Antígona González – Sara Uribe (translated by John Pluecker) – 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry

AntigonaGonzalez

Today more from Mexico, moving from Valeria Luiselli’s latest book “Tell Me How It Ends” back to the 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry longlist. Sara Uribe’s “Antígona González” uses the daughter/sister of Oedipus and the tale where she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices who was killed in battle, and transposes the search for a corpse to the present Mexican landscape where numerous people go missing.

My name is Antígona González and I am searching/among the dead for the corpse of my brother. (p7)

A work that is a grieving book, for a missing brother, for nameless bodies, for an uncaring society that allows disappearances to become the norm.

I came to San Fernando to search for my brother.
I came to San Fernando to search for my father.
I came to San Fernando to search for my husband.
I came to San Fernando to search for my son.
I came with the others for the bodies of our people. (p103)

Our poet’s missing brother is Tadeo and Sara Uribe uses a raft of inputs to explore disappearance, “the verb to disappear”, this is a heart wrenching work gives voice, and life, to the nameless, the anonymous;

 In my dream, I’m certain one of those suitcases is
Tadeo’s. Mamá gave him that name because he was
the one who struggled most at birth. She promised
ninety novenas to Saint Jude if he would save her son.
She prayed those novenas and baptized him in his
honor so that the hope of the hopeless would always
shine on him. So that the smallest of her children
would never forget that from his very birth he had
overcome adversity. (p43)

Through extensive use of space, some pages with central text, others from the top, others from the bottom of the page, the English translation appears alongside the Spanish text. The all-encompassing vastness of the Mexican desert, the missing persons and a fruitless search is relayed through the visual open presentation;

So I head out to my job on an empty stomach and as
I drive I thank of all the gaps, all the absences no one
notices and yet are there. (p81)

The stress, tension of not knowing comes through in the tight language, it is easy to imagine the poet ranting these lines at you, yelling her frustration at you. The book contains fourteen pages of references and notes, a detailed explanation of the resources used to create this multi-layered work, quotes from blogs, italicised text an interloper’s voice, facts including testimonies from victims and family members as compiled by journalists and quotes from other writers, including a sequence of questions by Harold Pinter from the poem “Death”, such as “WHO WAS THE DEAD BODY?” with answers coming from various other sources, the book resembles a performance art piece rather than simply a poetry collection.

All of us here will gradually disappear if no one searches
for us, if no one names us.

All of us here will gradually disappear if we just look
helplessly at each other, watching how we disappear one
by one. (p 165)

A book that explores the impacts of people disappearing, the grief that remains behind, the questioning, “the interpretation of Antigone is radically altered in Latin America – Polynices is identified with the marginalized and disappeared” (p23)

Also including seventeen pages of translator notes;

There is a startling specificity to this Antígona. We are in Tamaulipas, a state along the Gulf coast in Mexico and bordering the Río Bravo/Rio Grande in South Texas. It is a time of brutal violence that strains the very definition of the word “war,” as it evades any previous understanding of what “war” might be. A specific moment and a specific horror.

Antígona González is not Sophocles’ Antigone, though Uribe’s book is inexorably tied to the long trajectory of Sophocles’ tragedy. In his version, Antigone could not bear the dictate of Creon to leave her brother’s dead body exposed and unburied on a dusty plain. In Uribe’s version, Antígona González is bereft of a body to mourn, a body to bury. (p191)

Including a rationalisation process where the poet wonders what to do with Tadeo’s killers, the various stages of grieving are walked through as you become further and further frustrated at the lack of knowledge, the unknown and the endless missing persons, this is a very complex and moving book. Yet another worthwhile inclusion on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award longlists.

At the Lightening Field – Laura Raicovich

LighteningField

A short review today, of a short book (eighty-two small pages), a poetic essay, the ekphrastic “At the Lightening Field” by Laura Raicovich.

As the opening paragraph explains:

Walter De Maria’s The Lightening Field is composed of four hundred stainless steel poles positioned 220 feet apart. The site, in the desert of central New Mexico, was selected for its “flatness, high lightening activity and isolation” and is bounded on the east, west, and south by ridges of distant mountains. The sharply pointed poles demarcate a grid one mile by one kilometre and six meters.

Laura Raicovich worked for the Dia Art Foundation from early 2002 to late 2011 and the Foundation is charged with the maintenance and protection of The Lightening Field, hence several visits, four that Raicovich recalls and presents poetically in this work.

I thought about perfect geometries and the incremental,
creeping
expansion of the universe;
the messiness of the cosmos;
the slowing
rotation
of the earth. (p 7-8)

The poetic recollections are themselves disorienting, but at the same time formally structured, reflecting the artwork itself, being on a massive site in the desert, with poles forming a structured grid, disorienting the viewer, but also encompassing a full immersion experience.

My sense of time in the city meant nothing in this place. It was replaced by a feeling of forever that was closer to geologic time than my own notions of a day or week passing. I thought I could understand big things better if I stayed. I wanted to commit to being in this place – as I said, I would have stayed longer. (p 8)

This text, written from memory, is an unreliable construction, unlike The Lightening Field itself, which is firm, unmoving, however also like the field the text moves with your movement, you become part of the artwork, the text relaying a physical experience.

Within the austerity of the desert, there are few distractions
from the acts and implications of perception. Concentration
is more easily achieved,
revealing the remarkable. (p 28)

A work that contains quotes from well-known writers including Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Nabokov, Gertrude Stein, and Julio Cortázar, those names alone signifying literary as well as mystical poetic work. The descriptions of differing light, throughout a single day, the air, the endless horizons and skies all creating the location specific mood.

