Earth Hour – David Malouf – Prime Minister’s Literary Award (Poetry) 2015 – WA Premier’s Literary Award (Poetry) 2016

The Neustadt International Prize for Literature is a biennial award sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today.
The Prize consists of $50,000, a replica of an eagle feather cast in silver, and a certificate. A generous endowment from the Neustadt family of Ardmore, Oklahoma, and Dallas, Texas, ensures the award in perpetuity.
The prize was established in 1969 as the Books Abroad International Prize for Literature, then renamed the Books Abroad / Neustadt Prize before assuming its present name in 1976, The Neustadt International Prize for Literature. It is the first international literary award of this scope to originate in the United States and is one of the very few international prizes for which poets, novelists, and playwrights are equally eligible.
Previous Laureates of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature include Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Rohinton Mistry and in 2000 David Malouf became the sixteenth Neustadt Laureat. This year the winner was Dubravka Ugrešić, born in the former Yugoslavia and now residing in Amsterdam, I aim to get to a few of her works in 2016, once I read and digest the wonderful “Music & Literature No. 6” where there are 100 pages of literary criticism, “A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written” (translated by David Willliams), seven prints by Dubravka Ugrešić and a listing of her complete works. This “Music & Literature” edition also includes Alejandra Pizarnik and Victoria Polevá, an edition I’ll eventually get around to reading.
In becoming the sixteenth Neustadt Laureat David Malouf beat a field including V.S. Naipaul, Augusto Monterroso, and N. Scott Momaday. Previously shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993 for “Remembering Babylon” where nominating juror Ihab Hassan said “And right there I saw a glimmer of his gift: wakefulness and precision of feeling, blended in wonder, and a delicacy that can surprise the mystery of creation itself. It was this elusive quality, inward with his poetic sensibility, a quality akin to love, that first drew me to the work of David Malouf” (“Encomium: David Malouf,” World Literature Today Vol. 74, Autumn 2000). He has wont eh Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the French Priz Femina Etranger for his 1990 work “The Great World” and would be also known for his novels “An Imaginary Life” (1978), “Fly Away Peter” (1982), and “Ransom” (2009). Lesser known, or less publicized works include his poetry collections, “Neighbors in a Thicket” (1974), “Wild Lemons” (1980), and “Typewriter Music” (2007).
It is his latest poetry collection that I look at today, shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry, “Earth Hour”.
Our collection opens with ‘Aquarius’, the constellation not the astrology sign I assume, “There is more to darkness than nightfall”, setting the tone for a journey through the realms, through the soil, human memory and our environment.
‘Retrospect’, tells of a memory of a walk in winter into Sèvres, a dream that comes from a simple expression on a companion’s face when walking into the forest. ‘Tocatta’ addresses bric-a-brac and the significance of seemingly insignificant objects on human memory, “and even the domino I lost/in the long grass by the passion-vine”.
Throughout we have musical references and themes, there is something grander going on here, if only I could decipher it!! We have innumerable references to green (grass generally), the image of ‘breaths from mouths’ and galaxies.
‘Footloose, a Senior Moment’ is composed as fractured thoughts, spread throughout the page, replicating an ageing mind, with another musical reference “diminuendo”, (getting gradually softer) a poem dedicated to ‘Chris Wallace-Crabbe approaching eighty’.
Whistling in the Dark
Seeking a mind in the machine, and in constellations, however
distant, a waft of breath. Re-reading space
shrapnel as chromosome bee-swarms, hauling infinity
in so that its silence, a stately contre-dance to numbers,
hums, and flashy glow-stones bare of wild-flower
or shrub, scent, bird-song, hoof-print, heartbeat,
or bones (ah, bones!) are no longer alien or lonely
out there in the airless cold as we prepare
to lie out beneath them. Even as children we know
what cold is, and aloneness, absence of touch. We seed
the night sky with stories like our own: snub-breasted
blond topless Lolitas laying out samples
of their charms besides dimpled ponds, barefoot un-bearded
striplings ready with bow and badinage, pursued
and lost and grieved over by inconsolable immortals
and set eternally adrift, a slow cascade
of luminary dust above the earth, with the companionable
creatures, bear, lion, swan, who share with us the upland
fells and meadow-flats of a rogue planet tossed
into space and by the wild haphazard or amazing
grace sent spinning. Old consolations, only half
believed in, though like children we hold them dear, as if
                their names
on our tongue could bring them close and make,
like theirs, the bitter sweet-stuff of our story
to someone, somewhere out there,
remembered, and fondly, when we are gone.
Our collection has a very environmental edge, showing the hypocrisy of working all day in a garden to “troop home to pork-chop plastic bags, and gatherers/gather for hugs and mugs of steaming chai.” (from the poem ‘Inner City’), or “Small plots are watered in the shadow/of blackened chimney-stacks by men in shirtsleeves between shift” (from ‘A Green Miscellany’). Our feigning interest in environmental issues when we live luxury lives in suburban homes, consume and destroy.
We also have an homage to the Australian artist Jeffrey Smart (1921-2013) in ‘Art Laterina’, set in Tuscany where Smart lived from 1963 until his death.
A collection that includes exquisite imagery as in ‘Shy Gifts’, “…the book/laid open under the desk-lamp, pages astream/with light like angels’ wings, arched for take off”. This is a small book, running to eighty-six pages and fifty-nine poems, with references to writing retreats and acknowledgement of the “Scottish Arts Council for the Muriel Spark International Fellowship in 2008, and a month-long residence in Edinburgh and at Stromness, Orkney”, it is not difficult to see the creativity being assisted by Malouf’s surrounds.

