By Benedict Andrews
Pitt Street Poetry
By Eileen Chong
Pitt Street Poetry.
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
It is often difficult when writers change from one literary genre to another. Reviewers — and writers in the encroached-upon form — are quick to “guard their own turf”. Benedict Andrews, in his first poetry collection, Lens Flare, arrives with a strong reputation as a theatre writer and director, both here and overseas. His first collection of plays is due out later this year.
As a first collection of poetry, Lens Flare is, in some ways, not unlike other poetry debuts. It exhibits a considerable range of concerns and techniques — and varies, perhaps inevitably, in quality. At the centre is a truly remarkable sequence of poems called “The Rooms”, of which more shortly. Bookending this are two sections which are decidedly more uneven. The first centres around (but is not confined to) Iceland, which has recently become Andrews’ main place of residence. The poems here range from the graphically erotic love sonnet, “Teufelsberg” to much more tentative poems such as “Rás 1” which starts out with the somewhat prosaic short lines: “Driving around / in the rain / listening to / scratchy jazz / on the radio // Magga says, / it’s getting dark / earlier and earlier …” “Scratchy jazz” is an evocative phrase but there’s not a lot, other than simple exposition, happening in the rest of the sentence.
The closing “bookend” of Lens Flare starts with the ten-part sequence, “Kodachrome City”. It varies considerably in techniques and degree of accessibility but is probably more consistent than the book’s opening section. In “Operaen”, a later poem, we have a good example of what some readers will see as a highly original image and others may see as spuriously melodramatic. “The sky, that well-fucked whore, sheds her sequin dress. / Lipstick smeared, petrol wet, / she strikes a match.”
As mentioned earlier, what truly distinguishes Lens Flare is its central, 35-page sequence, “The Rooms”. With two ten-line poems per page, we are given a powerful, almost encylopaedic rendering of the guests (and their activities) in a contemporary, relatively upmarket hotel. It could be anywhere in the developed world (though some details suggest a tropical location) and has a similar comprehensiveness to the “Prologue” of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, more than six hundred years earlier. Like Chaucer, Andrews casts a mordant but compassionate eye on what is happening in his particular microcosm.
Sexuality plays a big role, of course, but the situations of Andrews’ protagonists are various — from illicit ecstasy to acute loneliness. The profound superficiality of much of our contemporary culture, sexual and otherwise, is sometimes hinted at — and sometimes shockingly embodied. “Room 104” is a typical example. Its last eight lines are suggestive of quite a few other poems in the sequence and yet Andrews avoids any inadvertent repetition: “Soon there’ll be a ring from reception, / a man will knock, kiss her twice and step in. / Sipping champagne, they’ll watch fruit bats mass / above the gardens, they’ll tongue each other, / strip, make the room stink of wine and musk. / They’ll hack into each other like cannibals. / They’ll fuck until they can’t think any more. / So she reckons, rearranging her reflection.”
One can sense Andrews’ theatrical experience at work here — the way it’s all set in the near future (a common dramatic device these days), the detail of the fruit bats and so on. Each of the ten line poems is a kind of mini-play — or mini-masque — but their cumulative impact is hardly short of overwhelming.
In “The Rooms” there are many things we need to know about the sadness and delusions of our contemporary culture — and other things we would probably prefer not to hear. There are numerous, very telling couplets scattered throughout. One from “Room 203” is an example. “Jesus, money evaporates. On the fresh sheets, / his wife’s caressing limbs scratch like twigs.” Again, Andrews’ theatrical experience comes through when he writes of an actor: “Faces upon faces are laid on his. / A palimpsest of worn out masks. Truer lies.”
“The Rooms” is a very convincing presentation of how much we differ and how much we are the same. It’s also a disconcerting look at where we stand at the moment — and where we might be headed. If the whole of Lens Flare were at this very high standard it would be one of this country’s most compelling first collections in the last few years.
Eileen Chong’s second collection, Peony, has many virtues, an almost accidental one of which is to remind us of how far we’ve come, multiculturally. There was a time, say the 1950s, when the typical Chong poem would have been unbearably exotic. As readers, we would have demanded footnotes and glossaries and resented being pressed too hard. Now, in 2014, we are at ease with most of her references; we feel (perhaps wrongly) that we half-know what she’s talking about already.
