Allow me to begin with a very dark poem by this linguistically rich poet. It was written some time after the suicide of Porter’s first wife. It is called, “The Easiest Room in Hell”, let me add; and very few poets dare to mention Hell, these days. However, its tone is far from being his only register:
Open Interferon Psalms towards the front and you encounter this kind of writing:
The blade of my happiness broke at the hilt. I flailed
without balance, at air. A break in the hilt is a bad break
to fix. Life in search of a blacksmith. Of bellows and tongs
I knew little.
The rumpled magazines of waiting rooms.
The great lakes came and went. Winter rolled in for ten
thousand years. I dreamed of heat, in lethargy.
All life became a leaving behind. There weren’t alternative
There were stories written on calfskin, though I had no
capacity for concentration. The lost would be found, on
land, and by water.
It was never going to be a long love affair, but in my
yielding I became a mystic.
The poems in this collection perform archaic imagery, Old Testament references, Psalmic notes in the margins of the poems, and from a unexpected variety of melodramatic and spiritual claims (encounters with God, with millennia) (and being a mystic) the poet makes lyrical trips within a context which is often implied rather than stated. To know the literal place you must do so by inference, to infer, enfer, Interferon..? Unless, of course, you know Luke Davies’ personal history of drug-taking from his other books and therefore accommodate this book as the latest installment in what seems to be a self-examination/self-mythologising project of his, of himself, book by book.
Ice-age, eons passing, denudation, re-growth, millennia and metaphors of grand geomorphic dimension mixed with film imagery and hints of addiction and the wasteland a mind might become. These are immediately present as the stand-ins for the poet’s conditions of addiction and (later) extreme liver treatment with interferon. Within all this voicing there is a voice of more personal kind, one less grand, more self-ironic and which, without the metaphoric dramas, reads as the poet. The Poetic style mentioned too often relies on the big effects; but the saving grace is in the lesser effects; the result is wildly weird, at sometimes strangely likeable, but is ultimately uneven.
To be a poet is not my ambition,
It’s my way of being alone.
Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa), trans. Richard Zenith
To travel! To change countries!
To be forever someone else,
With a soul that has no roots,
Living only off what it sees!
Alvaro de Campos (Fernando Pessoa), trans. Richard Zenith
You spoke my name in King Joao Library,
the hall closing in around us, the gilt-lined tomb
of a sinking carrack …
… You spoke
JOHN MATEER into the dark of King Jaoa Library
and were closer to my name than I will ever be.
from ‘Eduardo,’ Southern Barbarians, p 48
Many contemporary Australian poems tour foreign locations, throwing in place names and foreign words, often in a decorative manner. This vein of poetry may set out to signal the poet’s own well-travelled cosmopolitanism and appropriate post-colonial modesty but sadly mostly ranges between the merely dull, and the dully Orientalist. The politics and psychology of foreignness, of otherness, of empire, is rarely touched in any but the most gestural ways. Those matters, in all their real complexity, form the core concerns of Mateer’s oeuvre . With Mateer, travel seems continuous, and continues in the various countries of his residence.
Steward: O my good Lord, the world is but a word.
Were it all yours to give it in a breath,
How quickly were it gone.
Timon: You tell me true.
[Timon of Athens]
As a rule poets find it very difficult to describe what they write about. In answering similar questions the novelist will happily tell you about the characters who inhabit his worlds. But unless he composes epic verse the poet finds himself at a loss. If he invokes anything to do with his own feelings, or way of experiencing the world, he fears he will be dismissed as a neo-romantic. If he mentions the words ‘love’, and ‘nature’, he is certain people will start throwing stones. For a long time I tried to avoid this predicament by declaring curtly that I wrote about language. Like Timon and his Steward in the exchange above, it seemed that poetry was primarily, almost exclusively, a question of words, and that reality was as fragile as the language we use to describe it. This may well be true. But I now believe it to be too reductive a notion, and potentially dangerous.
Poetry may be a (sob!) neglected art, but it can still attract devotees who are as scary as Collingwood supporters. It was wonderful to visit the Laurel Villa guesthouse in Margherafelt, Northern Ireland, ‘Heaney country’. Laurel Villa is a shrine to twentieth-century Irish poetry, with poems by Irish poets (particularly Seamus Heaney) on Belfast linen framed on the walls. Each room was devoted to a particular poet – I stayed in the MacNeice room. Our host, Eugene, took us on a tour of Heaney country, showing us sites and objects that feature in Heaney’s poems, including the forge of ‘Door into the Dark’, the original rusted turnip snedder in the back of a paddock, and the place the railway line of ‘The Railway Children’ used to be. Eugene’s knowledge of Heaney was considerable. We stood there as he read us the applicable poems, evoking the object or place that still existed or had changed or vanished.
