse off in terms of equal pay and lost funding for crucial services such as women’s refuges and single mothers pensions during the period that Australia was responding to the tragic events of 9/11 and the Bali bombing by idealizing the Anzac spirit and repackaging it in the form of the contemporary Australian identity. I wanted to make those links explicit.
Q. The voice of Joe is quite often a simple one with repeated messages, for example “The current whereabouts of the founder/of Al Qaeda is a mystery”. Why this technique for Joe?
I used the French triolet and rondelet and the English roundel forms for some poems in the book. The triolet and rondelet have three repeated lines and the roundel has a refrain repeated three times. Some of these poems are in Joe’s voice but some are in Mari, Mae and Professor Maire McCormack’s voices too. In addition the book has a ghazal written in Mari’s voice which repeats the refrain at the end of each couplet. There is also a triple sestina in which the word endings of the first stanza are repeated in every subsequent stanza in a prescribed order. So I think it is fair to say that the book as a whole includes a lot of repeated messages. Certainly the media is full of repetition. That said, it seems to me that every time a phrase or word is repeated it acquires a subtly different meaning and I find that aspect of repetition quite interesting.
Q. Although Mae is the journalist in this collection, the whole work has a journalistic feel, do you think that may come from your documentary background? Could you explain that a little more?
There is no doubt that my documentary background had a big influence on shaping the work. I did a lot of research and many of the themes and much of the language came from factual sources that I reworked in the poems.
Q. Mari, although beaten physically, and threatened for the Mary being a hoax, is no “victim”, to me she is the tower of strength. Was it your intention to make her the “backbone” of this work?
I am glad that you found Mari so engaging. Yes I agree that her story is the backbone of the narrative and I found her blend of skepticism about organized religion combined with her idiosyncratic ‘spiritual’ beliefs quite intriguing.
Q. You’ve used many forms here, sculpted, shaped poems, prose poems, refrains, every second line a different text, do you enjoy using numerous explorative forms?
I love playing with poetic form. In ‘Our Lady of the Fence Post’ I used quite a lot of structured forms but there is quite a lot of free verse too. In the early stages of writing the book I couldn’t write a poem unless I had a form to work it into. Now I am more interested in finding form within the syntax and structure of the poem.
Q. This work is essentially a narrative with main players, Joe, Mari, Mae, how did this concept take shape and what was the catalyst?
Initially I planned a documentary poem. But then I realized that in order to explore all the themes that I was interested in I would have to fictionalize the characters. Being released from the need to adhere to factual accuracy unleashed my imagination and allowed the work to acquire visionary elements that I hope readers will experience as psychologically authentic. I was also fascinated with the fact that religion had become so central to events in the world and I wanted to try to figure out why that had happened.
Q. As I ask all my interviewees, what are you currently reading and why?
I am reading the American poet Alan Dugan’s Poems Seven which is more or less his collected works. I heard of him through an essay by Louise Glück, the poet who I am writing my PhD thesis about. His poems are tough and spare and daring and he has a completely original voice.
Q. And finally, is there anything in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
I am working on some new poems, working with a composer on a musical theater adaptation of ‘Our Lady of the Fence Post’ and I have to finish my PhD!
I would like to thank J.H. Crone for spending the time answering my questions and wish her well with her PhD completion. Trusting you’ve enjoyed yet another poet interview.