Peony falls neatly into four sections, only the first of which is “hard core” Chinese. Here we are treated to the Chinese feelings for food, family (children and grandparents, in particular), revered ancestors and the long history of the Middle Kingdom. Some of the poems are recipes in disguise (and this is not a criticism). The first few poems, mainly about Chong’s grandmother, remind us how quickly things have changed not only in mainland China but throughout the Chinese diaspora. “My grandmother cannot read / the words dancing across the screen, / lighting up in time with the music. // She sings from memory, / in the dialect of her youth …” (“Chinese Singing”). The poems here also remind us of the persistence of Chinese customs, a few of which we have come to know about or have even partly assimilated.
The remaining three sections (excepting the book’s final poem) are, for the most part, more “mainstream” but the Chinese dimension persists even though the contexts (overseas travel, domestic life etc) are different. Chong’s poetry, for the most part, has a plain-speaking aspect to it — and a delicacy which we can recognise as Chinese, even if such qualities are not unique to that culture and not all Chinese embody them.
It needs to be insisted upon, however, that Chong’s ambitions range well beyond mere acceptance as a “multicultural” poet. In Part II, for instance, there are several love poems which have a compelling, low-key eroticism, often in the context of a more general sensuality. The poem,“When in Rome”, has Chong recalling how: “In the darkness of the providore / we stood and breathed in / the brine of the meats, the ripeness / of olives. We learnt the true names / of prosciutto. We tasted the warm / oil. The man behind the counter / asked where we were from. Paradise. / You should visit one day. He shook his head.”
As well as the celebration of the sensuous here, there is also a jokey understatedness which many of us like to think of as Australian. The one-word description of Australia as “Paradise” is a joke in itself — which the Italian shopkeeper may or may not have understood. The whole episode has a nice ambivalence — and artistic sophistication.
Another sign of this range and complexity is Chong’s political and social awareness. “Freeman’s Lobotomy” is a graphic rendition of an outdated, rougher-and-readier treatment for mental illness than the more subtle ones we have today (which remain less precise than we might wish). Chong has her surgeon’s monologue ending with: “All done. Withdraw the pick / and wipe it clean. Thank you nurse. / The patient will need nothing / but a pair of dark glasses. Tomorrow / we shall see how much better she is”.
Peony is a highly accessible and often moving collection which deserves, and may well obtain, a wide readership.
GEOFF PAGE is a Canberra-based poet and critic and the editor of The Best Australian Poems, 2014. His New and Selected is published by Puncher and Wattmann.
Alyson Miller teaches literary studies at Deakin University, Geelong. Her short stories and prose poems have appeared in both national and international publications. Her collection of prose poems, Dream Animals, is forthcoming with Dancing Girl Press.
He watches them sleep, holding his breath before the dead weight of their night
bodies, as though hunting. He scans her face the hardest, notes the shadows that turn
white skin into a horror mask of sunken eyes and wet teeth, the pink tip of tongue,
warm, sour air. An animal face, with its hints of bone and darkness. Against her belly,
the tight ball of a cat, ears twitching with rabbit visions and the minutiae of sounds
only heard in those curious hours before light. He takes a pillow and holds it firm to
her mouth and nose; feels only a single kick of protest before the smell of earth and
ammonia. He drops the cat into a canvas bag and parcels it under his arm, gently
squeezing its soft gut against his ribs. He leaves the room humming, the vibrations
filling his ears and throat with the melody of underwater dreams.
Geoff Page is based in Canberra and has published twenty-one collections of poetry as well as two novels and five verse novels. He’s also won the Grace Leven Prize and the Patrick White Literary Award, among others. His recent books include A Sudden Sentence in the Air: Jazz Poems (Extempore 2011), Coda for Shirley (Interactive Press 2011), Cloudy Nouns (Picaro Press 2012), 1953 (University of Queensland Press 2013), Improving the News (Pitt Street Poetry 2013) and New Selected Poems (Puncher & Wattmann 2013). His Aficionado: A Jazz Memoir is forthcoming from Picaro Press.
