Every Man in this Village is a Liar
by Megan Stack New York,
Doubleday, 2010 This edition: Scribe, 2011
Reviewed by TESSA LUNNEY
As it turned out, the first thing I learned about war was also the truest, and maybe it’s as true for nations as for individuals: You can survive and not survive, both at the same time. (4)
This book is Megan Stack’s education in survival. The quote summarises the Prologue in which she first learns about war through the combat duty and subsequent suicide of her uncle. The survival she is educated in is not physical. Corpses litter the pages, both materially and in the imagination. It is the corpse in the mind and the physical body in the world that she is interested in, how the two co-exist and how to navigate the slippages and cracks between them.
Stack tells the reader where she is going, but it takes a while to get there. She starts out almost as naïve as when she heard about her uncle surviving a bombing in Beirut in 1982 (1). In Afghanistan, in 2001, in the first flush of war with its 9/11 rhetoric, her first war, Stack is preoccupied with truth. Chapter One, Every Man in This Village is a Liar, starts with Stack being sexually harassed by an Afghan warlord who is leading her to stories. This develops into a discussion of the title of the chapter and the book:
Back in Pakistan, before I crossed over into Afghanistan, somebody said to me: “Every man in this village is a liar”. It was the punch line to a parable, the tale of an ancient Greek traveller who plods into a foreign village and is greeted with those words. It is a twist on the Epimenides paradox, named after the Cretan philosopher who declared, “All Cretans are liars.” It’s one of the world’s oldest logic problems, folding in on itself like an Escher sketch. If he’s telling the truth, he’s lying. If he’s lying, he’s telling the truth.
That was Afghanistan after September 11. (9)
Both as an idea, and as a metaphoric representation of eight years in the Middle East, this idea is important. Firstly, due to her lack of experience and her outsider status, there was no way to work out who was lying and who was telling the truth. Secondly, it shows her journalistic drive for a real story, and not just gossip. Thirdly, it sets up the environment where stories of bombings were denied by the US Government and her paper wouldn’t run them, where she was denied access to information because she was a woman, where she could not foresee the consequences of her actions as the regimes she was working within were opaque. Finally, it goes back to the paradox of survival, where the Cretan can be lying and telling the truth at the same time, Stack can survive and not survive, both at once.
Stack’s reportage is well written in clear, concise language that quickly conveys the political complexity and emotional nuance of a situation. Like Geraldine Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire, it tells stories of the Islamic world from a female perspective, but in a new century, with new wars. It is geographically broad, but tightly focused on the details of the consequences of war in an individual life. By writing about several countries, it departs from the usual trope of reportage, found in such works as Dispatches by Michael Herr or War by Sebastian Junger, where the author takes the story of one conflict and creates a narrative around their tour. Stack’s ‘tour’ was too long and fragmented for such a neat story-telling device, and her journey was not of herself through a war, but herself within war. “The war no longer feels temporary”(237) she writes in the second last chapter. Writing in the present tense, and then placing this sentence near the end of the book, shows that there is no end to the war she experiences, nor to the way of life within it. It is interesting to read this book in late 2011, after the Arab Spring protests and the changes that daily occur in the region. The chapters on Libya and Egypt show a world only just gone, and sketch the fomenting passions of oppressed people. My knowledge of Middle Eastern news is patchy and gained in a haphazard manner, and it was excellent to have this solid, personal context for the events of earlier this year.
The book is subtitled “An Education in War”, and in many ways feels like a series of lectures by a journalist living in the Middle East. Each chapter looks at a different country, or a different aspect of a country, in a region that stretches from Afghanistan to Libya. Iraq and Lebanon feature heavily, with the invasions that tore them apart in the years in which Stack was reporting. Only in the third chapter does she go home, after her first tour to Afghanistan in 2001, and realises that if you are not in sync with your compatriots, home can be a foreign place too. Few of the people she talks about able to move beyond the borders of their own conflict, and therefore also remain bound by their own chapter. But Stack looks at their lives in context, how their lives intersect with her own. In Chapter Fifteen, she writes about Ahmed and his girlfriend, and their view of Iraqi life from the bottom of society. She looks at how she might have endangered their lives simply because they agreed to talk to her. She has no idea what happened to them, and can only write their story as well as possible. This chapter is a tipping point, and in Chapter Sixteen, Killing the Dead, she traces her trauma and pain with firmer lines, using her scramble through the Lebanese countryside as Israeli bombs are falling to chart her own breakdown.
But the education she gives the reader is not on Middle Eastern politics, nor the rise of Islamism, nor the structure of oppressive Arabic regimes. It is on the details of daily life, and therefore the details of mental, emotional and physical survival. Her focus is personal, about a particular constellation of bodies of how she negotiated her way through them. The portraits she draws of the locals who work with her are brilliant, but fleeting. The real subject, as the only constant, is herself, and herself in war.
A focus on oneself, both as a journalist and as an individual citizen, is one of the most exciting things about extended, book-form reportage such as this. The ideal of objective reporting is dropped, and all the intangibles that make a life present in the writing are put back in. We read about the smells and tastes, about the rumour and gossip, about the bad vibes, coincidences and lucky escapes that are not news and, in particular, she writes about how the situations made her feel, charting her emotional progress through the years. In Chapters Seven and Nine we read about a young woman who goes clubbing with her translator, who is high on watching history as it happens. By Chapter Sixteen, we read about her as a much older woman, one who is dealing with the consequences of seeing so much conflict, and who can longer separate herself from her story. This is not done without artifice, and at the end of the book you get a strong sense of the craft of her writing. She talks about her boyfriend Tom in the final chapter, and how he had been present with her through much of her time in the Middle East (245). Tom is her husband in the Acknowledgements (254), so we can only guess at the extent of his influence. Her family is rarely addressed directly, and the same goes for her American colleagues at the LA Times. This is to be expected, but nonetheless shows how her personal, emotional stories are still a crafted political point.
The clarity of her writing in the final chapters gives a perfect summary of this political point:
When the adrenaline really gets going you can’t get sick, you don’t need sleep, and you feel you can do anything. I know when this is over it will be like dying. (230)
It was festival night in Amman… Underneath the cleanness of the non-war, I was still not there. I had survived, I was alive. The shadow of death had passed over my body. But I had left myself there, in the salt and blood and crazy sunlight. (245)
In Iraq, 4,369 U.S. soldiers have died, and 873 in Afghanistan, and more all the time. That is not counting the deaths of local people who are tallied as combatants, or wading in the question of whether they were or weren’t. Either way, that’s six digits of people, dead for a cause I cannot articulate except in the most abstract terms. (251)
That you can survive and not survive, both at the same time. That in war, every man in this village is a liar.
TESSA LUNNEY is undertaking a Doctorate of Creative Arts at the University of Western Sydney. She is looking at silences in contemporary Australian war fiction, and is writing a novel as the bulk of her dissertation. She has previously published reviews in Southerly, and poetry and short fiction in Illumina, Hermes and Phoenix. She lives in Sydney.
Wendi Lee was born and raised in Honolulu, and has lived in Kentucky, New York City, and Pittsburgh. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She has work published in Karamu, Plainsongs, Oyez Review, Fox Cry Review, Inkwell, Common Ground Review, Sierra Nevada College Review, Roanoke Review, The Portland Review, Weave Magazine, 34th Parallel, and Hawai’i Pacific Review.
A Quiet Almost Lost
for my Father
We walked at dusk, a quiet
almost lost in the future
of phone calls and hospital sheets.
We walked down
cooling streets, rush hour evaporated
into empty rows of lawn,
sprinkler left to wet the sidewalk
in rotating arcs.
