Jeanne Griggs, Postcard poems (#BookReview)

If you love travel, you would enjoy Jeanne Griggs’ poetry collection, Postcard poems, which comprises postcard-sized poems ostensibly sent from locations around the USA, and further afield. Like all good travel writing, though, these poems offer more than just simple travel.

However, before I discuss them, I should introduce the poet. Some of you will already know her, because Jeanne Griggs is the blogger behind the wonderfully titled Necromancy Never Pays … and other truths we learn from literature. How could a reader not love this? You can read about her and her blog’s name on the blog, so I’ll just add that at the back of the collection we are told that besides writing her blog she directs the Writing Centre at Kenyon College, and plays violin in the Knox County Symphony.

So, the collection. It’s divided into three parts, and each poem occupies a page – on the left of the page is the poem and on the right is the addressee (like “To Allen/Crystal Lake, IL”) plus that little rectangular box you get on postcards for the stamp. It’s a clear, simple layout, which maintains our focus on the poems’ context. The titles of the individual poems ground us further, with each referencing its subject, such as “Note on a postcard of Cypress Gardens” or “A postcard of Antelope Canyon” or “A postcard with ornamental pear tree”. There is also an epigraph, and I’ll share it because it’s perfect. It’s from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “I am a part of all that I have met; / Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.”

Regarding the trigger for this collection, besides the obvious travel that is, Griggs wrote on GoodReads that “I was writing poems and fitting them onto the back of actual postcards and then sometimes I would send them to my friends and family. Very soon it became clear that this was a collection, that together the poems told a kind of story”.

Now, all this might sound a little cute, but the idea has not resulted in something formulaic or overly structured. Indeed, the poems roam through place and time, and encompass a variety of holidays and trips, some overseas to, say, the Alhambra in Spain (“Note on a postcard of the Alhambra”), and others closer to home, like visiting a child at college (“Note on a postcard of Wellington, Ohio”).

What captures the attention, however, is that alongside the expected description of a place, most poems contain more. There are reflections, some delightfully wry and some pointedly ironic, on the experience of travel – the joys and challenges, the misses and triumphs, the surprises and the ordinary – and their impact on the traveller. I enjoyed, for example, poems about attending festivals, like:

We’ve come to hear about books,
drink bourbon, and eat crawfish,
casting aside our inhibitions
like layers of clothing, extraneous
in the bloodworm Louisianna night.

(from “Note on a postcard of the St Francisville Inn”)

There are also the personal stories that made these trips worth writing about, such as memories of family holidays followed later by cards to children now grown up. There’s the mother remembering her own mother, only to recognise the pattern is repeating:

and thinking about my mother
how she would take me
to fancyhotels and
sit, saying she was content
with the view, watching me
disappearing over the horizon,
like my daughter, now.

(from “Note on a postcard from the El Tovar hotel”)

Letting go isn’t as easy when it’s you doing the letting go!

… so it was the first trip
we took without you. I missed you,
loosing my regret out of earshot,
drowned out by water roaring,
wishing I could watch you
see this …

(from “Notes on a postcard of Niagara Falls”)

The Contents list, in which a poem on Santa Monica Pier, for example, is followed by one containing a piece of the Berlin Wall followed by one from Waikiki, might suggest, on the surface, something quite random. However, reading the poems reveals subtle segues in nearby poems, from simple things like mentions of cereals (Froot Loops and Cheerios anyone?) to concepts like growing older. Books feature too. Few are named, but keen readers will spy the likes of Tolkien and Shakespeare within these pages.

There’s also some politics. One, “Note on a postcard of the Mount Vernon public square”, documents weeks of protesting, of wanting neighbours to realise that their congressman “is voting against / their health benefits, our water supply”, while another, “Note on a postcard of the Marie Laveau Voodoo Museum”, shares how a human skeleton brings to mind “desperate people feeling / no control over their lives, / the deck stacked against them”.

A couple of the poems particularly resonated with me – in addition to those dealing with family, ageing and children growing up. “Notes on a postcard of Mesa Verde”, for example, captured my own wonder about that amazing place and the people who lived there, while the opening poem, “A postcard of a mirrored room”, makes that poignant (there’s no other word for it) point about

… all the places
we’ve been, until
we get to the last one
and who will know
where that is until after
we reach a final destination.

The last poem, “A postcard from the Getty Museum”, offers a different sort of finality – the arrival of the pandemic. It’s not named, but when Griggs writes of not thinking about the crowds until “After, when the press of all / those people became unimaginable” followed by “all future plans suspended”, we know what she means.