The Lightening Field was completed on 31 October 1977 and there is a recreation of the feeling at the time, through references to NASA space mission photos “music and film adopting “space” as a subject” (p 53), the book is space specific, using the construction and grid like feel of the artwork itself, and blank space on the page, short sharp lines.

I wanted to stay longer. (p61)

The feeling of isolation, coming to the fore through the poems and descriptions, again site specific, as guests visiting the filed must report to a nearby town, and are driven to a hut on the site, where they stay for at least one evening before being picked up again the next day and transported back to their own transport. The experience of the artwork The Lightening Field is an immersion experience, a personal experience, where no photographs are allowed, Laura Raicovich has captured this isolation, and the structure of the artwork through her poetic essay.

Raicovich’s book has provoked me enough to have me thinking about a visit to New Mexico (which is a LONG way from Australia) to experience the remoteness, the accommodation and the artwork myself. As a frequent visitor to the central desert regions of Australia, the isolation and remoteness captured in Raicovich’s essay can be transposed to similar remote experiences here, an impressive feat indeed.

Included in the book is an extensive bibliography, for people who are interested in learning more about The Lightening Field. The official website is here if you are interested in reading a little more about Walter De Maria’s work.

Another fine publication from Coffee House Press, an independent USA based publisher who is fast becoming one of my “go to” publishers for essays. I will review another short work from Coffee House Press here, hopefully tomorrow, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli’s essay about the immigration process for children entering the USA, “Tell Me How It Ends; An Essay in Forty Questions”.

 

Instructions Within – Ashraf Fayadh (translated by Mona Kareem, Mona Zaki and Jonathan Wright) – Best Translated Book Award Poetry 2017

InstructionsWithin

In November 2015 Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death for renouncing Islam, his original sentence of four years in prison and 800 lashes in May 2014 was overturned on appeal and a “new panel of judges rules that his repentance did not prevent his execution.” (“The Guardian 20/11/2015 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/20/saudi-court-sentences-poet-to-death-for-renouncing-islam) A further appeal has resulted in an eight year jail sentence and 800 lashes to be carried out over 16 occasions.

“In August 2013, he was detained by the mutaween (religious police) following a complaint that he was cursing against Allah and the prophet Muhammad, insulting Saudi Arabia and distributing a book of his poems that promoted atheism. Fayadh said the complaint arose from a personal dispute during a discussion in a cafe in Abha.” (“The Guardian” 3/2/2016)

His collection of poems “Instructions Within” was published, in translation, by The Operating System in November 2016 and was recently longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award (Poetry).

The first thing that strikes you when you pick up this collection is the binding, right bound, opening to the left, the book comes with an insert explanation from Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, the Founder and Managing Editor;

Each of The Operating System’s books questions design standard in order to dislodge our normative patterning and expectation, with the belief that continuous exposure to diversity on the page – both in content and design – affect not only the cognitive brain by the body as well, in so far as this required the ‘rewiring’ of brain behaviors, essentially getting us out of a ‘rut’ of repetitive reception.

INSTRUCTIONS WITHIN goes one step farther – requiring the western reader to hold and read the book as one would an Arabic or Hebrew volume, that is, by being right-bound. The westerner might find him or herself saying that the book ‘starts at the back’ or feeling vaguely uncomfortable holding the book and/or turning pages ‘backward’ but this is precisely the point: to disrupt the proprioceptic modelling that tells you that the way to do things, your patterning is not only yours but ‘right’ or ‘normal,’ when in fact hundreds of millions of people – billions of people – experience books and texts in directions different from our own.

Reading you are certainly off kilter, with the English versions of the poems appearing on the left page and the Arabic versions on the right, working from “the back”.

Immediately you are struck by the writer as a refugee;

The air is polluted, and the dumpsters,
and your soul, too, ever since it got mixed up with carbon.
And your heart, ever since the arteries got blocked
denying citizenship
to the blood coming back from your head.

  • From “A Space In The Void” (p6)

This opening poem setting the tone, space abounds, on the page, in the text, the loss of personal space, a newborn “child to fill another part of the void” (p14) even sleep is to “go back to your void” (p18). The page lightly peppered with the test, the white page filling the void.

The political is not far from the poet’s pen either with people displaced from their lands for oil, the poem “On The Virtues Of Oil Over Blood” containing;

You tremble now,
so take what there is of your blood
to fill the belly of exile –
to gather the overseers’ oil
and smother their intention to drag away your soul.
Ask forgiveness of the river –
and loudly apologize as your blood seeps into its waters. (p32)

The notes on page 42 explaining, “Almost all of this poem is quoted by the court that ruled for Ashraf’s death sentence.” The themes of the heart, desire, corpses, blood, oil and displacement are the recurring images, poem after poem.

I am looking for a land to love…or to love me
for a homes to shelter all the captives
of a war that didn’t carry any burdens
To lay them down.
I am looking for a ceiling other than a sky,
sick of veiling my shameful history

  • From “A Hired Lover” (p80)

The book also includes experimental works as in “B.I.M.”;

01000101011010101
01000101011010101
01000101011010101
compare and choose what the world accepts of you
I am
10001
I am
000
I am
1

(p 170)

This is activist poetry, poetry of oppression, jail cells, writing on walls, the conditions of being interred, all of this visited in the twenty-page poem “Amnesty”.

Although a 296-page book, the dual language presentation and some of the pages containing a mere two or three lines, it is not a weighty tome. Personally, I found the shorter one or two page poems more coherent, the longer ten to twenty page ones some of the symbolism or references were too obscure or politically specific for me to understand.