In the night and in the early morning he contemplates the turning
earth — its slice of light, its slice of dark, the strips of dawn and dusk
between. He thinks about the replications. How many others rest like
him for ten spent minutes afterwards? She feels his weight; it’s not
oppressive. There have been others, just a few, allowing some
comparison. How many other women now, she thinks, lie spread
-eagled just like her, exhausted but not satisfied? A new light clarifies
the blind. She takes herself back fifteen minutes; rippled waves of
pleasure, currents lapping at a shore but not quite breaking. Her
feelings, plainly, are unique — and yet she knows it can’t be so. All
up and down that width of light (or light before the light) thousands,
even millions maybe, have had the same euphoria. They share a
longitude. A gratitude as well perhaps — and somewhere, too, a hint
of pain. Returning to flaccidity, he’s thinking now how many men —
their sheets, like these, in disarray — lie between a woman’s legs,
bisecting the same triangle, their minds regaining focus. She, too, is
starting on her day: its obligations flicker — diverging from,
converging with, the thoughts of him whose weight she bears. How
many others now, she thinks, are moving in small increments from
relish to discomfort? How well really does she know him, this man
who any minute now will make his slow withdrawal; turn her gently
on her side; then snuggle in behind. She knows that, maybe in at
work, there’ll be a wash of fantasy; some untried complication of the
limbs, an urgency not felt so far — and knows that even this will not
be hers alone. Elaborations of that kind, she knows, are far from
infinite. It may or may not need this man, his nakedness curved in
behind her, a hand shaped to her further breast. He sees the thoughts
that scatter in her mind as now her breath turns regular and deepens
into sleep — in search of, or resistant to, the morning in her mobile.
Its ring tone will be one of hundreds, available at purchase. But he’s
awake and thinking back to what they’d managed, the clever element
of drama, its narrative momentum, a story that they tell each other,
hardly needing words, a story that is theirs alone — habits, tricks and
sweet agreements arrived at over years — secrets not for counsellors
(and many more, they know, would share the same restraint). The
light continues through the blind. He knows he won’t get back to
sleep and knows by now that she’ll be dreaming. He likes to think
that he can read them. What is it she is seeing now? Porpoises
perhaps? Or dolphins, riding in towards the shore, plunging there in
unison; then turning back as one before they hit the sand? They have
a smoothness he remembers; a rhythm that’s familiar. He knows their
brains might seem to science almost identical. And yet he knows
each one must be a single dot of consciousness which, right down
through the history of the sea, has never been repeated.
Subashini Navaratnam lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and has published poetry in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Poetika Malaysia, Aesthetix, and Sein und Werden. Her writings on books have appeared in The Star (Malaysia), Pop Matters and Full Stop and she has published nonfiction in MPH’s anthology, Sini Sana and Buku Fixi’s ebook, Semangkuk INTERLOK. She blogs at disquietblog.wordpress.com
We went to Polonnaruwa to find history
We went to Polonnaruwa to find history. And when we got there we weren’t sure if we had found it, so we stood there, looking around. Around the stupa stood all the tourists, taking pictures. Taking pictures is not my thing and maybe I should have written a blog post, a series of tweets, an essay or a poem or a novel or a play or a philosophical tract or letters like Mary Wollstonecraft to a nonexistent lover. But Buddha was watching and I wanted to capture the essence of an ancient stupa under the searing heat of a February sun in Sri Lanka. The camera is a weapon which you must learn to wield carefully while regarding the pain of others.
But you think I want to undo years of ghostly visits and whispered insinuations by taking the right picture. You think I want to rebuild my memories and construct history from a few ruins and photographs to find out what really happened. I don’t think that’s why I’m here. I think I just want a picture of this stupa in Polonnaruwa. I found my stupa but there is a white man standing right next to it. He’s in my way and I stare at him. He looks at me and smiles, and before I know it I smile back. What are we smiling about? I don’t know. My picture of a stupa in Polonnaruwa will have a white man standing next to it, smiling.