Postcard poems is an engaging and accessible collection that uses something as relatable as writing postcards to explore things that matter. It’s nicely crafted, but also accessible. Well worth reading.

Jeanne Griggs
Postcard poems
Frankfort, KY: Broadstone, 2021
ISBN: 9781937968885

(Review copy courtesy the author)

Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (#BookReview)

The final line of “Gather”, the opening poem in Evelyn Araluen’s collection Dropbear, announces her intention – “got something for you to swallow”. Well, I can tell you now, if you haven’t already read the book, she sure has.

Dropbear, self-described by Araluen as a “strange little book”, won this year’s Stella Prize, the first year, in fact, that poetry was included as an eligible form for the prize. It has also been highly commended or shortlisted for several other significant Australian literary awards. I can see why. It is a fiercely intelligent, confronting and discomforting read that tells truths we all need to hear – and feel. It is also, however, a literary feast, replete with allusions to Australian literature from May Gibbs to Kate Grenville, from Banjo Paterson to Peter Carey, and more. There is a reason for this as Araluen explains in her Notes at the end. Dropbear should, she writes,

be read with the understanding that the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.

In other words, you fight fire with fire! What this means is that in this collection, Araluen, from her Notes again, “riff[s] off and respond[s] to popular tropes, icons and texts of Australian national culture”. In doing so, she upends prevailing attitudes, challenging the colonial project and making it very clear that it’s still in play. This all starts with the title which comprehends the myths and dishonesties at the core of Australia’s settler culture.

In the collection’s second piece, “The ghost gum sequence”, she revisits Australia’s early colonial history, concluding with

Tench’s gaze is still there – but so is ours staring back.

Simply said, powerful in impact. Araluen, and her peers, are no shrinking violets.

However, she also recognises (as does Larissa Behrendt in After story), that she too was brought up on these same texts she uses in her resistance. Hence

the entanglement: none of this is innocent and while I seek to rupture I usually just rearrange. I arrange the colonial complexes and impulses which structure these texts but it doesn’t change the fact that I was raised on these books too. (“To the parents”)

“To the parents” is one of the more autobiographical pieces in the collection. In it she reconciles her younger self’s frustration. She had seen her “parents as easy victims of the colonial condition, and not agential selves who had sacrificed everything” for their children, whereas in fact:

While my siblings and I consumed those stories, we were never taught to settle for them. My parents never pretended these books could truly know country or culture or me – but they had both come from circumstances in which literacy and the access it affords was never a given. They just wanted me to be able to read.

The resourcefulness of First Nations people is palpable in experiences like this. For Araluen, there is challenge in teasing out the “entanglement” of her own “black and convict ancestors” (“The Ghost Gum Sequence”). This includes that hard “yakker” of connecting with black heritage lost through generations of dispossession: “It is hard to unlearn a language / to unspeak the empire” (“Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal”).

Another autobiographical piece is “Breath” in which she writes of being overseas with J when the 2019-2020 bushfires hit and the pandemic starts. She is confronted by her personal dreams in dystopian times:

We came to talk about temporality, about literature, about the necessity of art in the time of crisis … We spent our youths imagining this kind of life, dreaming of ourselves as writers and thinkers who travel the world to tell stories. Being here tastes sour and hollow – it feels like relic-making. What use is a poem in a museum of extinct things, where the Anthopocene display is half-finished? … What use is witness at the end of worlds.

And yet, she doesn’t give up. In poem after poem she witnesses and shares what she sees. It’s exhilarating to read, if that’s not too positive a spin on tough content. “The trope speaks” addresses the many ways in which settler literature has usurped place, ignorantly and arrogantly:

The trope feels a ghostly spectre haunting the land, but smothers it with fence and field and church

The trope thinks every tree is a ghost gum

Later, in “Appendix Australia”, which comprises bitingly funny footnotes, this latter point is referenced again in “37. sic: not a fucking ghost gum, ibid”, reminding us yet again how little we settlers really do know country, as we muddle, if not stomp, our way around it.

The collection is divided into three parts – Gather, Spectre and Debris – which reflect a thematic and narrative trajectory that takes us from historical imperatives in Gather, through more personal reflections in Spectre, to marrying present and past in Debris, though I am making this sound more clear-cut than it really is, because the connections are more organic than formal.