Not my favourite from the Prime Minister’s Literary Award Shortlist (Poetry) to date, that currently goes to Judith Beverdige’s “Devadatta’s Poems”,  and with only the winning entry yet to be read, this has been an insightful journey into the works of Australian poets, something I will be doing more of during the year.

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Devadatta’s Poems – Judith Beveridge – Prime Minister’s Literary Award 2015 (Poetry)

My third venture into the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Shortlist (Poetry) sees me explore a raft of Buddhist themes in Judith Beveridge’s “Devadatta’s Poems”.
Judith Beveridge’s collection, in her own words, is a highly fictionalized and dramatized” sequence imagining the voice of Devadatta, Siddhattha’s (the Buddha, note that here I’ve used the spelling in the collection not the more common spelling ‘Siddhartha’) cousin. Devadatta attempted to murder the Buddha on three separate occasions in order to usurp control of the Order (Sangha) of monks. He was in love with Siddhattha’s wife Yasodhara, and befriended Prince Ajatasattu, also a Buddhist, who wanted control of the Kingdom of Magadha.
For those without any Buddhist knowledge this collection includes an introduction, explaining the relationship between Devadatta and Siddhattha, their caste, the fact that Siddhattha left the town of Kapilavatthu to lead a mendicant life in search of enlightenment, and other historical learnings. The detail around the Buddhist Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are explained in the notes at the conclusion of the collection.
Alms Round, Sarnath
I smell ripe figs, dates, pomegranates; cumin and onions
sizzling in hot ghee. There are pies of sesame and honey cakes,
teas scented with cinnamon and cloves, but we must wait
Along the town’s outskirts, keep our eyes downcast,
try to be grateful for whatever’s given. Mostly all I’m given
are scrawny parings of stalks, maggoty wheat crawling
In the centre of my hands. Don’t these other monks
want to look these folk squarely in the eyes and demand
mangos, melons and handpicked beans? Don’t they want
To stuff their mouths full of rice and roasted coconut,
with almonds, cashes and pickled beets? Aren’t they tired
of seeing their bowls as bare as their shaved heads?
I want to tell Buddha to chew his rules about patience
and frugality into a sloppy cud. I want to hold my bowl out
as boldly as a symbol and clang it loudly with my spoon.
I want to tell these miserable, skinflint, pinch-fisted folk
to stop tossing us husks, rinds, cores, thorns, rats’ tails,
roosters’ claws and – oh! – so many stinking lepers’ thumbs!
Devadatta’s love an obsession with Buddha’s wife Yasodhara, is explored through a number of poems, musings on this unrequited love:
Her Hair
At night I think of her hair like a free hoard
of honey in my hands. Sometimes I imagine she is letting
me thread jasmine, or strips of perfumed bark through her hair;
that I’m rolling her hair into a thick bun at her nape,
dressing it with oil, or adorning it with feathers.
Sometimes I dream she lets me colour her parting
with the same vermillion stick she’ll later apply to her lips.
I think of her hair and I smell musk, myrrh,
then the peregrine rain. When insects fizz and snap
at the lamplight, I dream they are the sound of the teeth
of one of her ivory combs, breaking as I draw them
down hose heavy strands, the light stroking,
then filling her hair with shadow. When the days
and nights pass with unremitting rain, I dream I hear the sighs
of her bracelets slipping into my secrets whisperings
of her name. But some nights, all I can hear is her
cracking in half all of her gem-studded combs; then the rasp
and harrow of the stone-handled knife: Yasodhara
hacking her hair back to her scalp – the flumpof it falling –
and Yasodhara sobbing out Siddhatta’s name.
This is a collection that through exploring a jealous man’s obsessions and musings, as well as the day-to-day activities of being a Buddhist monk, also explores the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:

  1. All existence is suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by selfish craving
  3. Selfish craving can be destroyed
  4. It can be destroyed by following the Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path consists of:

  1. Right view;
  2. Right resolve;
  3. Right speech;
  4. Right action;
  5. Right livelihood;
  6. Right effort;
  7. Right mindfulness;
  8. Right concentration.