Then we went to Jaffna to find history. Do you remember the time they torched the library, they set fire to people, and we waited for the news, I asked no one in particular. When he died from an “aerial bombardment” we cried over the phone and waited for more news. We stayed home in (y)our country. But droves of white men came here to document what went wrong. They love it here and so they stayed. They are driving tuk-tuks down Galle Street as we speak, heads thrown back, laughing, already owning what was never theirs to own. But the proliferation of stupas, you know, performs its own tyranny. Who came first to build the first building? Which building is stated on record as being the first building of the first civilisation?
And that is why we went to war. To find history. Somebody, somewhere, has the facts and then we will tell you what happened. You are still counting the dead but don’t worry, we have the exact number. You say we cut their bodies into pieces, we tossed their rotting corpses into the river, we hung burning tyres around their necks, but you are making it all up. Lies, tears, and propaganda. Anyway, the markets agree that this is the best time to visit Sri Lanka. The beaches are beautiful. The people are friendly. We have some of the best views. Buddha is on every street corner, welcoming you. And look, this is where we killed the terrorists; the guided tour begins at nine. Don’t worry, the soldiers are friendly and speak English. They will explain everything.
Simon Anton Nino Diego Baena lives in Bais city, Negros Oriental, Philippines. He spends most of his time on the road. Some of his works have already been published in Red River Review, Eastlit, Dead Snakes, the Philippines Free Press, Philippines Graphic Magazine, ODDproyekto, and Kabisdak.
Of course, there is stillness in darkness, for there is
beauty in light. Yesterday, the world showed me
its wound in the chest of a homeless child, drenched
with rain, begging for crumbs outside the door
of the ancient cathedral where we converge
and pray on what can never be whenever we try
to pull the rusty nails from our palms. And there
is grief, for there is always loss, in life. Every morning,
during holy week around 8 am, after a mug of coffee,
the maya birds stop over my balcony to sing a song
I could never ever decipher. And that is a miracle
by itself: of knowing there are limits. Sometimes
there is a sentiment of defeat at the peak of triumph.
Sometimes I seek god in the twirling smoke
of every cigarette I consume while I wait
with awe for the sky to be filled with stars.
Winner of the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry by Four Way Books for his manuscript entitled The Taxidermistʻs Cut (Spring 2016), Rajiv Mohabir received fellowships from Voices of Our Nationʻs Artist foundation, Kundiman, and the American Institute of Indian Studies language program. His poetry is published or forthcoming from journals such as The Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, and Drunken Boat. He received his MFA in Poetry and Translation from Queens College, CUNY where he was Editor in Chief of the Ozone Park Literary Journal. Currently, he is pursuing his PhD student at the University of Hawai`i.
In the garden you keep a buck skull on a pole. It keeps holes from the squash, you say. The slight
beak marks are prognostications. You shuffled a deck and drew the Five of Cups—what remains
goes unnoticed. Once we drove through the snow in January and you found a Yellow-throated Vireo
on the oak porch with a frosted rostrum, but still forecasting the future. Squeezing your palms
together, its blue arteries erupted from beneath rust and canary feathers. I touched the floor with my
whiskey nose that night. You held my arms behind me. You pulled endless scrolls from my ribs—a
ghazal repeating we are never owned. You write your name in your fingerprints along my back and
swear them a holy scrawl.
Heather Taylor Johnson is the Poetry Editor for Transnational Literature – fitting because she is an American-Australian poet. She is also the author of the novel Pursuing Love and Death (HarperCollins) and two collections of poetry, most recently Thirsting for Lemonade.
Green log fence holds bee clover and blowfly thermals; steep earth gives way to rock and
water. I find my hovel after snagging my skirt on dead brambles in a stick basket devoid of
growth but underground, that tiniest rivulet, and the sun finds me. It is enough I am here
while the daily grind grounds the mainland with niggling routines and a section of our lives
newly gutted for renovation. Tonight will be kitchen-mad as the motherless home eats and
does not clean then sleeps deeply unaware of this tiny green island.