The pieces vary significantly in form and style, and include prose poems, upper-case poems, a redacted poem, and memoir, but there is a coherence that transcends this difference. This coherence lies in the book’s overall unrelenting exposé of the workings of a colonial-settler society that still avoids the truth, and it is supported by recurring ideas and multilayered images, like banksia men and gumnut babies, ghosts/spectres, smoke/ash, and haunting/hunting. Each of these contain opposing ideas that jolt the reader into stopping to consider the meaning and argument being presented. It’s not easy reading, but it is worth persevering.

The final piece in Gather is “The Last Endeavour”, which tells the Cook story. It’s a prose poem that makes no bones about what these “ghosts” were doing: “we have the promise of history, the order to bring light to the dark”. It’s dramatic, ironic and, like most of the collection, satiric.

Immediately preceding this is the telling “Dropbear Poetics” which concludes with:

you do wrong        you get wrong
you get
gobbled up

Can’t say plainer than that.

The book, then, conveys ongoing loss, and critiques how deeply settler-driven history and literature is implicated in that, but it is also a hymn to country. Araluen is Bundjalung-born and raised in Dharug country, and her descriptions of the birds, trees and rivers of these coastal-riverine places are paradoxically beautiful when set against the overall narrative.

Dropbear is an impossible book to review, because every time I pick it up to consider how to end this post, I see something else I want to share. I must finish it, but I must also mention the irony and wit to be found in the collection. Poems like “Acknowledgement of cuntery” and “Appendix Australis”, for example, are breathtaking in their use of humour to skewer settler hypocrisy and obliviousness.

In a final act of deconstruction and, perhaps, reconstruction, Araluen ends her book with the defiant poem, “THE LAST BUSH BALLAD”, that sees the Banksia Men, the Bunyip, and the Dropbear defeated. It concludes on a reminder of the opening poem:

I told you I was prepared to swallow.

Araluen’s Dropbear might be a “strange” book, but it is certainly not little. It’s audacious, erudite and unsettling (pun intended), and warrants every bit of the time and attention I gave it – and more. Recommended.

Brona (Brona’s Books) has also posted on this book. However, I don’t think she will be offended if I say that Jeanine Leane’s First Nations analysis in the Sydney Review of Books comprehends and explains this work far better than we ever could.

Evelyn Araluen
St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2021
ISBN: 9780702263187

Written for Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week

Margaret Atwood, Dearly (#BookReview)

Earlier this year, I decided to try audiobooks more regularly – and thought short stories would be a good way to go. Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities was my choice. It was, overall, a positive experience. Then I thought poetry might be worth trying given it’s such an aural form. I chose Margaret Atwood’s latest collection Dearly for my first foray into audio poetry since, although I’ve been an Atwood fan, I’ve only reviewed her once on my blog. Also, Atwood was a poet before she was a novelist. An added benefit was that the audio version was read by her. 

It worked really well – as a reading experience. For blogging, it was tricky. I found it difficult to capture the details I like to have for a review, much harder than remembering the plot, characters and themes of a novel experienced in audio form. Short stories fall somewhere in the middle. Anyhow, all this is to say that this post will share my overall thoughts, and a little about a few poems that I managed to jot down notes about or find online.

Overall, the collection came across as melancholic in tone, which is not to say the poems are uniformly grim, as there’s also plenty of Atwood’s cheeky humour. The worldview tends to the dystopian, reflecting Atwood’s concerns, but it felt realistic rather than hopeless. The subject matter is both political, dealing with issues like climate change and war, and personal, exploring ageing, grief and mortality. All of these speak to me.

Many of the poems draw on nature for their imagery, if not their subject matter. There’s a sense that nature is bearing the brunt of our wilfulness, that it shows evidence of our wilfulness, and, conversely, that it may also provide the answer. But, there are other poems which explore her themes through worlds I know nothing about, like zombies, aliens and werewolves.

And, of course, there’s Atwood’s love of language. The poems are accessible rather than obscure, but they’re not simple, because Atwood understands the weight of words and loves to play with them. This comes across really well in the audio version.

The collection is broken into five parts, starting, perhaps counter-intuitively, with “Late poems”. Many of the ideas here appealed to me, such as the idea in “Salt” that we don’t recognise the past was good until later. But, the poem that most touched me in this part was “Blizzard” in which Atwood talks about her nearly centenarian mother, asking “why can’t I let her go”? I could tell her why.

I enjoyed poems in Part 2, like “Health class (1953)” and “A genre painting”, but in Part 3, we find many poems inspired by nature. “September mushrooms” talks of fungi bringing “cryptic news of what goes on down there”. Halloween is the ostensible subject of “Carving the jacks”, which concludes with such a great line, “After we’re gone, the work of our knives survive us”. Atwood can do last lines.