Being a refugee means standing at the end of the line
to get a fraction of a country.
Standing is something your grandfather did, without knowing the reason.
And the fraction is you.
Country: a card you put in your wallet with your money.
Money: pieces of paper with pictures of leaders.
Pictures: they stand in for you until you return.
Return: a mythical creature that appears in your grandfather’s stories.
There endeth the first lesson.
The lesson is conveyed to you so that you can learn the second lesson, which is
“what do you signify?”

  • From “The Last Of The Line Of Refugee Descendants” (p 248)

There are a few poems where the number of Arabic lines differ from the English translated lines, something that I found a little strange.

Overall an important work, one bringing to the English-speaking world the work of an activist poet, wonderfully presented to ensure you are always thinking about the original texts, and the process of reading. I will leave this review with a quote from the end notes by the founder and managing editor of “an operating system” Lynne  DeSilva-Johnson; “For it will, indeed, be the poets (musicians, artists, creators of all kind” who “wake up the world”.” An important message for these uncertain times.

Flute of Milk – Susan Fealy PLUS bonus poet interview

Flute_of_Milk

Another massive thank you is in order, with poet Susan Fealy being very generous in her replies to my questions, I am slowly building up a nice little reference site of Australian poet interviews with the following poets all having recent works reviewed and being interviewed here (links on names are the links to the interviews):

Bruce Dawe 

David McCooey 

Alan Loney 

J. H. Crone

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Tina Giannoukos

Eileen Chong

Michael Farrell

If I can figure out a little more of the WordPress details I would like to set up a separate section on the blog featuring only the interviews with poets, bear with me whilst I learn to overcome my luddite tendencies.

To date the interviews have been with four male poets and four female poets and today I am now adding another female to the list, with more in the wings, and am very conscious of ensuring equal representation here, publishing numbers may not be equal, however I will do my upmost to ensure interviews and reviews are as gender balanced as possible.

Onto Susan Fealy’s debut work “Flute of Milk” another publication from the “poetry club” at the University of Western Australia Publishing, I have reviewed the first four releases from this collection and am now about to embark on the following six, and with another four due in May it appears I may be a little busy!!!

The collection opens with the ekphrastic “Made in Delft; after The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer”, a copy of the painting is here

milkmaid

(image courtesy of http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/milkmaid.html#.WOgcbtKGPIU )

 

“One can almost taste the milk/Escaping her jug.” Flowing perfectly to the title poem, “Flute of Milk”, which is a reference to John Banville’s novel “The Sea”, the opening two sentences of the novel reading;

They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes.

And Fealy playing with the milky light;

Inside the dairy, washed so white
it approaches blue,
muslin-draped pans of milk
dream into their silence
and two steel milk-churns
(sentries in flat hats)
burn with white rosettes:
light held from the sun.
(from “Flute of Milk” p16)

This collection is a vibrant kaleidoscope of colours, whites, blues, “A paintbox:/a flock of parrots” (p20), reds and pinks of sunrise. With poems such as “A Confluence of Blues” – containing the Henri Matisse quote “A certain blue penetrates your soul” – celebrating the palette of colours in flowers, and the Brett Whiteley homage “For Cornflowers to Sing” celebrating his vivid use of blue.

The common thread being light and refraction, less shadows, more celebration of brightness, light, with the novels by John Banville, “The Sea” and Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping, two early references, both of those books containing light and the natural world as themes and threads.

A subtle collection, laced with metaphor;

crystalline as crème brûlée
and sometimes as acidic
as an ants’ nest undone by rain,

and sometimes as welcome
as the neighbour’s dog –
the one that meets you behind the fence
just as you reach your door.

(from “What Memory is Like” p 26)

And subtle readings, slow contemplative poems that linger long after the page has been turned;

A Poem

is close
to a musical instrument
It’s a place
to leave your fingers
and your lips.
A poem aches to be
a woodland flute
but is more a piano.
Some poems are conch shells,
familiar as bone
in your hands. A poem
gleams in the arc-light –
sparks from atolls in the dark.

(p35)

Section two of the collection opens with a quote, the closing section, from Robert Hass’ short prose poem “A Story About the Body” (a copy can be read here),  The following poems then focus on the bees in that story, the danger that lurks beneath the surface, the collected detritus, the underlying truth.

This is a collection of light, “This whiteness assembles/only whiteness” (from “Southern Ice Porcelain” p68), colour and vibrancy,

The Wabi-sabi Storage Jar

It’s large enough to lair an animal.
Gravelled, rich-red, its slabs
Roughly rhyme around its opening.
One smooth black lip binds its craggy lip:
Night kisses a mountain.
It is pocked in sliver as if
Fire dragged its starlight to the surface:
A crime of green
Found a home here
When flame collided with clay.

(p69)

Creation (porcelain and pottery) and the natural world (clay, plants and flowers). A sparkling array of poems, another welcome addition to the UWAP Poetry Club collection.

As always I thank the poet for making the time to answer my questions, and her honesty and in-depth replies. I have repeated the questions and answers verbatim, I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.

Q. Brett Whiteley is known for his vivid use of blue, and you capture that in “For Cornflowers To Sing”, the collection opens with a rendering of a Vermeer painting, is ekphrastic poetry an attraction for you?

I find that a poem arises when there are collisions between 1/ my internal world 2/attentiveness to the outside world 3/ an image or linguistic trigger. I have learnt that to produce a poem the experience of these collisions has to be immersive, and place me into an ambiguous space where tension between images, ideas and tonalities are worked through associatively. I write to help understand what I am experiencing and I write until I surprise myself. When the associations take a rhythmic, musical and structured form it can make a poem.