Plumeria trees, a patch of mint
where grass should be. We wore
matching sweatshirts, gray,
with zippers down the front and hoods
we never used. We must have looked alike,
ambling past Hunakai Street, past
an old woman hunched low
over her yard work. Perhaps she recognized
the sameness pressed into our faces.
Was the resemblance still there,
years later? You shrunk down to child’s size,
no more nervous system,
no more legs
for long neighborhood walks.
The Dead, My Heart
The dead gather in the living room
of my dreams, refusing
forest green cushions,
the couch stretched
like a long, thoughtless cruise.
They have been sitting forever —
they wish to stand.
Their voices like sparrows,
dancing in the limbs
of a wintered tree.
I wait for the wisdom prised away
but the dead find
interest only in living.
They caress the knotted bones
at my wrist, tangle
in my hair.
They pass around my heart,
chattering in wonder at its clench
remembering the skipped beats,
timpani of fear,
symphony of lust, the slow
Father, in your narrow hallways
I am still lost,
The dust falling from thick green curtains
You used to shut out the miracles
Of sunlight. Once you stood on the porch
In a shirt stained thick with red,
My hair dye, the blood
We couldn’t see, to keep
Her from looking inside.
Linoleum cold under my feet, I ran
Past the cat hiding in a dollhouse
For the pursuits of growing up.
I ran every night down the hallway
From bathroom to the safe glow
Of television commercials
And ice cubes melting into Coca-Cola.
Sometimes you looked up
To laugh at me, but more often than not
You didn’t look.
And some part of me is still running.
by Adrienne Eberhard
Black Pepper Press
Reviewed by MARGARET BRADSTOCK
As the collection’s title suggests, This Woman is a book of poetry situating the poet within her world. It is female poetry, confessional poetry, celebrating motherhood, children, love, nature and its fecundity and, above all, the significance of place, “where what matters is/ something other than us” (p.66).
The prevalence of Tasmanian landscape in the poems is strong, and conjures up an awareness of the island’s history and geography. “Littoral” links the present, encapsulated in the figures of the poet’s sons, with her own responses to the coastal landmarks:
These two, mushrooms under the faded indigo
of their hats, are the sign posts of her days,
the far-reaches of her paddock marked by
their small figures running……………………
histories, pulling her
like the way they lift their heads to watch
the finger-winged passage of a sea eagle sailing the air,
its territory marked by the nest of young and the far gum tree.
The sequence “Mt. Wellington Poems” goes further back into the past, 10,000 years and more, to the time of Gondwana land’s geology and plants: “This could be airy ground in Africa,/ the cloud-capped Mountains of the Moon” (p.61). A response to the Mt. Wellington Festival of 2002, in collaboration with poets and scientists, the sequence teaches respect for the native flora and an awareness of its history: “This mountain’s history is collection: flanks scoured,/ plants sampled, examined, described and stored” (p.59). The concept is extended and deepened, both literally and metaphorically, in “Managing the Mountain (or Mapping Time”:
yet mapped, on the table before us, the mountain shrinks,
reduced to kilometres of fire-trail, to the homogenisation
of trail head, sign, specification.
What’s being mapped is impact,
the scars of over-use.
A further poem celebrating landscape and its links to the human condition is “Mt Field.” Here the only scars are created by nature, and we are given a glimpse of a prelapsarian world. Death and life, whether of seasons or snowgum limbs, are natural processes in this poem. While the scenario is beautifully evoked, the end-point of anthropogenic destruction is not touched upon, as it might well have been in the contemporary climate. Likewise, “Recherche Bay” pays tribute to the conceptual fecundity of Lahaie’s garden and the imagined response to it of ship’s steward, Louise Girardon, but makes no mention of the Government-approved road and logging project that threatened the site of the garden as a historic feature in 2005.
Two poems, however, might be said to go beyond the idyll of nature undisrupted and extend their horizons in the direction of ecopoesis. The first and most important of these is “Trust,” dedicated to the poet’s husband, his adolescent naming of fish and fauna elevating these to “friend,” a passion later shared by his sons. Now, in an endangered world:
He reads the latest reports, insists they only fish
in waters swept by Southern Ocean currents,
while each day, his sons salvage bones and fossils,
shells and starfish to line their bedroom window sill,
pulling the river one wave closer each time
until at night it laps at their ears and they sleep,
their world too small yet for pollution, poison, extinction,
knowing only renewal, their trust huge in his hands.
In “Owls,” “the insolent slow flap/ of an owl across the bitumen’s sinuous curve” assails the persona driving home at night
she has not seen owls here for three years
their haunting of the dead gum a memory she links
to a time when the future was a bowl of blue sky
and infinity was the rest of their lives
tonight a second owl launches into the night in front of her
and she understands she has not lost the future or the past
it is here this feather-claw-beak moment
that she has found
Notable also, by its near-absence, is the issue of Aboriginality in Tasmania’s black history. There’s a reference to a rock-wall hand imprint on p.1, to “native women in this Edenic/ world” (p.57), but neither the harmonious relations between the d’Entrecasteaux expedition and Lylueqonny natives in 1792, nor the horrific massacres of 1824-31, receive a mention.
When it comes to invasions of the landscape of the human body, however, the poet is more confronting. “Breast Strokes” provides a fine commentary on the representation of women’s breasts by traditional male artists, with a contemporary bombshell in the closing stanza on Rembrandt’s contribution:
a silent time bomb: her breast − a million breasts − flowering
with deadly beauty, the cells that lie, tucked
and hidden, shaping the future into which, oblivious, we sail.
Almost a conceit, the poem progresses through repetition of key words, through images of flowers and sailing, to a conclusion which powerfully reverses their expected significance. The centrality of these images is continued in the title sequence, “This Woman”:
She’s not interested
in figureheads, their breasts and tresses
a form of treason, it’s more the way a yacht lies under sail,
its ability to displace, and sometimes plane,
as astonishing as flight.
A boat knows its own destiny;
this is the most disturbing thing of all,
that in its relentless fracturing
of the blue meniscus that surrounds her,
a boat is more certain of the futurethan she can ever be.
There is the starkness of recognition, encapsulated in spare, hard-hitting language:
The surgeon will take his knife
and chase the trail of spoor, cut and probe, then sew
and rectify. Her breast will follow the knife’s hollowing,
all pertness spent in the sharpness of steel,
falling into itself, as if trying to salvage something.
and the images of violation: “nothing has prepared her for this…blood cells bones clawing each other/ civil war,” followed ultimately by defiant hope: “belief, in everyday miracles;/ anything, the paper nautilus tells her, is possible.” Reliant on the importance of ‘the small personal voice,’ “Breast Strokes” and “This Woman,” taken together, provide one of the strongest poetic statements in this collection. By contrast, “Maze” is an afterthought, its frame of reference from legend and fairytale unconvincing.
Eberhard works best when re-creating the reality of her world, on its own terms. The poem “Vision,” about her son’s colour-blindness, provides an example of this technique. Images and metaphors arise naturally from the subject-matter:
In my son’s classroom the children’s postcards
line cupboard doors, each asked to draw
what they see: 28 blue vases holding flowers,
the 29th, pink.
the cones of his retina
white-washed into seeing the world awry.
In his drawings, he’s a stickler for detail
as if in its sharpness and accuracy
his brain balances out chroma-deficiency,
allowing 3D perspectives, upside-down views,
a vision unfettered by distance and the quotidian.