In “Update on werewolves” (read it online), Atwood riffs on the masculine threat inherent in werewolves, then expands it to explore the empowerment of women. “Zombie” is prefaced by a lovely epigraph by Rilke, that “poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts”. In “The aliens arrive”, Atwood runs through various movie aliens and their actions:

We like the part where we get saved.
We like the part where we get destroyed.
Why do those feel so similar? 

I love these pointed, paradoxical lines.

“At the translation conference” toys with language and culture, and how different cultures have words (or don’t) for different things. Some languages have “no word for him her … have no future tense”. There’s a wry reference to women and the word “no”, and, more scarily, to translation as a dangerous activity where punishment can result if the translation is “wrong”.

Part 4 also contains many nature-inspired poems. It continues the concerns and questions about where we are going, particularly regarding the environment. Finding a “Feather” causes Atwood to think of the “calligraphy of wrecked wings” and of the feather’s owner being “a high flyer once as we all were”. (This is one of many references to birds, which are a particular passion of Atwood’s.) “Improvisation on a first line by Yeats” continues the exploration of our rapacious attitude to land, as does “Plasticine Suite” with its word play on ages – the Pleistocene, the Myocene, now the Plasticine, “evidence of our cleverness, our thoughtlessness”. It addresses the arrogance of proselytising developed nations disregarding the needs of the less rich. “Oh children” ends with “Oh children … will you grow up in a world without ice … will you grow up?”

The collection concludes on the personal, with Part 5 devoted to ageing and loss, largely inspired by the death of Atwood’s husband in 2019 from dementia. There are some really lovely meditations here. In “Sad utensils” she writes of “the word reft/ who says that anymore?” despite its being honed over years and used by many. As words pass, so do our own lives, and the people we love. In “Silver slippers” she reflects on ageing and the things we give up along the way, “no dancing anymore … all my wishes used up … where did you go and when/ it wasn’t to Kansas”.

The second last poem is the titular poem, and it speaks directly to her loss of her husband, starting with the loss of the word “dearly”:

It’s an old word, fading now:
Dearly did I wish.
Dearly did I long for:
I loved him dearly.

Moving, and to the point – as is the final line of the book, from the poem “Blackberries”: “the best ones grow in shadow”. More paradox. I will leave my thoughts there and pass you over to Margaret Atwood herself in her essay for The Guardian on this collection. She says it all far more eloquently than I ever could.

Margaret Atwood
(Read by Margaret Atwood)
Bolinda Audio, 2020 (Orig. pub. 2020)
1hr 48mins (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781867504009

Jonathan Shaw, None of us alone (#BookReview)

Some of you will know of Jonathan Shaw as the blogger at Me fail? I fly! If you read his blog, you will also know that he loves poetry: he writes it, he reviews it. None of us alone is his first commercially published collection, though he has self-published five collections and has had a number of poems published in journals like Quadrant, Going Down Swinging, and, would you believe, the European Journal of International Law. None of us alone, styled a chapbook, contains 24 poems, selected from his previous collections and published works.

I enjoy reading Jonathan’s* poetry reviews, because he takes us through the poems, sharing his thoughts as he goes. I also like the fact that though he sounds confident, he admits to not always being sure that he’s picked up the nuance or, say, understood all the “metaphorical dimensions” of a poem, so I know he’ll forgive my errors and misses here. Then again, I don’t plan to discuss particular poems in detail, the way he often does, so I may avoid big errors!

However, I will say that Jonathan plays with various forms including sonnets (which seem to be a favourite), free verse and traditional ABAB quatrains. His rhyming is confident and comfortable rather than forced, which is a great start. His allusions are accessible, and his resolutions are usually clear, with the sonnets mostly ending in a rhyming couplet, which make their point. Overall, the tone tends to be neutral or lightly melancholic, with touches of humour, even where the subject is serious. This sort of writing appeals to me.

The poems in None of us alone draw from Shaw’s life, his domestic, artistic and political interests, and so are easily relatable to Australians of a certain age and persuasions. There are gorgeous poems about dogs (“The dogs outside Orange Grove Markets”) and (“She looks out”), for example, that will speak to dog lovers. There are poems inspired by art exhibitions (“Sculpture by the sea”) or attending a play (“This is just to say”). And, most particularly, there are poems responding to the politics of the day (asylum-seekers, same-sex marriage, domestic violence, and climate change.) The first poem, in fact, is a climate change themed sonnet, “Demo”

… We
rallied, one link in a chain
of rallies all around Australia
crying out against the failure
of governments who play the role
of sycophants to Old King Coal.