Ekphrastic poetry is an attraction because the visual arts place me into that immersive space quite readily. They also give an experience that has conceptual and sensual elements that are beyond my own understanding. Sometimes, I am filtering the aesthetic and seeking to grasp the creative energies that went into the making of the artefact. It might seem fanciful, but a deep engagement with a work of art approaches a radical intimacy. It can feel like I am engaging with the creative process of its maker. When I think about it, perhaps ekphrastic poetry is attractive to me because I mostly write in free verse and so the painting, photograph or other artefact provides a kind of container or boundary.

I find it fascinating that some art works produce an ekphrastic response, while others do not. I was lucky enough to attend Robin Hemley’s lecture on the ekphrastic essay (at the time, he was a visiting professor at RMIT university). He noted that creative writing in prose arrives to try and resolve the dysjunctions or ambiguities found in a painting or photograph. Locating these may be a necessary condition for utterance to arise but it does not seem sufficient as many works of art have mystery and complexity. I think poems only take off for me when the artwork resonates with my internal world.

Q. John Banville and Marilynne Robinson are just two references you use in section one, writers who play with light as a theme, something you’ve done throughout your collection. Why the attraction to refraction?

The recurrence of light and shadow may be a consequence of my imagist style and the fact that paintings and photographs have triggered poems. Light and shadow work with the painterly motifs of this collection but they also resonate with the exploration of hope and transcendence versus despair. Housekeeping and The Sea have ghosts that haunt the present and they are immersed in water and light; their immersive, haunted qualities help build the flow as it were.

Q. Robert Haas’ work “A Story About the Body”, which you quote to open section two of your book, can be interpreted in many ways, danger beneath the surface, underlying truth beneath a pretty veneer, being just two readings. What is your take on this poem and how has it influenced your work?

The power of this poem for me lies in its multiple meanings—each of which—mercurial, resist exact definition. I like the layers of the poem and the way the unresolved tensions charge it with electricity. I like its simple language and its interrogation of the human condition.  The meanings of the gesture from the spurned older woman spark with the meanings of the young man narrator receiving the gesture from a woman whose culture and aesthetic he is entranced by, but does not understand. But perhaps most of all what I like is how the poem hints at the possibilities for poetic language to contain and transform difficult experience. The poem buzzes with the sensual and the symbolic. It has the aliveness of her recent action and the shock of his response. The small blue bowl contains the allure and eroticism of rose petals, the history of her breast, the history of the erotic charge between them, and the sting of its dead, failed consummation. Numerous rose petals and numerous bees evoke the tactile and the swarm of her feeling. How different it would be ( as it were) if the small cultural artefact contained one of each! I aspire to write with such deceptive simplicity and charge. I chose an extract from this poem to open section two early in the development of the collection. It introduces the trope of bees and the ways in which artefacts might be containers, but it also alerts the reader to the allure and sting of relationships, and life cycles lived in the body.

Q. In “The Vase Imposes” you create the stillness, the meticulous preparation and the contemplation by the use of short lines and space. Is poetic “form” one of your more enjoyable pursuits?

The crafting of a poem always involves the working through of how best to yoke form and content. Yes, I do enjoy that process. When I began to write poetry I liked using traditional forms because they were reliable containers. I am less wedded to them now because I have found from experience that energy, strangeness and originality are more likely to arise when I let the page net the first draft.

Sometimes a poem finds its bones very quickly and often the structure of the line sets much of itself down in an early draft.  At times, I draw on Judith Beveridge’s advice to structure the poem in a number of different forms. It gives me distance and helps me apprehend what the poem is telling me it wants to be. When I wrote ‘The Vase Imposes’, it was clear from the beginning that the minimalist aesthetic of the Flower- Master and the tension of adopting its extremity was best conveyed by short, clipped lines and white space around small stanzas. The making of this poem meant working with the paradox of how simplicity is wrought from control. A control that suggests a kind of violence. The surprise of the poem for me was to see a link between the art form and the control of women in that era and culture.

Q. You end the collection with the poem “Writing with the Left Hand”, highlighting awkwardness, but also leaving the reader with a sense of personal honesty (“I will use the ink from my dead hand”). Was completing this collection a struggle, leaving such a large part of yourself on the page?

That is a really loaded question to ask a clinical psychologist! I have thought a lot about the relationship between the self and the artefact. I feel comfortable that by the time the poem has been shaped, it has become itself even if its genesis began with elements of lived experience or my imaginary life. I shaped the collection over a number of years and nearly all of these poems have been published elsewhere. By the time the collection was done it did not feel like I was leaving blood on the page.

‘Writing with the Left Hand’ was placed last in the collection for a number of reasons. The body and mortality are themes in part two. Blood is a liquid of our mortal body and of course I wanted to end the collection with flow. This poem flows into new possibilities but acknowledges that the rupture of change involves loss and this demands a kind of redress that paradoxically reconnects oneself with the past. I am glad that you sense the personal honesty in the poem. It was a classic case of seeking to write in a voice that is not one’s own becoming an accidental way of discovering insight into the self.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I like to really immerse in what I am reading, rather than skim over it on the way to something else. I read with the demand that it surprises me, moves me, challenges me spiritually and intellectually, offers me the possibility of being changed by what I read. I want to be jolted by language that is pushed to its limits. So, as you have asked me about what am I reading, and why, I will tell you about the work that is offering me, consistently, these kind of experiences.  I have returned to Peter Boyle’s magnificent translation of The Trees: Selected Poems 1967-2004 ( Salt, 2004) by the Venezuelan  poet Eugenio Montejo ( 1938-2008). Reading this poetry feels like walking through a cathedral of ancient trees while pierced to the quick by his profound insights into the human condition. These lines from the critic Perez quoted in the introduction by Miguel Gomes capture something essential about his work: ‘when we read his poetry we succumb to the sensation of being reached by the past, which has become a hidden aspect of the present, something we must uncover in order to restitute both memory and immediacy to their original state of communion.’