Technically, the poet exhibits a penchant for sequences which allow her to explore different aspects of her subject-matter. Some of the images that arise are startling, metaphysical in their implications (“Walking in the wind, it seemed/ as if the world was a knotted/ ball of wool unravelling,” p.3; “This hut is a harbour, hooked to the mountain,/ scoparias and waratahs burning red candles,” p.68; “This rib you found, leached like driftwood/ and light as pumice stone,” p.70). Many are maternal, based on her awareness of the female body and its responses (“the net the fishermen pull/ is full of grief: the stilled voice/ of a new-born child,” p.21; “it’s a journey into time, when the mountain/ was a child sleeping in its mother’s womb,” p.66). Sometimes, this approach results in over-contrivance (as in the poem “Maze”) or the possibility of a clichéd central concept (“Setting Out,” “Bird Song,” “Seeds”). Overall, however, language in the collection is wielded with style and precision, contributing to the shock of recognition that is poetry’s function:
are like this: when you come across
the right ones, their electric stab
is like stepping into the ocean,
being broken and made whole again,
drawing a body to a different realm
where uprights and verticals are gone,
where sky and water stream in,
jettisoning all the mind’s freight.
(“The Words,” p.43)
Margaret Bradstock has five published collections of poetry, amongst which are The Pomelo Tree (awarded the Wesley Michel Wright Prize), Coast (2005) and How Like the Past (2009). She has recently edited Antipodes, the first anthology of Aboriginal and white poetic responses to “settlement” (Phoenix, 2011). Margaret was Asialink writer-in-residence at Peking University in 2003 and co-editor of Five Bells from 2001-10. She is now on the Board of Directors for Australian Poetry.
by Jenny Lewis
Reviewed by ROBERTA LOWING
It would be easy to categorize After Gilgamesh (1) as a missed opportunity or a token memento. This 64-page paperback is a record of what is billed as the “unique contemporary music theatre production” (2) After Gilgamesh, which was performed in March 2011 by the Pegasus Youth Theatre Companies, comprising of the Pegasus Youth Theatre, Dance and Production Companies. (The paperback, here known as ‘the text’, was sold as a ‘special programme’ at that performance and can be ordered on-line, via the website www.mulfran.co.uk).
While it has little to interest a poetry purist, the UK-published text is a pointer to the possibilities of poetry in the digital age, notably in the intersection and dissemination of poetry and performance art. After Gilgamesh is definitely worth a look by the committed poet activist and/or those reader/writers who believe that poets are not only the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” (3) as per Percy Bysshe Shelley, but also George Oppen’s statement that poets are “the legislators of the unacknowledged world”. (4)
The published text’s amalgam of poetry and Iraq War subject matter also has the potential to be used as a teaching aid for high school students, in both poetry/English courses and contemporary and ancient history classes. (5)
It would be churlish to begin by commenting on the text’s omissions so let’s focus on After Gilgamesh’s strengths. The play was written by English poet Jenny Lewis who, as she notes in the text’s introduction (6), became fascinated by The Epic Of Gilgamesh, the nearly 5000-year-old story which, as Lewis summarizes, is thought to be the oldest piece of written literature in the world.
Lewis had been researching her Welsh father’s WWI Army experiences in Mesopotamia (now part of Iraq). Commissioned to write what she describes as a verse drama, Lewis collaborated with Iraqi playwright Rabab Ghazoul and theatre director Yasmin Sidhwa. The result is a four act play (with interval) which cuts between the experiences of a British soldier in Iraq after the 2003 American Army invasion, and the Ancient World setting of Uruk, 2700 BC, which follows the bloody adventures of the Uruk king/god/tyrant Gilgamesh and his best friend, the ‘wild man’ Enkidu. The journey-of-discovery structure finds the obvious parallels in the issues of conflict and humanity, best summarized by the query printed on the book’s front cover: ‘War, leaders, life & death – what has changed in 4,000 years?’
The play’s dialogue, as recorded on the page, is a mix of fictional prose, adapted news reports, free verse, rhyming couplets, slant rhymes and – arguably the dominant poetic form in the text – quatrains with an ABCB rhyme. On the page, the latter emphasizes the play’s sing-song (no pun intended) approach. This is presumably designed to appeal to younger audiences; something enhanced by the slang used throughout (“Don’t even go there”) (7); the broad humour (‘Let’s kill him off with some disease/ … Perhaps bubonic plague, I’ve got some fleas”) (8); war satire (“It was those evil Commies” “… wrong war, General”)(9); and the presence of an ‘Afro-pean’ Chorus, which spans both eras (“Count your blessings, Gilgamesh/ The simple things in life are best;/Enjoy your family, avoid stress,/This is the way to happiness./”) (10)
Interestingly, all of the above read better than you might think on the page: the slang, farce and satire add vitality. The almost vaudevillian aura evoked by the boisterous market-place Ancient World scenes – and the inclusion of black and white photos of the crew and young cast in rehearsal (11) – gives you a sense of what the play might have been like on the stage.
On the page, the poetry lover’s best rewards come from the incorporation of classic texts, such as the delicately resonant lines (lineated as below):
Who can climb the sky?
Only the gods dwell forever in sunlight.
As for man, his days are numbered,
whatever he may do, it is but wind.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Tablet III of the Old-Babylonian version. (12)
Also evocative are the excerpts (too-brief for poetry purists) from the work of 13th century Persian poet Rumi (“Beyond right and wrong there is a field. I will meet you there.”) (13) It was an inspired decision to sample, near the end, what is movingly described in the Scene Notes as “a collage of loss” (14): The Gaza Monologues which, as the Production Notes by director Sidhwa explain, were “written by young people from Gaza of a similar age (14 to 19 years old)”. (15)
Inevitably, though, there are problems with presenting a play-as-text. The play may only span 35 pages but – even if text readers have the luxury of being able to double-check the cast list – it is still hard to keep track of the 30-plus characters who zip in and out of the often-brief scenes.
Another notable drawback for the reader is the omission of music. Writer Lewis notes that the reason why the lyrics for the songs used in the 2011 performance were not included in the text was “to give future producers a free hand in interpretation”. (16) However, her tantalizing references (17) to “a driving heavy metal piece” and “the haunting ‘Alaiki mini salem’ for the first dance sequence … (sung) in Arabic” emphasize the unfinished feel, or sense of absence, in the published text. (18)
As someone who volunteered in a not-for-profit co-operative for four years – as producer-director of an environmental television programme – I have enormous sympathy for the constraints of no-budget productions. However, limitations can lead to creative solutions. Yes, it would take money (but not a great deal) to record a performance of After Gilgamesh and include it with the published text, either as audio only (on CD or digital file) or audio-and-visual (DVD/digital file). (19)
No visual or audio excerpts appear to be currently available on the publisher’s or the writer’s websites although clips of the play may be elsewhere on the internet.
However, watching only on computer could affect both potential audience numbers and the visual quality of the production. That would be a shame because After Gilgamesh is a text that hints at the possibilities for poetry performed and distributed in the 21st century.
1. After Gilgamesh by Jenny Lewis (Mulfran Press: Cardiff, 2011).
2. ibid, p.13.
3 & 4. Why Poetry Matters by Jay Parini (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2008), p.1. This is an effortlessly readable and intelligent summary of the key issues affecting modern poetry, from the influences of past masters to a discussion of traditional forms and poetry’s political engagement in the modern world. Thoroughly recommended.
5. It would be nice to see After Gilgamesh use its play script as a starting point for deeper discussion. A more ambitious idea would be to imitate books such as Duras By Duras (City Lights Books: San Francisco, 1987): a journal of essays and comments by The Lover novelist and the Hiroshima, Mon Amour scriptwriter Marguerite Duras, and other French writers and intellectuals, on Duras’ script for the 1974 film India Song. This posits the film’s shooting script (a copy of which is included in the text) at the centre of a discussion about inspiration, films, language-as-politics and Duras’ career.
6. After Gilgamesh by Jenny Lewis (Mulfran Press: Cardiff, 2011), p.9.
7. ibid, p.32.
8. ibid, pp.41-42.
9. ibid, p.59.
10. ibid, p.63.
11. ibid, pp.16-25.
12. ibid, p.27.
13. ibid, p.29.