I like the cheekiness of another sonnet “Unprecedented again”, which he wrote just last year. You can find it on his blog. However, while looking for it on his blog, I learnt something, which is that his favourite form is not, in fact, a sonnet, as I felt I had ascertained from this collection, but an Onegin Stanza. You’d have to be a poetry purist to know though! Anyhow, the poem plays on the idea that the “unprecedented” just keeps on coming, in one form or another, creating a fine line between the unprecedented and the precedented.

“A pronunciation lesson” – a free verse poem – is one of the poems that has been published before. It has also been read on ABC’s Poetica. I’m not surprised by its success because it lures us into a sense of calm before hitting us in the guts with a stand-alone last line. Its subject is Hiroshima, and it is followed by another free verse poem on Hiroshima, “Correspondence”, this one expressing the cynicism of one who knows how it goes. You can live too long! And indeed, there are poems here that recognise our mortality.

Before I finish, I must mention the beautiful design of this little series, with its classy front-papers, and the cover of this particular work. It features a photograph of a ceramic heart from the “Connecting Hearts Project” by potter (and Jonathan’s partner) Penny Ryan. The collection includes a poem inspired by these hearts, “2 July 2016”. The artwork and the poem address the pain experienced by asylum-seeker detainees, and the “malice” of governments refusing to open their hearts to them:

Unwrapped, this heart confronts that malice:
our beating hearts can face our fear –
Close down those camps, bring those hearts here.

And here I’ll leave it, because it’s a little book – a chapbook – and you can buy it, as I did, for $5 plus postage and handling. Check Jonathan’s post for details.

* I haven’t met Jonathan in person but have “known” him long enough in the blogosphere that I felt silly using my usual last name style, Shaw, to discuss this book of his.

Jonathan Shaw
None of us alone
Port Adelaide: Picaro Press (Ginninderra Press), 2021
ISBN: 9781761091247

Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard, The voice of water (#BookReview)

I had planned to post on this beautifully produced book, The voice of water, earlier in the year, but the events of the year threw me completely off track, and here I am at the end scrambling to finish off the posts I planned oh so many months ago.

Created by Tasmanians, visual artist Sue Lovegrove and poet Adrienne Eberhard (who has appeared here before), The voice of water was described by Hobart’s Fuller’s bookshop in their book launch announcement, as “a collection of 30 miniature paintings and poems which celebrate and pay homage to the beauty and ephemeral life of wetlands”. This is a good description of the content, but it doesn’t describe its exquisite production. You can tell that this book was a labour of love by two people who have both a passion for the Tasmanian landscape and an eye for beauty and design.

In their brief introduction, Lovegrove and Eberhard describe their aim as being “to reveal the fragility and fleeting nature of life in a lagoon”, to capture “the constantly shifting light”, “the soundtrack of place from frog call and scratching index legs to the tapping of grasses”, and “the calligraphy of reeds and sedges”. Not surprisingly, they also note the threat to wetlands posed by climate change. They name the wetlands that inspired them, and describe their process:

We spent days simply sitting together or apart, amongst the banksias and tea-trees at the edges, or lying in the sedges and reeds, letting these places seep into our imagination. We waded through ponds and swamps, working side-by-side, drawing and writing, and we had many conversations.

Interestingly, there was an exhibition of Sue Lovegrove’s miniatures at my favourite local gallery, Beaver Galleries, so you can see some (if not all) of the images on their website. The images are beautiful, some having an almost Monet-esque impression of light and water, others being a little more representational, particularly of reeds and sedge. (The original images are watercolour and gouache on paper.) One gorgeous miniature pair features a pond of deep blue with overhead clouds reflected in it. Eberhard’s miniature poem is (without her spacing though I tried):

enamelled sky
where clouds mop
and soak tumbrils
of luminous blue

The words “enamelled” and “luminous” capture the colours perfectly. Other poems convey different watery effects, such as “like textured silk like ruched folds of material”.

Another miniature pair features rows of reeds or grasses in a pond. The accompanying poem is presented on the facing landscape page in portrait mode so that it looks like spikes of grass too. So much attention has been paid to the design, and how design can help convey meaning as much as the works themselves – representing, for example, “the calligraphy of reeds and sedges”. Another poem is arranged in offset columns to encourage us, or so it seems to me, to read the lines in different orders – down one column and then the other, or leaping across the columns – producing slightly different meanings or effects depending on the order.