So Long Bulletin salutes Southerly for the broad approach to poetry reviewing outlined in its new statement. Reviews editor Toby Fitch aims to cut across ‘cliques and coteries’ and ‘transcend the comforts of pack mentality’ by encouraging ‘the rabbits to review the monkeys, the monkeys to review the elephants, and the elephants to review the dinosaurs’. I admire Fitch’s intent to shake up the reviewing scene and to increase the number of reviews that are published.
I suspect, however, that the problem is not people reviewing only those to whom they are sympathetic – though that certainly happens sometimes. I think the problem is more that poets, writing as critics, feel they have to be nice to each other. Perhaps it is tempting, when you are reviewing a fellow poet’s book, to be careful what you say, in case they end up reviewing your book, or perhaps they will one day sit on the Literature Board or judge you in a premier’s prize. Most of us would want to preserve critical integrity and strike out that thought immediately, in favour of writing a clear, honest and unbiased review that puts readers ahead of poets: but it is something that has to be thought through, and it requires courage. In an ideal literary world, there would be enough non-poet critics, and poets wouldn’t have to get involved; but I can only think of two or three of these wonderful beasts and they can’t cover everything. In our world, poets are the reviewers, the judges, the editors, the funding assessors. And this is a fragile world. I have heard of reviewers being advised to ‘go gently’ on a first book; to avoid being ‘negative’ about poets in general. It is like a system of entitlement: at some stage, everyone gets a review, a grant and a premier’s prize. The problem with this system is that it disenfranchises readers in favour of looking after poets’ careers.
Well, SLoBs, it’s April, so it is now time to comment on the year that has passed. 2011 was a most poetic year. Australian Poetry Limited launched its first international tour, to Ireland in 2012. Much poetry written in Australia is world class, but it rarely gets the chance to travel to wider audiences. Congratulations to Petra White and Paul Hetherington, who will be touring Ireland. SLB hopes this inaugural tour opens a series of many more. APLtd also launched its flagship journal, ‘Australian Poetry’. Congratulations to editor Bronwyn Lea on an excellent first issue.
The institution of a Poetry Chair at the University of Technology in Sydney is excellent news. And as the inaugural Chair, Robert Adamson is the perfect choice, both in his own illustrious publishing record, and also in his role as an editor of Anthologies and as a visible and benevolent actor upon the poetry scene. He knows the terrain of Australian poetry, and his tastes are broad. SLB will be fascinated to see what the chair can do to promote the reading and study of poetry.
An artist made a drawing
A base was built in Antarctica
fuel tanks laboratories
that another artist rubbed out
Now they are dismantling that base
shipping it piece by piece
entitled Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning
It has been remarked
that no human should live in wilderness
the poems be written
but that’s another story.
(Caroline Caddy, Picture this)
Uniquely, Antarctica seems to attract artists and scientists towards direct cohabitation; and often the two disciplines inhabit the same bodies. Historically, figures such as naturalist and artist Joseph Dalton Hooker accompanied early explorers; and more recently, in Werner Herzog’s documentary, Encounters at the End of the World (2007), this duality of roles is revealed through Herzog’s quasi-naturalistic investigation of the humans inhabiting the USA’s McMurdo station. In that film, a tractor operator is a philosopher; and divers end their day by noodling away at guitars on the roof of their hut.
The USA runs an Antarctic creative fellowship program through the National Science Foundation. In fact, one of its forerunners in the 1960s was an expedition taken by Sidney Nolan and Alan Moorhead to McMurdo as guests of the USA. They were continuing a tradition of expedition artists that was established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Hooker, William Hodges and Edward Wilson.
to read poems, click above
I first met Aileen Kelly when I ran La Mama Poetica in the early 1990s. She was one of our featured readers and I can still remember my delight in her poems, in particular, ‘My Brother’s Piano’. This is a persona poem written from the point of view of Sigmund Freud’s sister, a promising concert pianist, who was forced to practise on a silenced piano so she didn’t disturb his writing. The poem contains many of the tropes I associate with Aileen’s powerful voice. There’s the characteristic sly humour, the barbed word play and a fierce poetic intelligence and humanist feminism behind the measured lines:
If I were to write in real day
the book I assemble nightly
in the darkened library
his drive would be described as piano envy.
(‘My Brother’s Piano’)
Aileen Kelly 1939-2011
Click above for poems.
There seems to be an idea afoot that ‘slam’ can make all poetry popular. In The Age, slam poet Emilie Zoey Baker wistfully imagines poetry having its own reality tv show – MasterPoet perhaps – promising viewers the ecstasy of having ‘your soul unravelled like a ribbon’. This is the kind of hype that is often used by promoters of poetry; we don’t just want it on peoples’ bookshelves, we want it in the living room, in the kitchen, on pillow cases, on the iPhone; we want it to tickle them in the shower and write itself onto their steamy mirrors and appear in their porridge for the sake of their souls.