14. ibid, p.60.
15. ibid, p.12.
16. ibid, p.10.
17. ibid, p.9.
18. Anyone who saw George Gittoes’ engaging 2005 documentary Soundtrack To War, which explored the music being played by both locals and foreigners in Baghdad during the American occupation, will appreciate the irony that an occupied city often becomes a crossroads of civilizations. The variety of music being performed by the inhabitants in the film – whether it is singing gospel (the Americans) or playing heavy rock (the Iraqis) – is an often poignant reflection of the stresses experienced by those inhabitants.
19. The crucial component here is sound: humans will happily watch low resolution images if the audio is acceptable but they will quickly switch off if they cannot hear clearly. Frankly, though, in these days of digital recording there is no excuse for not being able to produce – at low cost – a plainly framed but audible record of the production.
ROBERTA LOWING‘s poetry has appeared in journals such as Meanjin, Overland and The Best Australian Poems 2010. Her first novel Notorious was shortlisted for the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the Commonwealth Book Awards. Her first collection of poetry, Ruin, about the Iraq War, was co-winner of the 2011 Asher Literary Award.
by Pam Brown
Papertiger Media, Soi 3
Reviewed by HEATHER TAYLOR JOHNSON
In Pam Brown’s latest book of poems, Authentic Local, she asks
who are we now?
a tricky question,
and a hopeless one.
It is the same question she has been asking for almost forty years, and so it must be tricky as the earth shifts and has epic consequences and the global community grows closer together; even trickier as she neglects the ‘I’ in the question and focuses on the ‘we’ so that she must find her place among a hugely diverse population and insist there is a commonality that binds us together as mere humans on a single spinning planet. When I pick up the book – when I pick up any of her books – I find great comfort in knowing what to expect: a continuation of the question ‘who are we now?’ So in twenty-five books I am not so sure she has been through much of an evolution as a poet, but more so a tweaking. As she writes in ‘Self Denial Never Lasts Long’,
very busy here
finishing up a 900 page epic poem I’ve been working on
& on for
I don’t question this statement. Her style is one of movement forward and so we are always in the present. And yes, our landscape changes, and of course, Brown – the woman – has changed (to suggest she hasn’t is as ridiculous as saying her poems are a true reflection of her life), but her poetry, perhaps, is the one constant in her world. A nine hundred page epic poem spanning a quarter of a century is highly plausible with Pam Brown and, what’s more, ‘Self Denial’ may just be two pages of it, Authentic Local one small section.
Sentimentality is not favoured in Authentic Local. There are some poems about absent friends and ruminations on death, but still it is a measured emotion Brown brings to the page. Though there are strong overtones of ecopoetics in her writing, nor does nature pluck at her heart strings; no metaphors in the wind. Nothing romantic about her treeless plain, for example:
for me, it’s useless
a treeless plain,
then describing it
continually changing landscapes
are way too much
sickly yellowing weeds,
ruining pristine reefs
and so on
Her landscape rather lies in the urban, where even amid
a wide broom stroke
of vomit and
puddles of piss
under the bus-stop bench
we see her fascination with
piles of shiny
illuminated to mesmerize
in the Fitbiz window
(‘City Lights, 6 am’)
In ‘Polka Squares’ she writes
over 300 photographs
lost from my iPhoto
slide show –
there go the traces
of late 2002 to
So memory, too, is tied up in electronics and gadgets, taking the idealism out of nostalgia and smashing it to bits. The closest we come to ‘romantic’ can be found in her musings of poetry and other poets, and the occasional artists and their worlds. It infiltrates her poetry with such persistence that it is no surprise Pam Brown is one of Australia’s most prolific poets. My favourite poem is ‘Day and Night, Your Poems’, which she has dedicated to Ken Bolton. In it she emulates his style, which is partly her own, to try to locate her absorption in reading poetry (his), thinking poetry, and in writing poetry. But even poetry is a slave (albeit a willing slave – so then not a slave – a ‘companion’ perhaps?) to technology, and is there romance in that? In ‘News & Sports’ she writes
poetry is like
tv’s live coverage and if you change
a particle you can arrive at an elegant result
via electronic properties and, probably,
high conductivity in an electrical storm,
but the computer is down and so am I –
my bad handwriting taxes my energy,
how does my brain put up with it?
(who am I to ask?)
When the handwritten poem causes migraines, dreamy connotations of the poet’s relation to poetry needs to be redefined. The next poem in the book, having the book’s title, ‘Authentic Local’, follows on with
bun crumbs in the keyboard,
the poet writes the whiteness
of the city
as if not only does productivity in art revolve around the computer, but life is lived around the computer.
There is a certain amount of cynicism in a thematic sense but not so much in Brown’s presentation. I don’t feel a harshness of approach to modernity, nor even a flashing warning, however dull it may be. And to say her tone is ‘matter of fact’ is to say there is a certain dryness to the poems, which I don’t believe is present either. Brown presents us with an acceptance of a fast-paced world which blinks with lights and buzzes with electrical currents, which multiplies cell by cell by cyber-cell and does not wait for us to catch our breath and smell the flowers. There are no flowers. And she is okay with that, just as she is okay with having lived in thirty-six homes. Clearly she has found balance and can embrace a materialistic world as easily as she can write poems on a computer.For longer than some of her readers have been alive, Pam Brown has consistently tried to pin down the impossibility of pinning down in her poetry. But not in an existentialist BIG way; rather in a meandering ‘humph’ way. Has Authentic Local gotten her any nearer to a grounded understanding of a cosmic legitimacy? At this point in her career I don’t think we should be questioning it. I think we should trust in the ticking away of her brain and the furious tapping of her keyboard and relax into her style on page one of this or any future book she will write. It’s a journey – a Pam Brown journey – and if you’re looking out her window, there is such a lot to see.
Surface to Air
by Jaya Savige
University of Queensland Press, 2011
Reviewed by MICHELLE CAHILL
There is a dazzling quality about Jaya Savige’s second collection, Surface to Air, though if the poems are rapid and rippled in their dialectic, their wit is matched by complexity. Savige’s virtuosity accommodates an impressive range of poetic forms, from the lyric to the narrative, from the sonnet to the visual and the elegy. His subject matter shifts from real to hyperreal, from technologies of the personal to the political in scenes refracted through the lens of historical and mythic relativities. This said, the ethical intention of Surface to Air seems more probing than in Latecomers. Despite the supreme assurances of tradition, logic and erudition, there are undercurrents of cultural doubt and disembodiment fragmenting the identity of speaker-subject to the point of vulnerability. It is at such thresholds that Savige’s most convincing poetry performs.
The parabolic argument in Surface to Air is evidenced by the structure of its sections. There’s a movement from the organic contingencies of physical existence in “Snorkelling Lessons” to the transcriptive poems of “Circular Breathing,” the ballistic, reflexive tropes of “A Brief History of Risk,” to the final sequence “Memory Card” in which nostalgia and rhetoric, reason and progress are mediated. It’s an ambitious arc informed by awareness of the uncontrolled relativism of postmodern challenges to the body, to coherence, temporality and space. That the self is in crisis is sensed from the opening poem, “Sand Island”, which evokes, with anatomical precision, the perceptual disruptions of leaving and clinging, mystery and experience. In the search for “common knowledge”, even the sea must be sundered:
What cleaves each muscle of wave
from its bone of ocean?
Hear the snap
of its ligaments
Listen to the severing tendons.
The poem seems intentionally to echo the opening poem of Latecomers with the poet being in “two minds”, though now the sense of a distant destination lies beyond an antipodean or utopian reach. It is not merely home or the body that the poet is called to renounce, but language and its tradition. Savige effortlessly melds the diction of geek-speak with various lyric forms throughout the collection, yet he seems most at home in the natural world, as this poem shows in its evocation of themes:
This morning a stingray
seeking a poem
of its own
strayed into the estuary
of this one.