I’ll share just one more poem, which exemplifies the attention they also paid to the “soundtrack” of the landscape:

jostle of noise a cacophonous counterpoint to the artist’s mark-making scribble and scratch
castanet-clack the scratching of insect legs
ratcheting and tightening an orchestration that ricochets
and rasps phonetics of frog call an infiltration a metronome’s sustaining heartbeat.

The book chronicles the water cycle in the lagoons, the water coming and receding at different times – “lagoon shrinks to water lines washing through reeds” – but this is not a polemical book about climate change. Rather, it is a hymn to what we have now. At least, that’s how I read it.

However you read it though, The voice of water is a gorgeous book to get lost in and carried away by, and I’m sorry I didn’t write it up earlier in the year.

PS I have tagged this “Nature writing”, which reminded me that I have just received advice that submissions are now open for the 6th biennial Natural Conservancy Nature Writing Prize (about which I have written here before). It’s an essay prize, and is worth $7,500 for the winner. This year’s judges are literary critic, Geordie Williamson, and Miles Franklin Award winning novelist, Tara June Winch. Being selected by them would be quite a feather in the cap, I reckon. For more information check the website.

Challenge logo

Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard
The voice of water
Published in 2019 with assistance from an Australia Council for the Arts grant
64pp. (unnumbered)
ISBN: 9780646802541

Susan Varga, Rupture (#BookReview)

Susan Varga, RuptureFinally, eight months after receiving Susan Varga’s poetry collection, Rupture, I’ve finished it. The delay had nothing to do with the quality of the book, but just with my ineffectiveness at keeping up with review books. I apologise to Susan Varga and all the other authors and publishers whose books I still have to get to!

Now, I have reviewed Susan Varga’s excellent award-winning memoir Heddy and me, and Varga, until recently, saw herself primarily as a prose writer. However, circumstances – indeed, those which drive this collection – led her to try her hand at poetry. These circumstances were her suffering a significant stroke, a “rupture” in her life, in other words.

And speaking of words, they are Varga’s raison d’être. In the early aftermath of her stroke “sounds, words, sentences/disappear like tumbleweed”. Devastated, she writes with bitter irony:

With a stroke of the pen
My writer’s life erased.
(from “Afterstroke”).

But, this is not a bitter book (reminding me a little of Dorothy Porter’s The bee hut). Rather, it’s a warm, accessible book about one woman’s experience of a debilitating illness, and of the life that follows, some of it the direct result of the stroke (such as having to move to a new house where she won’t have to struggle with “uneven ground, steep hills”) but some of it the experience of any older woman, or any person walking a dog, or any human being, really.

The collection is divided into 6 thematic sections, including “I Masterstroke”, “II The New House Poems” and “IV Alone in the City”. One of the themes that runs through them is the role of words and books in her life. She writes, in the opening poem of the second section:

Help me, words –
You always have.
(from “First poem”)

Then there’s the description of her library, “a dreamed-of space”, which any booklover could relate to:

The shelves are messy, random,
incomplete, much like a life.
Weighty classics still waiting,
faded Penguins, scribbled-over texts.
Small print I can’t read anymore
(from “The Library”)

But later, in the last section of the book, there’s the poem “Refuge”, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of a women’s refuge. In it she wonders about the value of words versus actions. She had always thought words mattered most, that they “enshrine action … trapping action beyond its brief life”. However, in the face of continued violence against women, she starts to question her faith in words, wondering whether it’s “Action … which truly transforms”. Eventually, though, she decides that the two work hand-in-hand, with words operating as “subterranean weapons/torpedoes, depth charges” which can erupt into action.

The poems range in tone from melancholic to humorous, and there’s a nice variety in form too, including a few haiku. Varga’s control of these more technical features – tone, style, form – help maintain the reader’s interest. The poems’ content is also diverse covering what is a pretty normal range of responses to serious illness – sadness for what’s happened and nostalgia for what’s been lost, fear for the future and anger too, but also hope and of course gratitude for those, particularly her partner Annie, who have helped.