The ocean says there is no path home, only direction, and flow being how you ride it. The
wind says of no significance of no significance, home being the ride itself. I say that once you
leave you know its sound: dead of night appliance drone, off kilter whirly whirl, single
coughs and sheet-turns, sudden ohs from the bed and under it, a dog’s deep sigh.
Sharon Kernot is an Adelaide writer. Her first novel, Underground Road, was published by Wakefield Press in 2013. Her poetry collections include Washday Pockets (Ginninderra Press, 2010) and Fishing (Garron Publishing, 2012). She currently teaches part-time at Flinders University.
I am trying to change my style, rewrite my own history. I have a habit of short punchy lines
where what is not said trembles quietly beneath. The clip of those lines represents the cutting
down, the chipping away over a life-time and the tremor is the burying of history. So I decide
to reinvent myself through poetry. I decide to stretch the lines so that they can gallop with a
rhythm or amble along, meander, rather than slice through to the instant gratification of the
final line. There have been times when I have had to speak with the precision of a scalpel,
cutting straight to the point. If I did not manage to speak my jumbled thoughts, my counter-
argument, within the space of a haiku or a tanka, within the space of someone’s need to draw
a hasty breath, the words remained trapped along with so many others, unspoken. So my
words became arrows and darts seeking a bullseye. But now I am trying to untie my lines, let
my words sprout tendrils. I’m attempting to allow the elongated, the rambling, the multi-
syllabic, the lengthy line, the prose poem because I know you can do brevity to death.
Bronwyn Lang is currently residing in Tasmania and has had her poetry published in several print and online journals
The heat of the taxi and this particularly hazed morning is one in which circumstance invites confession. We are on our way to see a gynaecologist. I am still high and not yet sober.
My eyes feel discombobulated, set loose and ragged in their sockets.
Silences are fattened with words, fill mouths like fists.
Things we never think of telling are told.
The red dust on our skin streaks with sweat, into watercolours on canvas. We have wound down the windows but the air that enters the car is foetid and tropic. There is dried blood on my heels. I am not wearing underwear.
Tara says now is the right time for stories.
Once she was an actress and met a lover on a game show. Her affairs have ended online or in obsessive analysis. She wants to predict next season’s narrative.
Our skulls are hollowed and sit gaunt above our spines. She speaks of struggling.
Going in and out of frame.
Off set. Everything is echolalic.
Her hair is still damp. She has recently showered. We share a preference for drying our skin in draught. Today she has chosen a yellow dress from the many that feature in her bedroom, hooked on doors and shelves as if she lived in a boutique.
This morning there was a rape.
I notice that our hands flutter between our laps and mouths as if we are drawing from imaginary Marlboro lights.
by Tim Wright
bulky news press
Reviewed by CHRIS BROWN
Late last year I received in the mail a copy of Tim Wright’s poetry chapbook, Weekend’s end. I’d been in occasional correspondence with Wright for a few years and but for this, might never have seen (or reviewed) the book, which was made by the author and his Melbourne peers and never intended for commercial release.
While the roughed-up cardboard cover, stenciled with a gold stroke at a forward lean (and without names or titles) marks the venture as non-commercial, Wright hasn’t made this book writing against conventional (commercial) book design and production, but outside of it, the effect of which is to give precedence to the poetics of the cover, above any intended political function.
The inside cover introduces the title, Weekend’s end, inviting questions as to the relationship between the title and the single graphic feature, a gold line, almost a forward slash, of the cover. Weekend’s end, might suggest, for example, a division between work and recreation, a space between opposing contexts – the forward slash suggesting an either/or of constructed time. I doubt that this was Wright’s intention, though it does foreshadow the questions of unity, continuity, and disjunction that come to characterize the poems of the collection. More relevantly perhaps, the title directs us quite literally to the ‘end’ element of ‘weekend’, a gesture closer to Wright’s interests I believe, for Wright’s poems gather energy around the elemental and particulate aspects of their composition; a point more observable as the book proceeds and grammatical continuities of the earlier imagery give way to the abstracted continuity of the closing poem, “course”.