Crestfallen, it turned
at my dismissive gesture.
The phrasing is flawless, truncated; the personification creates pathos. There are undercurrents of regret in this and other poems. “Circular Breathing” describes a scene in which the poet expatriate, hearing the didgeridoo being played in a Rome piazza, is faced with his own neglect and disconnectedness from home:
I want to bolt up the stairs of the fountain
and claim that sound as the sound of my home—
but stop when I recall how rarely I slow to hear
the truer player busking in King George Square.
Memory kinks my measured walk into a lurch.
My stomach fills with fire. Far above cold stars wheel
around the spire of Rome’s oldest Christian church.
Despite the free verse stanzas the plain, unaffected tone of this poem strengthens its authenticity, providing a human face to a more general theme of colonial inheritance. This sensitivity is appealing to the reader. We encounter it in poems like “Elegy for an Old School Friend” and in the dramatic climax of “Riverfire.” Vulnerabilities are exposed as the poet questions class privilege and cultural assumptions and yet there are distinct sources of conservatism in Savige’s lyrics. His rhymes and puns can be reductive, his registers at times are anachronistic, though they exercise humour as they parody and invoke Elizabethan rhetoric. The repetition of “hum,” “sum, “fun and Om” in the penultimate stanza of “Circular Breathing” strives for a wholeness, that is undone by the closing stanza’s paradox of psychological incompletion.
Juxtapositions arise in tone and image, between the conventional and the new, creating complexity and richness. Savige is the consummate metaphysician, armed with a volley of conceits ranging from gaming, astronomy, love, speed. Space for the poet is a cyber field, where language implodes on the physical surface. Many poems reference the culture of technology, its frames and tropes suitably materialized in a cosmos where “spry grandmothers compose text messages”, where Raphael’s Galatea is a 16th century Paris Hilton, “statuesque on a jetski” with her “skimpy cosi slipping from her hips” and where, according to Wikipedia, the Iliad is an e-book device. “The Iliad” is a witty reflection on the derivative intertextuality of late capitalism which trashes history, dumbing down the Homerian epic to an attractive product. At the same time, it’s a response to the crisis in print. The poet takes up the gauntlet, reversing the assault on language with sweet revenge. It’s an art to extract lyric essence from cultural jargon and I admire his success in poems such as this. Another of my favourites is the sexy, savvy “Disconnect ” with its
Pale wireless mermaid
washed up on the shore
by bright pixeltide.
Here, the conventionally addressed lady of courtly lyrics is busy booking cheap flights, surfing the net, persuaded by the poet to come to bed, to “close down windows.” and “zip the file.” Reminiscent of Donne or Marvell, Savige renews convention with agile associations of thought, with clarity of image. His variations in rhythm and tone are pleasing. Other poems like “First Person Shooter” are more protracted in their technique, and more contrived theoretically.
There’s no doubt that eschatological concerns run as a sinister theme through the collection, as it questions the auguries of innocence and experience. I found strange Blakean echoes in the poem “Crisis”:
Once I was entrusted with a planet
I was a child in a sweltering house.
All the world’s peace was up to me,
Quiet, cross-legged before the mouse.
The seemingly naïve child-subject playing a Nintendo PlayStation or Atari game is solely responsible for the planet’s “cinereous grey”, its missiles and “coughing creatures.” Disturbingly, the child’s passive absorption of violence, is imbued with Cold War psychology and the militarisation of space. The emergence of this virtual consciousness, implied by the book’s title, seems informed by experience as much as by theory. It brings to mind Baudrillard’s social philosophies, particularly those concerned with the West’s technological and political global expansion, the way in which the simulacra are seductive. We hear echoes too, of Foucault’s technologies of the self, connecting the microrelations of the subject in space and time with the macrologic of power.
Savige argues that in blurring the distinctions between self and technology, the simulacra have social consequences. In “Missile”, the player will ride to the Pleiades in search of blue jewels, with the trick being
to avert your vision, look off
to one side, allow a less abused
section of the retina to drink
in the distant emanation.
Alterations in tone from awe to nihilism in these shorter lyric pieces create an impact sometimes lacking in the longer poems. While the syntax is conventionally ordered, the diction is restless, the language layered with adjectives and nouns used as verbs as in “zip”, “swing”, “sticky”, “spark”, “out-yoga”, “bail”, “jink”. This action invigorates poems that might otherwise be burdened with logos, jargon or social theory. A recycling of poetic personas and their personal dramas is refreshing in poems like “26 Piazza di Spagna” (Keats’ death place) or the translation of ‘La notte bella” by Ungaretti. “The Minutes” rarefies Auden’s separation of poetry from the world of finance, with the poet recast as fiscal secretary, taking the minutes in the business of illumination. It’s a humourous, though somewhat flat description, symptomatic of the poet’s audacity to address any subject he chooses.
For me, some of the most beautiful poems in this collection are those in which one senses not speed but stillness, when the moment is distilled and thought, emotion and experience are entwined. “Summer Fig” for instance, captures a brief reprieve from “the impossible/puzzle of light, cut by hot oscilloscopes.’ If nature abounds, the simulacra of a crow’s silhouette awaits the poet’s attention, while technology’s shadow is perilously cast by the ‘giant fig,/downloading gigs of shade onto the fresh, cut grass.”
Personal crisis is constantly present, beautifully evoked amidst the civic in “Public Execution”. In “Desuetude” the poet, overwhelmed by life’s economic demands has “fallen outside of the habit.” Yet, constraint is obliquely resisted in the scatological “Posture.” Its edgy rhythms and attitude liberate the poet from political correctness:
“Your voice is so handcuffed
is how it looks to me, every
tremulous bubble frisked
And in the shapely “Stingray” the marine creature is like a “thought” barbed in the “sea’s mind” “patrolling the palimpsest” where paradise is the antithesis of clarity.
For a second collection it’s an ambitious constellation, which yokes together disparate images and tropes. The poems are layered, skilful, postured and probing. Their permutations operate in versed and free verse forms. Personal crisis is juxtaposed with historical and social contingencies, and yet the collection turns a full circle by its closing poem, “Riverfire”. By taking the statue of Oxley, a 19th century Queensland explorer, down from his pedestal and imbuing him with diverse cultural elements, by giving voice in his last stanzas to a Murri woman who has witnessed a shooting star, Savige turns his gaze from our colonial past to the future. Certainly he has the capacity for such manoeuvres. Savige is a privileged tenant of the “eternal city” whose conservative values are wholeness, resolution and tradition. In Surface to Air he strafes the frontiers of language where power and consciousness are at odds; where risk is mediated.
MICHELLE CAHILL writes poetry, fiction and essays and serves as editor for Mascara Literary Review. Vishvarupa is her most recent collection of poems.
Seven Studies for a Self Portrait
by Jee Leong Koh
Reviewed by CAROL CHAN
Poetry is worth something, but there are more important things. In his essay ‘Art vs Laundry’#, the American literary critic Stephen Burt challenges poets and readers to confront the tension between feeling that poetry is inconsequential, and that it is the main thing– i.e. poems “matter” and can change the world. This unaddressed tension haunts Koh Jee Leong’s second anthology, ‘Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait’.
Aptly titled, this is an obsessively curated volume of free verse poems, riddles, sonnet sequences and ghazals; it comprises seven sections of seven poems each, save for the divan of forty-nine ghazals. Each section interrogates the self through a different mirror: through responses to art, the third person narrative, riddles, abstractions, translations of the Other, emotional landscapes, conversations with the self and appeals to a lover. Perhaps due to the ambition of its premise and intended scope, this anthology unfolds like a series of scientific experiments that don’t quite take off, save for a few and the rewarding title section ‘Seven Studies’.