Jen Hadfield’s Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe, 2008) is a language of delight, verve and play that startles and invigorates. Even her brief poems contain whole worlds. Her subject is everyday lived experience in wild, cold climates and language itself. Her language is rich, deft, audacious, has something of Shakespeare and Hopkins. It is a radiant mix of the imaginative and scientific close-up observation.

In the wake of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s death I have returned to his Selected Poems (Penguin, 1962) translated by Peter Levi and Robin Milner-Gulland, and found video footage of him reading his work. It still leaves me breathless.

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I am writing lineated poems interspersed with prose jottings. At this stage I am not sure where it will lead. I am happy to let it run its own course until I work out what it is telling me to do.

I have just finished my first review of an art exhibition ( O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism at Heide Museum of Modern Art). I decided to focus the review around ‘making’ and work towards an understanding of what modernism meant for each artist. I developed the review from responses to individual paintings because I trusted that this would provide a fresh response that I could shape. I had to keep in mind that the art world is not ready for a review written in verse! Seriously, I was never in danger of doing that, but I did learn that close observation and negative capability help to review an art exhibition just as they help to review a collection of poetry.

I have been rereading some of my early poems and reflecting on the fact that I write fewer overtly political poems. Making myself write a particular type of poem is a guaranteed way of making a failed poem but I want to think more about what political means in the context of the poem and be open to where this takes me.

 

Thanks again to Susan Fealy for her time and her wonderful replies. Coming up on the blog I have some questions with an “experimental” poet and am hoping to have this interview with you in the coming days too.

 

Border Security – Bruce Dawe PLUS bonus poet interview

BorderSecurityIt takes many types to make up the poetic landscape in Australia, and Bruce Dawe is one of the unique characters in that landscape.

His latest collection forms part of the University of Western Australia Publishing’s (‘UWAP’), Poetry Club, their first release being four books and all of them have been reviewed here. As per most of my recent Australian poetry reviews I have contacted the poet to conduct and interview and in Bruce Dawe’s case I was hoping to get an understanding from an ageing man about the progression of poetry in Australia over the last 60 or so years (Dawe was born in 1930) but my attempts at depth were in vain.

To start off with Bruce Dawe is, in his own words, “a PCP (pre-computer-person), so these answers will come courtesy of my wife, Liz” not the same person who receives a credit for typing in his collection “Border Security” (that’s Mary Coffey). He was also not that willing to share a whole lot, but I believe the simplicity and shortness of his replies gives an insight into his character and also into his poetry so I have chosen (as always) to publish my email interview verbatim.

The collection itself is not really my style of poetry with poems about Australian Rules Football matches “The Cup and The Lip”, walking the dog “Dog Heaven”, knitting, simply “Knitting”, or a poem titled “Considering Clouds on a Sunday Morning”, these examples, titles only show you that the collection has a very earthy, suburban, battler feel.

How do we sum up just how much we owe
To those who care for us when we are down,
When nights are long and days just come and go
And the sick body bids the spirit frown?
– taken from “Caring”

“Caring” the poem an “appreciation of my experience as a patient at Sunshine Coast Private Hospital, August 2008”

The least favourite of mine from the first four books in the Poetry Club collection, I can fully appreciate that there would be numerous Bruce Dawe fans out there who would relish a new collection, and can understand that this style of honest “battler” Aussie bloke poetry is something people appreciate. Unfortunately it’s not my thing. Therefore I will leave my comments short and head straight over to the interview – apologies for the curt, short replies

Q. You show that the everyday can be poetic, in this specific collection we have broad subjects such as an AFL match, walking the dogs, can you explain how you identify with something being poetic and how that translates into the urge to write?

I don’t ponder over the possibility of the poetic – I have never had a distinctive view of the term.

Q. Even though the title of this collection is from one poem, a number of your works contain “borders”, for example blocks of land, how did you choose the title of this collection?

Like most people, I see ‘borders’ everywhere in the world: social, political, personal. I watch the TV show Border Security regularly, aware of how often people seek to redefine or challenge borders.

Q. Rather than a sequence of poems this book appeared to me as a collection, how do you order the poems in a collection of this sort?

I don’t choose the final poems for a collection, believing I’m often ‘too close to the scene of the accident to be objective’ – I get a trusted (ie unbiased professional) friend to make the final choices.

Q. Referring to “Employment Problem” have your legs returned to employment?

‘Yes. The legs are okay again. Bursitis is slowing them up a bit, despite acupuncture.

Q. You’ve probably been asked this many times before, however I’m interested in your sequence of “careers”, how does one move from the RAAF to poetry?

I joined the RAAF because being a postman (on a walk round) took up a lot of the day (sorting at 6.00am, on the round until 10.30; back again at 2.00pm until 4.30pm…). What the RAAF gave me was time to study – not being much of a drinker. Uni study was a good discipline for me in my spare time.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I’m reading possible texts for my next U3A course – Mythology. I teach new texts every year, thus retaining most of my U3A students who are like a third family. I’ve taught U3A now for over twenty years, before that I taught for 20 years at tertiary level.

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’ve worked (over several years with a fellow dramatist) on various versions of my two political verse plays (published originally by Picaro Press): Blind Spots (Gillard/Rudd) and Kevin Almighty (guess who!).

As always I thank the poet for his time in answering my questions. I am hoping to run with an interview after approaching a more experimental poet in the coming weeks, stay tuned.

Star Struck – David McCooey PLUS bonus poet interview

starstruck

The University of Western Australia Publishing (“UWAP”) has this week released six new poetry titles, the second release from their new “Poetry Club” imprint. Before I get to these titles I still have two from their October releases to look at, Bruce Dawe’s “Border Security” and David McCooey’s “Star Struck”.