Weekend’s end asks questions of the way a poem might negotiate the natural discontinuities of daily life and thought, as is made clear in the first poem of the book, “notes.”
a feathered sky
The widening line-break suggests the diminishing connection between successive lines. The last two lines, “communist desire as a collective desire for collectitivity…, quote jodi dean and have nothing and perhaps everything to do with the five lines I quote above; they are related in their un-relatedness, as notes, which are not to be taken here as “just notes” but poetry, the first thought.
If “notes”, for its raw form, resembles a found poem, “accidental collage with Laurie Duggan and word processor”, works in a similar way. Procedures of early writing or drafting are given primacy; the means are here the end. The first three lines read:
Light spills through a gutter a certain
moment of tHe skirts the base of affirmative discourse on which
resemblance calmly reposeshe day, then…
This poem isn’t without its quotidian treats, as the first line expresses, but what’s important is the question of the accidental itself. This poem embodies the aleatory, the poem is its actual and accidental procedure. Wright is writing a ph.d on Duggan so it’s no great accident that this intersection occurs, nor that the poem itself speaks through its chance arrangement to the relation of the critical to the poetic.
These two poems are as informal as the collection gets. From here on each piece seems a more measured synthesis of its often shifting imagery. Wright appears constantly to be testing language against itself, seeking and sounding out, finally intuited combinations of language, that hold, despite an apparent elemental disparity.
The passage here,
rose to the surface to
be doted on patted it’s what
we expect they expected
and came here for corner
ing glasses of coopers
extra stout staring
at it won’t do
you any favours the gin scent
still motes the catwalk
from “ugh boat”, left me asking where does one begin to quote and where end? A question itself that attests to the flow Wright achieves through and against the varied elements of the poem-compound. It’s not so much the lack of punctuation (the reader can look after that?) but more the repetition and enjambment, as well as an adept aural sense, that create a sense of movement, which is at once reflective and forward facing. It’s the kind of poem that makes it churlish to congratulate the single line or isolated thought, but there are bursts of semantic delight, as well as humour: “…glasses of…extra stout staring/at it won’t do/you any favours the gin scent…”. Whose shout was it? but as is common of Wright’s poetry, something else is at work here, and in the reflexive sense, I imagine the poet to be asking questions about making the work happen (“staring at it won’t do”. Fittingly then Wright makes his own book to accommodate the poems of his making.
“west end pastoral”, probably my favourite, is a gem; it’s more contextualized than anything else in the collection; though to which west end does Wright refer? I found myself thinking Brisbane (pastoral here ironized); or Newcastle? Wright is originally from Western Australia. Whatever the case, a strong social and political sense comes through here in a poem that quietly approaches the disposability common to contemporary suburban culture. This is the poem in full:
the couch and the dog
are out the front with the D-lock
docked like broken ferries
someone left their porch out overnight
chewing over a block of wood
in a blanket of cut grass
fumigating the bus stop café.
Questions of economy and restraint assert themselves in Wright’s poems. In a review of the recent outcrop anthology for cordite, James Stuart called Wright’s poems “reticent” but didn’t go on to give any examples to clarify the point. Certainly, there are few pronouns in Wright’s work; “I” barely rates a mention, though at the same time, the point of view’s often implied, at times, in the most apt manner: “this music is meant to/permeate certain emotions” (“weekend’s end”). Why not subtract the first person singular from such an equation?
Wright’s varied imagery gives space and light to the daily life recorded in his poems. “a camera”, for example, questions a framed, subjective reality, but in opening itself to a range of reference, undermines its own expression of a point of view characterized by limitation:
on a sand dune
the limited selection
admitted by a window
things have changed
Each of the poems collected here present a vitalized discourse on the making of a poem, its roots and final composition. Like his earlier REDACTIONS (I-XII), 2011, Tim Wright’s Weekend’s end works brightly out from its own spirited objectives and resolve, establishing itself as a firm example of the wealth on offer in the gift economy of d.i.y publishing. Put it on your reading list, if you can find it.
CHRIS BROWN lives in Newcastle. His poems have appeared in Southerly, The Age, Overland and cordite and were recently anthologized in Kit Kelen and Jean Kent’s anthology of Hunter writing, A Slow Combusting Hymn. He is writing a book of poems: “hotel universo”.