Throughout this collection of forty-eight poems our narrator, Devadatta, moves through the various human rejections of the Eightfold Path, this is a collection rooted in Buddhist learnings and references (Even the fact that is collection is forty-eight poems is probably a reference – Siddhattha sat under a Bodhi tree for 48 days to understand the nature of reality and the universe, leading to enlightenment and Buddhism, a less likely reference are the forty-eight vows of Amida Buddha, Hōzō Bosatsu Hōzō).
The human mental struggle to meditate whilst the mind wanders, in Devadatta’s case wandering to thoughts of Yasodhara and the aches in his body, is a Buddhist musing on “distraction”. The poem itself repetitive signifying the human mind’s propensity to wander to the most pressing issue at hand. There is also a poem on “karma” and Devadatta’s jealousy and spite of the Buddha so out of control that he doesn’t care if his next birth is from “the egg of a louse, a worm, a flea…”.
Another very readable collection from the Prime Minister’s Literary Award Shortlist, one that is rooted in Buddhist thought and teachings, but at the same time explores the human frailties of jealousy, desire, rage, indignation and ignorance. Judith Beveridge a lecturer on poetry writing at the University of Sydney, shows she has a deft hand at presenting a large range of themes in even small collections.

 Source – personal copy. This work can be purchased directly from the publisher here.

Towards the Equator – New & Selected Poems – Alex Skovron – Prime Minister’s Literary Award 2015 (Poetry)

I didn’t study poetry at University, I didn’t really pay a whole of of attention when we studied poetry in English Literature classes at school. That doesn’t mean I don’t read poetry, I do so, I enjoy reading poetry, I have quite a number of poetry books on my shelves, one day I may even arrange them all in some order, a little corner dedicated to poetry, a bit like the bookshops where you have to dig and delve to find the poetry section, although my collection is a little broader than most of the shops, I have a little more than Keats, Plath, T.S. Eliot, e e cummings…  but when it comes to stanzas, didactic cinquains, etherees, tercets, sestinas, I really don’t know what people are talking about. That probably makes my reviews of poetry seem ignorant, but I’m not writing these as part of a study group, I’m not writing these to show my level of education, I am writing these reviews to highlight an art form that sits on the fringes, a form that I enjoy reading, one that has limited coverage on blogs, and if only I highlight to one single reader a potential new book to purchase then I have helped the publisher and poet sell one more book. So forgive me if I don’t instantly recognise a poetic form when highlighting these structures and works.