Desert grevillea, not coastal, but similar

There are also love poems to Annie; gentle, perhaps somewhat sentimental, odes to the dogs who weave themselves into one’s being; and more traditional but still gorgeous nature poems:

Delicate ears of coastal grevilleas dance,
lemon, gold, cream, every kind of red,
tiny antennae curled into the breeze.
(from “Spring in Brunswick Heads, 2013. To Julia Gillard”)

I’m sorry I took so long to read Rupture. It’s a warm, generous and intelligent read in which Varga shares the trauma of debilitating illness and the joys to be found in life, regardless. This is a collection about resilience, but it also shows that, in the end, words did not desert her, and that poetry is as much her domain as prose. Best though, that you see for yourself.

aww2017 badgeSusan Varga
Rupture: Poems 2012-2015
Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781742589091

(Review copy courtesy the author)

Hartmann Wallis, Who said what, exactly (#BookReview)

Hartmann Wallis, Who said what exactlyNever mind Hartmann Wallis’ question Who said what, exactly, I want to know who Hartmann Wallis is, exactly! You would think the author bio at the front of the book might tell you, now wouldn’t you? But, no. Well, not exactly. There is an author bio, and it does tell you stuff – truthful stuff such as the titles of two previous books he had written – but at the end of it I was none the wiser. I was starting to think that it was all part of a big joke …

And, in a way it is, but more on that anon. First, I can tell you that I did suss out who Hartmann Wallis is – it’s Robin Wallace-Crabbe who has also written under another pseudonym, Robert Wallace. You can read all about him – them – in Wikipedia which describes him “as a curator of exhibitions, literary reviewer, cartoonist, illustrator, book designer, publisher and a commenter on art”. That “cv” goes someway towards explaining Who said what, exactly. 

Now, when Finlay Lloyd sent me this book, a year ago – I’m so embarrassed – publisher Julian Davies wrote “not sure if this strange little book will engage you, but here it is for you to take a look”. Well, it did engage me – from the beginning. However, I am (almost) lost for words on how to write about it, but will give it my best shot.

Davies opens his letter by describing the book as containing “playful, punchy, iconoclastic poetry”. It is that, but I would also add “clever” and “erudite”, although those words could put people off giving it a go. That would be a shame, because you don’t have to understand all the allusions, all the references, to enjoy or even understand the poems. They are best read as playfully as they have been presented – and if you do that, you get the gist, and sometimes get deeper meanings too!

The poems start on the book’s cover, with one called “Left side of the temple of sorrow”. It opens:

‘Think about it God is dead and has left
The intellectual property rights relating to
Just about everything to a bunch of American
Corporations. Way to go He reckoned they said.

The poem then turns to “real” property, and has digs at religious organisations and banks. The opening poem in the book itself mocks – well – poetry (or readers of poetry, or both):

They don’t make poems like they used to anymore,
I’m thinking about poems with stories, the sort of thing
To excite teenagers, to make men languishing in jail
Feel better about their potential …
(from “At the end of the rainbow there’s a pot of gold”)

It then goes on to suggest the sort of “heroic” story that would appeal to “People out here in ‘don’t-give-us-any-more-poetry-land'”, a story, perhaps, about a man who steals from an old man who has fallen over in the street. Are you getting the drift now?

The poems tackle all sorts of subjects, from the dullness of suburbia to the pretensions of art (in its widest meaning); from the smugness of modern life, its sense of entitlement, its concern for doing things the approved way, to the ills (and cruelties) of our world. Take this, for example:

Kids barricaded among, haha, educational toys
With buttons to press, lead free etc., and books
Encoded, decoded to colour in; why not to burn?
(from “Of birds and these”)

And this, on reading

… an anthology
Of 1971 and earlier poetry;
Couldn’t believe the classical references,
The ‘I’m going to grant you
A look into my mind’.
In the anthology no reference to war raging in Vietnam.
(from “Anthology”)

There is joy in wordplay; there are strange segues; there’s dialogue, characters, and narratives; there are allusions to history, religion, art; there’s pathos, even. These poems keep you on your toes, but they also make you laugh (or grimace).

The poems are supported by illustrations by Phil Day, whom you’ve met before in this blog in my review of Crow mellow. The drawings are black and white, sometimes child-like, sometimes not, sometimes representational, sometimes not, sometimes complete, but mostly more unfinished-looking. In other words, they are a bit wild, and thus support the poetry beautifully, whether or not the link between text and image is clear.

Is this “good” poetry? I’m not sure I’m qualified to tell – and anyhow it’s not really even the point – but I did enjoy the poems. I liked their irreverence, and the heart (and intellect) behind it all.