In search of answers to the limits of language and words, Koh turns to seven artists renowned for their self-portraits (‘Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait’). Arguably the more ‘difficult’ of his poems, these seven Studies are among the most illuminating and rewarding of the anthology. Here, Koh succinctly invokes artists and deftly recreates their art in ten lines; Koh the poet and artist simultaneously unfolding as the poems develop. Where idea and execution do not meet in the other parts of the book, Koh’s precision in words and imagery here carries the tried-and-tested conceit through. For example, with a well-placed line break, Koh evokes van Gogh’s struggle with the Church in the same breath as he skillfully introduces the physical and psychological themes of the artist’s work:
God sank a mineshaft into me for a reason
I could not see in the coalmining district.
Coal dust ate the baby potatoes and beer.
(‘Study #3, After Vincent van Gogh’)
Not a word is out of place- the gravity and bleakness of much of van Gogh’s work immediately translates onto the page with the apt word (“sank”) and vague, ubiquitous detail (“coal dust”).
Koh’s ear for image is pitch-perfect in these poems; the reader unfamiliar with these artists would still be able to appreciate the desperation and restlessness of “Skinny arms kink round my back/ but can’t kill the screeching itch./ The hand can’t scratch its bones” (‘Study #4: After Egon Schiele’), or the energy, wit and irony in Study #2 and #6 (‘After Rembradnt van Rijn’, ‘After Andy Warhol’).
The poems in this collection reveal a critic or academic at work; however, for the most part, this translates into the suppression of poetic instinct behind the lines. Koh’s ‘head suspicious of the heart’ (‘A’), he frequently makes the wrong bet, falling in love with the idea of a poem, the idea of art. And ideas do not a poem make, take for example, ‘Bulb’:
When we unbutton
our skin, our whole
body slips through
and leaves behind
more fleshy skin
and skinnier body
for slipping through
the shrinking hole.
The rounded life.
An onion. A mouth.
‘Bud’, ‘Leaf’, ‘Stem’, ‘Tuber’, ‘Root’ and ‘Fruit’ accompany ‘Bulb’ in the section ‘What We Call Vegetables’. This extract can be read and interpreted several ways. Even if we put aside the issue of what the poem is about, and who these poems are for, the images are weak and awkward, the execution clumsy. This is verse that resembles a poem- it looks like a poem, it sounds like a poem (yes, the sibilances, consonances and assonances recreate aurally the acts of ‘slipping’, ‘unbuttoning’); the rhythm and narrative seem to be leading us to an epiphany or conclusion the reader is expected to be surprised by. The reason ‘Bulb’ exists is that it accompanies an idea, is part of an experiment- the section ‘What We Call Vegetables’ apparently explores/presents explicitly the relation of parts to a whole, etc. But I’m not quite convinced there is any substance here, in the sense that A.C. Bradley employs the term in his 1901 lecture, ‘Poetry for Poetry’s Sake’#.
Bradley argues that the poetic is that which satisfies the reader’s contemplative imagination. A poem convinces the reader of a particular world or moment it inhabits; both substance and form work together seamlessly to develop the poem’s meaning, creating that poetic experience. What frustrates me about Koh’s poems is that there is subject, there is form, but the moments where both dance together in this collection are few and far between. In ‘I Am My Names’ and ‘A Lover’s Recourse’, for example, the form distracts from the subject and my engagement with it. I think I could imagine the rationale behind his choice of the ghazal in his meditations of unrequited/lost love, and the riddle to explore responsibilities and definitions of the self- but I only understand these decisions intellectually. Visually, and read aloud, the riddle only almost works- the declarative answer at the end of each poem (“My name is Mystery. I am a homosexual.”; “My name is Double. I am a lover.”) hints at pretension in the poet’s claim to universality, such as in ‘A’:
Each day revises the day before,
The riddle begun by baby talk,
The walk advanced by toddling aims.
The hands grow quicker than the eyes,
the head suspicious of the heart,
the body’s ardor into age.
My name is Anon. I am a father.
Putting aside the fact that this conjures parodies of Rob Reiner’s 1987 cult film ‘Princess Bride’, this is not a bad poem, only that it is an adequate knock-off of many who have come before him, who have explored ageing, change and rebirth in more sophisticated, surprising ways. I quote this as an example of Koh’s hubris- his inclination towards the cerebral, literary. While his love of form and structure serve him well when there’s something inhabiting the space, so to speak, his intellect is also the source of his carelessness and complacency.
And so, exceptional lines are hidden within the forty nine ghazals, another example of Koh selling himself short for a neat idea (of symmetry- forty-nine being the seventh multiple of seven). Here, as in elsewhere, one gets the sense that Koh is writing for the sake of writing, because he has to fill up the pages, with throwaway lines (“Time is a river. That is if you are a fish./ If you are a sunflower, time is a fire”) and ghazals. ‘The square root of minus money is a movie’, ‘He has not called or written for more than a week’, ‘I see I am the last man drinking in the bar’, ‘The body drives so deeply in desire’s cave’ are some that might be better left out of the collection, filled with clichés (think caves, windows, train stations), dull prose or awkward imagery (door as apple’s skin?).
All of this creating and striving, however, is the result of Koh’s attempt to continually marry his identities as poet, lover, queer, son, to find a new way of expressing love through the physical/sexual or ‘obscene’ in the same breath as the emotional, the pure:
Stop making a big scene about your broken heart.
Put it back in your pants, the soft and weepy heart.
The obscene is a view Jee finds congenital.
Between a poem’s legs is found a poet’s heart.
(‘A Lover’s Recourse’)
This risky, admirable attempt to find a new language for poets works best in ‘You smell your fault as readily as you hear a bell’. In each couplet, the bell is variously a metaphor for the poet’s ego, conscience, sexual desire, poetic voice and critic. The bell is presented via a different voice- a command, a musing, an irritation, an action, an effect. These voices and situations work with the central image to develop the complex tensions in desire, thought and action, rendering the abstract ‘bell’ in the final couplet all the more meaningful and powerful in light of the lines before:
The fading is a fault but silence is an itch.
Most unendurable, Jee, is the unrelenting bell.
(‘A Lover’s Recourse’)
However, Koh is best when he speaks the language of frustration, fear and despair. His thoughtful sentiments frequently lapse into cliché, and his efforts at poeticizing ‘cock’ doesn’t always translate on the page. Hence ‘Translations of a Mexican Poet’ and ‘Bull Eclogues’ stood out for me in this collection, reminding me why I looked forward to ‘Seven Portraits’ when I first received it, assuring me this was the same voice behind the modestly confident Equal to the Earth (2009):
At home it makes a smaller sound, the grief.
The click of a light switch. No mercy
in the darkness or the light the house repeats,
but hiding for a time, however brief,
in me, as in my den, I hear the plea
of an unfired bullet in the drawer firing.
In these lines Koh takes us through a raw psychological landscape in his take on the eclogue. Here, the poem presents to us “in its own way, something which we meet in another form in nature or life”#. Koh’s specific shade of grief is “the click of a light switch”, startling, acute, blinding, immediately omnipresent; this is poetry- an experience composed of but cannot be reduced to that purée of sound, image, rhythm, substance. Confronted with the impossibility of escape, of existing purely on its own, the self that imagines the plea of the “unfired bullet” experiences itself not just as criminal and judge, but simultaneously both: pure crime and punishment.
A relief! Here is a poet that means, not a Poet that much of the anthology presents us. I’d hoped to encounter a Jee that confronted his demons instead of ignoring them; despite the evident musicality in his writing, clumsy lines (“an empty noose that hanged straight by its weight”, “a bus handrail is sticking in my uterus like a huge thumbtack”), unrefined metaphors and images, bad puns (leaves, speed) still puzzlingly appear in this book more frequently than in Equal to the Earth. In his risk and reach for the ‘bigger picture’ (meta-narrative and intellectual coherence of the collection), it seems that Koh has not quite come to terms with the value of poetry (as Burt reminds us) – what poetry is for, why we write.