A few months ago I looked at J.H. Crone’s “Our Lady of the Fence Post” and Alan Loney’s “Melbourne Journal: Notebooks 1998-2003”, both reviews also including interviews with the poets.

Today I have a wonderful extensive interview with David McCooey and thank him for the amazing effort he put into answering my questions, the full interview is at the end of this short review of his collection.

“Star Struck” opens, and closes, with “This Voice”, not forming part of the four sections of poems, these 2nd person poems act as parenthesies for the whole collection, the sounds of “phantom traffic, and the/enduring noise of a goods train” letting us know that the everyday noise drowns out our voices. Although the tone is isolating, removed, the reader knows that the singular multitude of voices throughout the collection are being amplified over the mundane.

Section 1 “Documents” opens with an epigraph from Renata Adler’s “Pitch Dark” (1983), advising us of the innocence of children, with the fifteen following poems, again using the second person, relaying the poet’s experiences whist in hospital for cardiac surgery. Clinically removed, the poems open with a family reality, the possibility of being entombed in a labyrinth, this juggles against childlike play where the realities of the impending critical surgery loom.

The human connection is brought home in “Music for Hospitals” and “Cardiac Ward Poetics” where numbered catalogues and lists suddenly move to “The Hunter” where the ‘male nurse’ shows photos on his phone. From “1. Hospital light, like any other/light is rarely ‘lemon coloured’” and “v) Everything happens at once;/a nurse with a needle;/the synaesthesia of breakfast.” to “ Then he turns to the other patient/who is sitting in bed in his striped pyjamas/and too far away to see anything./He holds the phone aloft like an offering/or a promise.”

“Second-Person”, although isolated, removed, explores the post-surgery rebirth, a new future:

Delivered by green-clad
medical staff to this place,

you enter the realm
of second-person singular,

a new you
to ghost the old,

the one on the other side
of a recalibrated life:

a body lying in
a bed, alive to

the homespun sounds of
each unprecedented sunrise.

Section 2, “Available Light” explores extremes, not simply light and dark, but man and woman, space and underworld, shouting and silence.

A collection peppered with literary references including Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”, Muriel Spark’s “Not to Disturb”, “The Takeover”, “Territorial Rights”, “The Driver’s Seat”, Tomas Transtömer’s “Selected Poems”, Roberto Bolaño and Georges Perec. Readers will be digging into their bookshelves with renewed vigour, looking for the references, and enjoying another reader’s view on them.

Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities uses a rigorous mathematical structure, and McCooey touches on these themes in his poem of the same name, also using the Oulipo approach to his poem “Georges Perec: A True Story”.

Section three, “Pastorals (Eighteen Dramatic Monologues)”, a collection of poems using pop culture, music (Mick and Bianca Jagger, Brian Eno, Tori Amos, Man at Work to name a few) as well as movies (Easy Rider). Who would have thought William Blake’s “Oothoon” could be compared to Kate Bush’s “Never For Ever” album?

The collection closes with “Two Nocturnal Tales”, with a Tove Jansson epigraph (from “The Summer Book”) these longer poems exploring romance, identity, the supernatural and, again, returning to the innocence of the child’s observations.

A very assured, enjoyable and varied collection, that contains a plethora of layers to explore.

Over to the interview I conducted with David McCooey via email, again I thank him very much for his time and efforts in putting together such extensive and interesting replies.

David Mccooey

February 2017

Q. Two poems titled “This Voice” act as parentheses to your collection, and the work contains a multitude of voices, for myself the use of the 2ndperson in these two poems creates a feeling of isolation, alienation. This also becomes very apparent in the opening section “Documents”. What is your attraction to multiple voices and forms of voice?

A. Yes, there are plenty of voices in Star Struck. The third section, ‘Pastorals’, is made up of dramatic monologues; that is, poems in which the speaker is not me. This was largely a reaction against writing autobiographical poetry, which I was getting a bit tired of. It was fun to pretend to be another character (including real people such as Joni Mitchell and Jim Morrison), and it allowed me to do things that I had never done before. It also allowed me to be a bit more expansive at times. By taking on a persona, I inevitably became more interested in narrative. My first book of poems, Blister Pack, is full of very short poems, but in Star Struck I struck out a bit more, and I enjoyed the prospect of a poem going past 20 lines!

But to get back to the use of the second-person address in ‘This Voice’ and ‘Documents’, I think there are a number of things going on there. In ‘This Voice’ I consciously wanted the use of second-person perspective to be alienating, and to undermine simple ideas of my poems simply expressing ‘my voice’ (whatever that is). In ‘Documents’, which is made up of poems that deal with my time in a cardiology ward and having surgery, I used the second-person because I didn’t want the poems to be too much about me. The poems are in part about the experiences (including some observations about the oddness of hospitals), rather than how I felt about those experiences. I wanted a sense of distance to avoid ‘confessional excess’, if I can call it that. Also, at some level, one does feel somewhat estranged from difficult or traumatic events as they happen to you. I guess I also wanted to put the reader in the position I was in, so that might account for the feeling of isolation that you mention.

Lastly, I am interested in the voice from a sonic point of view. My album of audio poetry (or ‘poetry soundtracks’), Outside Broadcast (2013), is in part a response to my frustration with the limitations of the poetry reading or the ‘straight’ recording of a poet reading her or his work. As in Star Struck, I wasn’t interested in my ‘real voice’ per se. Rather, I wanted to use audio technology (and music and sound design) to process, distort, and ‘stage’ my voice in ways otherwise impossible.