My second read from the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Poetry Shortlist was “Towards the Equator – New & Selected Poems” by Alex Skovron. A large volume, weighing in at 288 pages of poems it opens with the book-length new collection Towards the Equator, then continues with poems selected from his five previous collections, book by book, from The Rearrangement (1988) to the prose-poems of Autographs (2008).
Our collection opens with the Serbian village of Kostolac, along the Danube River, travelling on a horse-drawn wagon at night and then we move straight into the existentialist soul, what is it to be human? We have searches for friends in the myriad of fleeting people; “we might grow into lifelong familiars – / to sit with us, debate Heraclitus,/elucidate the essence of the Preludes,/or tell us just who we are?’ (taen from “Possible Friends”.)
A strong theme throughout it memory, and there is even a quote from Kundera, “But the past was there, waiting for him, watching him”, one poem dedicated to the theme:
Memory takes us for a ride, and we it –
Time clocks its vengeance on forgetfulness;
When the god Remembrance comes calling
(Old Eros in a mask) we repossess
In Vain the confabulated latitudes
For our retelling, now tainted and digital;
Far below the long-relinquished Equator
Our analog histories in the original
Lie in dust like the Alexandrian manuscripts
Or sunk, an irretrievable Atlantis;
So we puzzle over what preceded Genesis
As we wait for Revelation to supplant us.
And so history is out cross and our salvation,
We genuflect before its stations, cosily;
From the first sad Romulus to the last
A hundred dozen winters weave a rosary
We can say in one chart or chapter,
And we joy ourselves then, or else we cry;
And we fix memory’s shingle to our future –
We will miss ourselves when we die.
As you can read in a single poem, there are numerous classical references, and this continues throughout, although only in the occasional poem.
As a reader of translated literature I very much appreciated the poem “The Attic”
The Attic
‘For to some degree all great texts contain their
potential translation between the lines…’
                                                – Walter Benjamin
I translate the books of a famous author
before they are written. It’s a daunting task
that obsesses me for weeks and months at a time
until the job is done. As soon as I finish
each new volume, I store it away
in a clandestine attic high above my rooms
to which I alone have the key. There are many
such books waiting now in manuscript
along the dusty corridors of my attic,
but I never consult a single one again until
the original, it its first language, appears
in some quarter of the city. Then my real task
begins: slowly, painstakingly, line by line,
I compare my translation with the masterpiece
the great writer has published. I am never
let down – for while my translation
will correspond faithfully to the original
in syntax, orchestration, construction and sense
(not to mention vocabulary, tone and nuance)
in virtually no tangible respect, I am content
with the result, sensing always between the rows
of my laborious handiwork the truer hand
of the master – who alone would be equipped
to understand how my more perfect understanding
of his inspired words must elevate his creation
to realms even he will have feared unattainable;
and it is only his naïve blend of humility and hubris,
plus the awkward reticence of genius,
which prevents him from acknowledging me
when we pass each other in the arcade, and from
clasping me with emotion to declare a truce at last.
Throughout this collection of works the imagery is striking, for example a woman in palliative care, given 4-6 month to live, “The monitor winks like an understanding uncle, the drip/a laconic sentinel over the bed.” (from ‘Kandukur’). Unlike Stephen Edgar’s ‘Exhibits of the Sun’ (also on the shortlist for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry), the Australian references are here but a lot more subtle, for example, we have a reference to Chloe at Young and Jacksons – a nude by Jules Joseph Lefebvre that hangs in the pub on the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets in Melbourne – for those not familiar with the work of art or the history of the hotel you can read more here
This collection of poems moves through a massive array of styles, with “Sin Tacks” using the elasticity of language to create a grammatical mish-mash. The equator, in the title, is a place that once you cross it and continue to travel you will eventually return to cross it again, a never ending journey towards and away from the equator, like our collection, like our lives.
The earlier poetry included here begin with the 1988 collection “The Rearrangement” with the title work about arranging 1,200 books on seven oak bookcases. The obsession with order is something I am sure all avid readers and book collectors have experienced. This collection includes “An Intelligent Conversation” with a nine verse poem, the 1st, 3rd and 4thlines all rhyme, they all end in ‘ing’, and the 2nd and 5thlines semi rhyme (for example, wood, could, brood, you’d, hood, food), all in all an intelligent poem about an intelligent conversation.
We also have the moving “Lines from the Horizon” a ten page history of the poet’s life from Poland to Australia.
The 1992 collection “Sleeve Notes” includes the inspection of the urbane existence, a young troubled life, leading to a job, an unhappy marriage, children, mundane careers, onto aged acre. The title poem is over twelve sections including excerpts from Mozart’s letters, a symphony of his life, strings, flute, clarinet along with canon, codetta and (finally) Lacrimosa.
“The Waterline Poems” reveal Skovron’s childhood, including the writing of poetry:
Juvenilia Waters
And every night I’d settle into bed
or sit myself under the table lamp
to carve another poem in my black
book with the faint blue lines traversing it,
each neat consecutive undrafted find
entered spontaneously, numbered, dated, signed:
a splendid casual arrogance of will
coupled with some evidence of unfolding skill –
those impoverished enjambments where an impulse rowed
and rhymed and divided, ultimately caught
up with its logic or resolved its part
while all along a theme or thread cajoled,
cavorted, sank, or blandly transformed
itself; made drunken by the first flush of art.
The 1999 collection “Infinite City” consists of all shorter, ten line poems split into six and four lines, excluding “The New World” which is four and six lines. “The Man and the Map” from 2003, contains the vibrant imagery of “The Violin-maker, the Forest and the Clock”, seven pages of thatched cottages, forests, music, and finally moving away from the ecstasy as time progresses. We also have the irony of being a well-known poet in the poem “Dreams of Dead Poets”, “all the quarterly reviewers now/drop my old name as if it were a chant.”
The publication ends with the 2008 collection “Autographs”, solid text prose poems.
This is a wonderful collection, spanning close to thirty years of poetry, moving through a raft of themes, tones and techniques. By covering such a vast career and years, we see the development of the poetic art and Skovron’s handling of a complex form, through many styles. Possibly not a book to read from cover to cover, but definitely one that needs revisiting when the mood insists. A fine collection, one that I would have thought would have rated highly in discussions for the winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award.