But here is a poet clearly earnest about challenging himself, pushing the limits of contemporary poetry, willing to take risks, even if not all of them pay off. For all of my unease and disappointment with this collection, Koh has taken a worthy risk with ‘Seven Portraits’, in context of the Singapore poetry scene. Perhaps this book can be read as his response to “politeness/ or fear or disbelief”; his irreverence, versatility with form and voice, and willingness to experiment thoughtfully creates new spaces for discussion in a maturing literary community. Koh writes, “I hope perfection does not lie in quietness”. I believe so, and find myself hoping for more beauty among the ruins in his future work.
The Indigo Book of Australian Prose Poems
Ed Michael Byrne
ISBN 978 1 74027 650 4
Reviewed by ED WRIGHT
The American poet Charles Simic once commented in Verse magazine that “Writing a prose poem is a bit like trying to catch a fly in a dark room. The fly probably isn’t even there, the fly is inside your head, still, you keep tripping over and bumping into things in hot pursuit. The prose poem is a burst of language following a collision with a large piece of furniture.” Having emerged through the rebellious anti-formalism of late-nineteenth century French poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, the prose poem has maintained a sense of the unconventional, and of the enigmatic given that it exists in the slippery spaces around what might be poetry and what might more aptly be described as prose.
An anthology of Australian Prose Poems is a neat idea, so power to Michael Byrne for getting this one together. There are some tremendous poems here; ones that have eschewed the lines of verse in favour of the sentence and paragraph, but still manage to shift the readers’ angles of thought as all good poetry should.
Stand-outs include Joanne Burns’s dramatic monologues, most notably ‘marble surfaces,’ which takes us into the inner world of a butcher; John Scott’s extracts from the longer work, ‘Slippages,’ and Peter Boyle’s fragments of fantastic logic, such as ‘Philosophers and Other World Leaders.” Other big guns of Australia’s poetry are to be found here too. The poems by John Forbes and John Tranter are great, as is Tom Shapcott’s ‘Concert Arias.’ Poems of lesser known poets such as Tatjana Lukic’s ‘Sleepless in Canberra, or George Huitker’s ‘The Soccer Coach Gets Philosophical’ are also worth discovering.
While Byrne brings to our attention some great poems unfortunately, as an anthology, this collection is something of a letdown. The great problem is its sheer unrepresentativeness. There are far too many baby boomer poets, and too many works from lesser practitioners within this set. A gender division doesn’t seem apparent since gender division since Ania Walwicz, Vicki Viidikas and Anna Couani are all included in the volume, but of the 43 poets represented, 36 are boomers. Of course the new Australian poetry of the late sixties is known for its championing of the form. However, even if Gary Catalano was the sixties poet known specifically for his prose poetry, he is not a strong enough poet (despite Les Murray’s panegyric) to warrant ten outings in this rather slim 150 page volume.
Worse still is that some of the included here read more like misplaced paragraphs than prose poems. Deprived of the space created by verse lines, some become afflicted by a dense banality. Tim Metcalf’s ‘The Airman Rolls’ away begins for instance:
‘I have always found conversation a little stifled when wiping clean the papery skin of the incontinent. First my potential partner in conversation is rolled away with their back to me; and second trying to hold my breath disrupts the natural flow of words and the pauses in between them. So I say little, mouth breathe to avoid the smell, and ask myself the same question over and over again: ‘where is the poem in this?’
Others are reduced to reading like . . . regular prose. There are stray travel observations that resonate little. Geoff Page’s “Cathedral in Castile,” for example, or Gary Catalano’s ‘Theatre,’ which is set in Paris. Perhaps the problem here is that these poems are anchored in an era when travel retained its rarity. When to name such places cast an aura and granted their invokers absolution from a still extant cultural cringe. However, other poems based on travel reminiscence, notably Phillip Hammial’s ‘Pygmies’, with its witty self-awareness, and Judith Beveridge’s ‘Flower of Flowers’ with its sheer sensuality transcend their localities and linger in the mind.
Some of the weaker poems in this anthology are cute but ultimately throwaway thought pieces. Catalano’s ‘Books’ is one example. It starts off “Books must prefer their own company to those of human beings, who rarely use them in the proper or appropriate way.’ The cuteness of the idea comes a cropper in the execution of it, particularly through the clunkiness of using both “proper” and “appropriate,” and in the extension of a small idea into a conceit.
If Byrne had cast his net a little wider, he could easily have found more memorable stuff, more variety of it, and this anthology would have been much improved. Given he is not a babyboomer himself, it’s hard to understand why he hasn’t done this.
Another problem with this concentration is that it denies the Australian prose poem a sense of its own narrative or development. The only pre-boomer poet included here is Bruce Beaver, and while this reflects the emergence of the genre in the sixties, Byrnes’s selections give little idea of how this sub-genre may have developed in the almost fifty years since this seminal cultural moment. Placing the poems in an obvious chronological order may have helped the idea of such a narrative, especially as the included work of younger poets feels scattered and arbitrary.
Alternatively, Byrne might have narrowed his criteria and restricted the anthology to the sixties poets. Then it would have worked as a particular distillation of a generation. But to present this as “the (Indigo) Book of Australian Prose Poems” is to infer limits that don’t exist. While he must be commended for retrieving so many excellent poems and putting them together in the context of their genre, it’s hard to be satisfied as a reader when you are left thinking that this anthology could have been so much more.
Pablo de Rokha (1894-1968) was born as Pablo Díaz Loyola. Despite his profound influence upon subsequent generations of Latin American poets, he failed to achieve the international fame of his contemporary, Pablo Neruda (with whom he quarrelled fiercely and publicly). In 1965 he was awarded Chile’s National Literature Prize, deemed by many at the time to be long overdue. He committed suicide at the age of 73.
He made man, he made him in his IMAGE and semblance, and he’s enormously sad and an immense man, an immense man, the continuation of all men, all men, all the MOST manly men, the continuation of all men towards the infinite, a dream, all a dream or a TRIANGLE that dissolves in bright stars.
How much pain, how much pain did the earth need to create you, God, to create you!.. how much pain! Gesture of the world’s anguish, of matter’s sickness and an enormous, enormous mania of enormities!
God, that great human caricature, God, full of empty skies, sad consciences, sad consciences and GREAT anguish, his neutered cadaver’s voice brings together and sums up, FOR man, in his common and disconcerting attitude, the moaning of every object and, in addition, the other, the distant, the other, the other, like the words of a naive child, a naive child, a naive child; bad God, good God, wise God, stubborn God, God with passions and gestures, virtues and vices, concubines or ILLEGITIMATE sons, with an office like a pharmacist’s, like any hairdresser’s.
The earth sculpted the earth’s ingenuous fruits for him, only for him, the earth’s ingenuous fruits, and man denied the enormous world, denied the world; who was, who was ever, who was more loved than him?… he, he was the most loved but never was anything, anyone, he never was, never, never was, never, never, never was!..
Tragedy of God, God, God, the major disgrace of history, the lie, the PHENOMENAL blow to the rights of life, God.
God answered smiling answered God, God answered the most tremendous, the most obscure, the most disastrous questions and the great question; BUT the most tremendous, the most obscure, the most disastrous questions and the great question still, still haven’t been, haven’t been, haven’t been answered yet, still haven’t been answered; God squashed the earth, oh! sacred hippopotamus, God squashed the earth with filthy feet, and the footprints survive until today, survive on the roads and in the tragic belly of the worlds.