Q. When I interviewed Melbourne poet Michael Farrell about musical references in his work “Cocky’s Joy” he said “Pop music is a big part of the way I think about words/phrases, and to some extent poetic form…. I want to write equivalents of great songs – the feel as much as the form.” Reading section 3 of your collection, “Pastorals (Eighteen Dramatic Monologues)”, and with your musical background, I have a sense that you have a similar view. Is that correct?

A. Absolutely, though the poems in ‘Pastorals’ are mostly responses to my life-long immersion in popular music, rather than attempts to find a way of writing song-like poetry or to compete with the last 50 or 60 years of song. Many of the poems in ‘Pastorals’ are about finding a place somewhere between the lyric and narrative poetry. But in all cases, the song or musician evoked informs the imagery or architecture or concept of the poem. ‘Before and After Science: Brian Eno in Hospital’ is a good example; quite a few ‘tropes’ from Eno’s songs (as well as the liner notes from one of his records) inform that poem. I wanted it to be, perhaps, the poetic equivalent (impossible though that is) of Eno’s album, Before and After Science, which has been one of my favourites since I was 14.

Q. Who would have thought Roberto Bolaño writing about gazelles could be linked to Manus Island and Australia’s refugee policy, can you explain how you came up with that link?

A. The poem in question, ‘Election’, was written for Writing to the Wire, which was an anthology edited by Dan Disney and Kit Kelen. The anthology is a collection of poems about, and in some cases by, those seeking asylum in Australia. I very strongly wanted to be part of that project, but like a lot of poets, perhaps, I was struggling with writing a poem about such a charged political issue. My anger was making me inarticulate. I was re-reading Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, which is a short, powerful novel about how writers can and can’t write of, and against, repressive regimes, and how they can be complicit with those regimes. (Obviously, despite the contempt I feel for our current Federal government, they haven’t yet, thankfully, reached the criminal depths of Pinochet’s regime, but nevertheless, some of what is going on here is criminal in a literal sense.) Anyway, I came across the line about gazelles in Bolaño’s novel—‘We move like gazelles or the way gazelles move in a tiger’s dream’—and it seemed to open up a way of thinking about these things that retained the anger, but was also poetry. Of course, the epigraph (the translation of which is by the Australian translator and poet Chris Andrews) is the best thing about the poem.

Q. “’Whaling Station’ Redux” has vivid imagery and the story a child being shown the whaling industry as a “tour”, this is now too shocking too graphic to show a child. Is this simply a reflection of progress or a reflection of different generational sensibilities?

A. Hopefully it’s both. In 2017 it can sometimes be hard to think of progress, but it still shocks me to think that in the early 1970s it was considered acceptable for an operational whaling station to also be a tourist attraction. That’s profoundly shocking. And equally shocking is the fact that my parents thought that this was something appropriate to take their children to see. I have now written two poems about that experience, which suggests I have really struggled with the awfulness of that experience, in part (as you suggest) because of what it says about the assumptions people had in the past.

Q. You are obviously extremely well read with a large number of literary references throughout this collection (Italo Calvino, Muriel Spark, Tomas Transtömer, Georges Perec, Roberto Bolaño to name just a few), there is an attraction to the OulipoSchool, do you use any Oulipean constraints in your work? And I always ask this question, what are you currently reading and why?

A. Well, my day job is an academic in literature and writing, so I suppose it’s not surprising that writers and writing should feature in my poetry. But all literature, one way or another, is a response to other people’s writing. The writers who are named-checked in Star Struck are there because they fulfil a function in any given poem, though it’s true that they are all writers I admire a lot. Perhaps I’m trying to get a little bit of their magic by evoking their names. Evocation is an ancient poetic form of power, after all.

The Oulipo poem (‘Georges Perec: A True Story’) was another case of a writer fulfilling a function. I wanted to tell quite a banal domestic story, but I wanted to do it in an interesting way, so I simply gave each member of my family a letter (‘A’, ‘B’ etc). When I realised that my daughter, who now lives out of home, could be ‘E’ and therefore absent (like the missing ‘e’ in Perec’s lipogrammatic novel, La Dispiration, which was written entirely without the letter ‘e’), I thought that was a nice joke. It also seemed like a happy Oulipo outcome. But no, I don’t usually use constraints like an Oulipo writer would (though I am very interested in writing programmatically to a degree; that is, to have a project and write to it, rather than wait for ‘inspiration’, which I largely don’t believe in.)

I’ve just finished reading Rachel Cusk’s latest novel, Transit (2017), which is quite simply one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It’s one of those books that makes you think, ‘I’d happily give up writing’ if this is what one has to aspire to. I’ve also recently read Rod Jones’s first novel, Julia Paradise (1986), which is part of the Text Classics series. I was completely bowled over by that, too. I think Jones’s work breaks down the boundaries between prose fiction and poetry. I’m currently reading the Selected Poems of the New Zealand poet Jenny Bornholdt, whose work I admire enormously.

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

A. That’s a good question! I haven’t quite got into my next poetry book yet. I’ve written a few poems, but I’m not sure what shape a whole collection will take. Meanwhile, I’m finishing off my second album, which is called The Double. It isn’t audio poetry this time, but it does use samples of voices and some text-to-speech synthesis. I’m very interested in the way the spoken word—which isn’t a poem or rapping—can work within music. I think that interest comes out of my love of the complex soundtracks of movies, which mix together music, voices, and sounds. I love the observation by the French film director Robert Bresson, who writes the following in his Notes on the Cinematograph (1975, as translated by Jonathan Griffin): ‘The eye (in general) superficial, the ear profound and inventive. A locomotive’s whistle imprints in us a whole railway station’. That almost gets us back to the beginning, and talking about voices.