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Exhibits of the Sun – Stephen Edgar – Prime Minister’s Literary Award 2015 (Poetry)

Whilst I am revisiting my reading of translated fiction for the last year, I am taking a “sabbatical” of types, away from the translated works I normally read and review. For the last two years I have rarely read a work originally written in English and the exploration of other nation’s cultures has left me some little ways behind in reading books from my home country, Australia.
With the recent announcement (on 23 November 2015) of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Shortlists, I am taking time away from the translated works to visit the shortlist of poetry works.

  • Devadatta’s Poems, Judith Beveridge (Giramondo Publishing)
  • Exhibits of the Sun, Stephen Edgar (Black Pepper Publishing)
  • Poems 1957‐2013, Geoffrey Lehmann (UWA Publishing)
  • Earth Hour, David Malouf (University of Queensland Press)
  • Towards the Equator: New & Selected Poems, Alex Skovron (Puncher & Wattmann)

First up is “Exhibits of the Sun” by Stephen Edgar, only reason being the first cab off the rank is the fact that it was the first to be delivered into my mailbox.
Stephen Edgar is a poet who has received a number of awards, including the Australian Book Review Poetry Prize, the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for excellence in literature and two William Baylebridge Memorial Prizes, and was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Award in 2013 for his collection “Eldershaw”.
This collection contains thirty-nine poems and opens with “All Eyes”, a poem with numerous circular references, a Ferris wheel, Saturn, its rings, the moon, a lens, a sunflower. The poem touching on creation, decay, destruction with an underlying message of observe, “look” at all around you, you can see what you cannot know.
In “Moonlight Sculptures”, our poet is observing the naked female form of his partner falling asleep on a humid night with the bed sheets kicked low, the observation happens by moonlight waiting the dawn. Each verse contains six lines and with rhyme on lines 1 and 4, 2 and 6, and 3 and 5, the structure is not your usual alternate line rhyme. This is a theme throughout, with “The Haunted Pane” with quasi or full rhyme on lines 1 & 4, 5 & 8, 2 & 6 and 3 & 7.
Very Australian in subject matter with Sydney’s well known seaside sculptures captured in “The Sculptures By The Sea”, the Hills Hoist (a backyard clothes drying device) in “Off The Chart” and a homage to the purple Jacaranda:
It happens every year,
Each year you’re taken by surprise:
Those faint and random hints of mauve that smear
The suburbs, and your eyes,
Without alerting you,
All on one day, it seems, conspire
To snatch ignition from the sunburnt blue
And burst in purple fire.
Too garish to ignore,
The city is a painting by
A child, in thrall to purple, who wants more
Than more can satisfy.
(Or was this royal flush
Of colour, lavished to enrich
The trees, paid on in darkness, by the brush
Of some stray Glumdalclitch?)
Whichever way you turn –
Down this dull street, from Gladesville Bridge,
Along the foreshore, to the west – they burn
Their yearly heritage
And flourish in the flames:
A standing metamorphosis
You almost might believe in, which proclaims:
There’ll be no end to this.
Only an Australian poet would find rhymes for “credit card” (uses “unmarred), as done in the poem “Let Me Forget”, a poem that explores vouchers to redeem, Mercedes Benz and the consumer society. Certainly not your conventional poetry expectation and with the odd rhyming structure you at times feel jarred into paying closer attention….as our opening poem tells us “look”, observe, pay attention!!
The book is split into three sections with sections I and II more a celebration of the natural world, observations of the surrounding beauty, then we are led towards a land of decay and death and the reality that beauty is just made of matter, as we are too, “What process could endow/Mere matter with the power to wake and feel.” The movement through the day as we move through the collection, beginning with night, moving through dawn, the day and then finally to sunset.
There are also references to modern culture with Wim Wender’s angel in “Wings Of Desire” making an appearance presiding and observing the goings on in Sydney.

This is a very Australian collection, and one that brought me straight back to my homeland and the culture, the unique flora, even the suburbs and our backyards featuring. Whether it is strong enough, through that unique approach, to take out the Prime Minster’s Award only time will tell as I work my way through the other five nominees.