He blackened, he blackened, he blackened LIFE with the black paint of dreams and urinated the dignity of man.
“God, God, God, do you exist?… God! God! God!..”, howl the towns and the old women, the old women and the towns across the theological plains… shut up! idiots, shut up! shut up!… God IS YOU.
Great absurd wing, God extends himself over THE VOID…
The Pale Conquistadors
Epic characters, epic, executive or emphatic characters, emphatic, emphatic, and souls of bronze, steel, rock, wretched bones, wiry muscles, men of concise, energetic, simple, authentic, authoritative, exact language, and RED actions, RED burning a priori, hermit-swordsmen, swordsmen-hermits, adventurers who are transformed by hunger and the thirst for GOLD, glory, dashing exploits – glory! glory! – transformed from frauds into heroes, from frauds into heroes, the power of having a soul boiling, the power of having a soul boiling, the power of having a soul boiling at SEVENTY ONE degrees in the shade.
Dim, illiterate, ignorant, ignorant soldiers, you predated the immense, contemporary urban estates and you were THE FIRST settlers of the dull brown, dull brown earth, dull brown, humble, agricultural, BLUSHING like a woman who is discovered naked; free to draw your daggers, you pursued two destinies: to be hung at the gallows or crowned with laurels.
And you’re called Pedro de Valdivia, Hernán Cortés or Francisco Pizarro, Napoleon, you’re all the same: brave, drunken swine, demented or crazy geniuses, contradictory, bilious – that is, IRRESPONSIBLE instruments of cosmic DYNAMISM and LIFE’S nocturnal forces; CONQUISTADORS, I salute you because you were a lot of dreaming-poet-leaders crossing the horizon’s SEVEN HUNDRED hardships with your absurd, painted-on, metaphorical costumes and resonant, fantastical attitudes, full to the brim with illusions, ambitions, heroic, enormous emotions, eyes full of landscapes, sleeping in the shadow of a great, distant dream as BIG as THE SKIES, and not ten cents, not ten cents in your pockets!..
Stuart Cooke’s chapbook, Corrosions, was published by Vagabond Press in 2010, and his translation of Juan Garrido-Salgado’s Eleven Poems, September 1973 was published by Picaro Press in 2007. His first full-length collection, Edge Music, is forthcoming in 2011.
Après le Déluge
Aussitôt que l'idée du Déluge se fut rassise,
Un lièvre s'arrêta dans les sainfoins et les clochettes mouvantes et dit sa prière
à l'arc-en-ciel à travers la toile de l'araignée.
Oh les pierres précieuses qui se cachaient, — les fleurs qui regardaient déjà.
Dans la grande rue sale les étals se dressèrent, et l'on tira les barques vers la mer
étagée là-haut comme sur les gravures.
Le sang coula, chez Barbe-Bleue, — aux abattoirs, — dans les cirques, où le
sceau de Dieu blêmit les fenêtres. Le sang et le lait coulèrent.
Les castors bâtirent. Les "mazagrans" fumèrent dans les estaminets.
Dans la grande maison de vitres encore ruisselante les enfants en deuil
regardèrent les merveilleuses images.
Une porte claqua, et sur la place du hameau, l'enfant tourna ses bras, compris
des girouettes et des coqs des clochers de partout, sous l'éclatante giboulée.
Madame * * * établit un piano dans les Alpes. La messe et les premières
communions se célébrèrent aux cent mille autels de la cathédrale.
Les caravanes partirent. Et le Splendide-Hôtel fut bâti dans le chaos de glaces
et de nuit du pôle.
Depuis lors, la Lune entendit les chacals piaulant par les déserts de thym, — et
les églogues en sabots grognant dans le verger. Puis, dans la futaie violette,
bourgeonnante, Eucharis me dit que c'était le printemps.
— Sourds, étang, — Écume, roule sur le pont, et par dessus les bois; — draps
noirs et orgues, — éclairs et tonnerres — montez et roulez; — Eaux et tristesses,
montez et relevez les Déluges.
Car depuis qu'ils se sont dissipés, — oh les pierres précieuses s'enfouissant, et
les fleurs ouvertes! — c'est un ennui! et la Reine, la Sorcière qui allume sa braise dans
le pot de terre, ne voudra jamais nous raconter ce qu'elle sait, et que nous ignorons.
— Arthur Rimbaud, “Illuminations”
After the Flood
After the idea of the flood had dried up,
A hare stooped amid the clover and trembling bluebells and said his prayer to the
rainbow through a spider’s web.
Oh what precious stones in hiding, — the flowers that were already staring out.
Down the sullied main drag stalls were erected, and boats were drawn out to sea,
which staggered above as in old engravings.
Blood flowed, at Bluebeard’s, — in abbatoirs, — in circuses, wherever the seal of
God paled the windows. Blood and milk flowed.
Beavers got building. Glasses of coffee steamed in small cafes.
In the big glass house still dripping with water, children in mourning gazed at the
A door slammed, and a boy swung his arms through the village square,
understood by weathervanes and clock-towers everywhere, in the glittering rain.
Madame * * * installed a piano in the Alps. Mass and first communions were
celebrated at the hundred-thousand altars of the cathedral.
Caravans decamped. And the Hotel Splendide was built amid the chaos of
glaciers and the polar night.
From then on, the Moon heard jackals yapping through deserts of thyme, — and
eclogues with wooden feet grumbling in the orchard. Then, in the purple forest,
burgeoning, Eucharis told me that springtime had come.
— Surge, puddle — Lather up, roll on the bridge and over the woods; — black
drapes and organs, — thunder and lightning; — ride and roll out; — Waters and
sorrows, rise and bring back the Floods.
For since they were dispelled, — oh what precious stones burrowed down, what
flowers unfurled! — ah whatever! The Queen, the Witch who lights her embers in the
cauldron of earth, will never tell us what she knows, and what we don’t know.
Bien après les jours et les saisons, et les êtres et les pays,
Le pavillon en viande saignante sur la soie des mers et des fleurs
arctiques; (elles n'existent pas.)
Remis des vieilles fanfares d'héroïsme — qui nous attaquent encore le cœur et
la tête — loin des anciens assassins.
Oh! Le pavillon en viande saignante sur la soie des mers et des fleurs
arctiques; (elles n'existent pas.)
Les brasiers, pleuvant aux rafales de givre, — Douceurs! — les feux à la pluie
du vent de diamants jetée par le cœur terrestre éternellement carbonisé pour nous. —
O monde! —
(Loin des vieilles retraites et des vieilles flammes, qu'on entend, qu'on sent,)
Les brasiers et les écumes. La musique, virement des gouffres et choc des
glaçons aux astres.
O Douceurs, ô monde, ô musique! Et là, les formes, les sueurs, les chevelures
et les yeux, flottant. Et les larmes blanches, bouillantes, — ô douceurs! — et la voix
féminine arrivée au fond des volcans et des grottes arctiques.
— Arthur Rimbaud, “Illuminations”
Long after the days and the seasons, the living and the lands,
A flag of bloody flesh over silken seas and arctic flowers; (they don’t exist.)
Surviving old fanfares of heroism — which still attack our hearts and heads —
far from ancient assassins.
— Oh! A flag of bloody flesh over silken seas and arctic flowers; (they don’t
Blazing coals raining down flurries of ice, — Bliss! — fire in the rain of a
diamond wind, bursting through the earth’s eternally igneous heart for us. —
O world! —
(Far from old retreats and old flames, that we can hear, can smell,)
Blazing coal and spindrift. The music, shifting the abysses and shocking the
icicles into stars.
What bliss, o world, what music! And there, the shapes, the shivers, tresses and
eyes, floating. And white tears, boiling, — what bliss! — and a feminine voice
arriving at the depths of arctic volcanoes and chasms.