 

 

“Calamities” by Renee Gladman & “Violet Energy Ingots” by Hoa Nguyen

calamities

Incomprehension is usually the result of obfuscation, the words refusing to slip into focus
–  (Foreword Annie Dillard’s “The Abundance” by Geoff Dyer)

My recent enjoyable excursion into the world of Mary Ruefle via “My Private Property”, exposed me to the publisher Wave Books, and, as I frequently do, I purchased a couple of other books from Wave Book’s recent catalogue. September 2016 releases, “Calamities” by Renee Gladman and “Violet Energy Ingots” by Hoa Nguyen. First up let’s look at Renee Gladman’s latest release, “Calamities”.

The Poetry Foundation website describes Renee Gladman:

Born in Atlanta, poet, novelist, and publisher Renee Gladman earned a BA at Vassar College and an MA in poetics at the New College of California. Gladman, whose work has been associated with the New Narrative movement, composes prose and poetry that tests the potential of the sentence with mapmaking precision and curiosity.

Author of the poetry collection A Picture-Feeling (2005), Gladman has also published several works of prose, including Event Factory (2010), The Activist (2003), Juice (2000), and Arlem (1994), and a monograph of drawings, Prose Architectures (2017). She has edited Leon Works, an experimental prose chapbook series, as well as the Leroy chapbook series. Gladman lives in Massachusetts and teaches at Brown University.

A collection that is an attempt at defining the problem of “where you are in a defined space and what your purpose is for being there”, the work at times feel liberating (as you find the space) and claustrophobic at other times (as the definitions pin you in). The book opens with forty-four short essays, narratives all opening with the phrase “I began the day…”, it closes with “The Eleven Calamities” which number fourteen in total?!!?

I closed the inner essay to look at the outer. I wanted to find a word or sentence that would prove there was an even larger essay that was further outside of this one. I closed the quotes of lying in the bed with my eyes closed, and opened my eyes, looking literally into the face of the question of narrative, which was the emptiness of my apartment and the long stretch of the day that lay ahead.

A collection that muses on the fringes of human existence, the spaces you never read (or write) about, there are a few difficult passages as there is an assumption that we all understand the idiosyncrasies of specific United States geographies.

I began the day reading the third section of Eileen Myles’ Inferno. I was in “Heaven,” and had been awake only a short time, still in bed, lying on my side. I hadn’t yet had coffee, so after a line or so of the book my eyes would close. I’d be sleeping, except also reading. The book would go on in my mind as I slept (how much time passes in this state?), until suddenly I’d be awake and would find the book fallen to the floor (it wasn’t a high bed) or sitting at an impossible angle in my hand. I’d right the book and try to find my place. The lines I’d been reading would not be there. Where had I gotten them? They continued the story perfectly, but not, it turned out, in the direction Eileen had wanted it to go. But, why? My additions were not terrible, and they seemed bodily connected to her text, and what’s further, they stayed with me as I went on reading, mingling with the lines that actually were there. I woke up again. I was thinking this and not reading the page I was reading and I didn’t quite know what I was thinking though it made sense with what had been on my mind before I’d fallen asleep. I’d been reflecting on how your mind writes what you read and lays it out only one or two steps ahead of you, so that there’s always a risk of taking a step that isn’t there yet.

An exploration of location, exploring structures in fiction, these are luminous creations, that explain the art of writing poetry (“Poetry comes out of nothing…read the nothing”), and novel writing (“asked it to step out of its hiding place, its refusal place, and come to me.”). These are multi layered essays, layers of an onion, “each one thicker as you moved outward, away from the core, though onions have no true core, or rather, no core that survives our trying to reach it.”

A revelatory, hallucinatory read as you work your way through space, there are large passages I simply did not understand, however this became part of the reading challenge as I moved through the day to day mundane minutiae of Renee Gladman’s life “for much of the day nothing happens, nothing ever happens”, luminous sections, confusing sections, sometimes the works “refusing to slip into focus”.

violet_energy_ingots

Hoa Nguyen’s poetry collection, also from Wave Poetry, “Violet Energy Ingots” is even more confusing, opening with the dedication “For Aphrodite, deathless and of the spangled mind”, the luminous nuggets scattered throughout the poems are like searching for flecks of gold, only once you have enough can you create an “ingot”.

In “Mekong I” (pg 6) A poet’s birth is like a delta spreading into strands “become/mangroves stranded/and braid your oiled hair” the poems containing vivid imagery of silt, sand, stone, a “River as sift/ and sorter”, the poem containing the lifeblood of floating markets, but still an area to be traversed.

Political, these works become even more focused in these uncertain times…

Who was Andrew Jackson?

He was the seventh president of the United States
He was responsible for the Indian Removal Act
He was poor but ended up rich
He was an enslaver of men, women, and children
He was given the nickname “Indian killer”
He was put on the twenty-dollar bill

Like Renee Gladman’s “Calamities”, where each of the opening essays opens with “I began the day…”, we have the poem “Week of Words” where a few insignificant snippets of a week’s activities are presented, the news, a number of seemingly unconnected events all broken with spacing, where the reader is unaware of the activities, the spaces where the action resides, it is not (cannot be?) put into words, “snow all day/snow all day”

A collection that blends the solstice, the seasons, star signs, the mystical, blended with the sceptical. The collection of sixty-one poems are, at times, incomprehensible another work where the result is “obfuscation, the words refusing to slip into focus”. You know these are important statements, the fragments moving into your consciousness, but residing elsewhere.

I’ve covered this collection here, and purposely chosen one of the more formal, recognisable poems, as I would like to highlight some of the poetry collections I do read, where I am simply out of my depth. An enjoyable book, however one I cannot explain.

Excerpts of both books are available at the publisher’s webpage here.