Hartmann Wallis
(with drawings by Phil Day)
Who said what, exactly
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2016
??pp. [no pagination provided and I’m not going to count them!]
ISBN: 9780994516510

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my mother (#BookReview)

ANZ Lit Lovers Indigenous Literature Week bannerAli Cobby Eckermann, a Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha woman, has featured a few times on this blog, including in my review of her verse novel, Ruby Moonlight, and my Monday Musings post on her winning the valuable Windham-Campbell Prize this year. She is now appearing again as I review her poetry collection, Inside my mother, for Lisa’s ANZlitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 2017.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my motherInside my mother is a challenging read, particularly if you are an occasional reader of poetry like I am, but it’s well worth the effort – for the insights it offers, and for the pure pleasure of reading a skilled wordsmith. As the title suggests, the collection’s focus is mothers – and there’s a reason for this, one all too familiar to indigenous Australians. Cobby Eckermann’s family has a history of children being taken from their mothers – her mother was taken from her mother, Cobby Eckermann was taken from hers, and then Cobby Eckermann had to give up her son for adoption. You can hear and feel the pain of these losses in the collection, but you can hear more too, because while these losses frame the collection, Eckermann doesn’t confine herself to them.

The collection is divided into four parts, which build up in intensity until we reach the last part in which the focus is squarely on grandmothers, mothers and children – and the attendant losses.

The poems, though, are not all grim in tone, they vary in form, and they are held together by recurring motifs or ideas, specifically, mothers (of course), sky, earth and birds, all of which make perfect sense given the author, her culture and themes. The first poem is one of a small number of shape poems. Shaped like a bird’s wing, and titled “Bird song”, it references the power of indigenous spirituality, and ironically comments on how it was so often co-opted by the church. It gets the collection off to a good start. Part 3 starts with another poem about birds, “Tjulpu”. It comprises two-line stanzas, with a separate final last line, and attests to the power of birds for the speaker. “Life is extinct/without bird song”, it starts.

The first indigenous poet I ever read, probably like most Australians around my age, was Oodgeroo Noonuccal (or Kath Walker, as my still loved edition had her). When I started reading Inside my mother, I wasn’t immediately reminded of Noonuccal, but when I got to the devastating poem written in the voice of a woman who drinks too much, “I tell you true”, I immediately thought of Noonuccal’s poems and their effective blend of the personal and the political. The poem is a plea for people to not rush to judge when they see someone “drunk and loud and cursing/Don’t judge too hard ‘cos you don’t know/What sorrows we are nursing”.

This poem looks simple. It uses those traditional rhetorical tools of rhyme and repetition to produce a singsong rhythm which satirically mocks the seriousness of the story it is telling. The effect is mesmerising. The second verse starts:

I can’t stop drinking I tell you true
Since I found my sister dead
She hung herself to stop the rapes
I found her in the shed

Other poems deal with traditional culture (“Vengeance”), political issues (“Hindmarsh Island”, “Kulila”, “Oombulgarri“), love (“Love 22/06/10”), stolen generations (“Severance”, “First born”, “The letter”), to name just a few. The meaning of some of these, particularly those I’ve listed under political issues, depend on knowledge of the politics they reflect. I needed, for example, to look up Oombulgarri.

Some poems are more personal (or, personally political!), such as “Eyes”, to give just one example. “Which eyes will she need today”, the speaker asks? Those of terror, or submission, or of “wonder or contempt”. I won’t tell you which ones she chooses, but they’re appropriate for the overall tone of this collection, reflecting its sorrow and its grit.

And then some, as usually happens with poetry collections, I found a little obscure, although, as I reread many for this review, more of them fell into place. You can’t rush poetry.

While it’s not my favourite poem in the collection, the last poem in Part 1 is appropriate to end on because it addresses the theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week. It’s called “Lament”, and is another poem featuring two-line stanzas, and repetition. Of the six stanzas, three are the same: “I can not stop/must sing my song”. And why can’t he stop? Because he’s the “last speaker/of my mother tongue.” Language. So important.

aww2017 badgeAli Cobby Eckermann
Inside my mother
Artarmon: Giramondo, 2015
ISBN: 9781922146885


Shakespeare’s Sonnets, app-style

Back in 2011 I wrote a post, a few in fact, on Touchpress‘s wonderful iPad app for TS Eliot‘s poem The wasteland. I love that app. It’s an excellent example of how interactive digital media can enhance learning about or enjoyment of literature, for a start, though Touchpress has applied its approach to a wide range of scientific and historical topics, including the solar system and Leonardo da Vinci’s Anatomy.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, Touchpress has also done one on Shakespeare’s sonnets, the whole 154 of them. It was released back in 2012 but I only bought it a year or so ago, when I decided it was time I became more familiar with this part of his oeuvre. So far I’ve only dipped into it, but have decided it’s worth posting on it now, rather than wait until I’ve finished it.

SHAKESPEARE SONNETS APP MENUSo this is an introduction rather than a proper review. The app follows a similar format to that used for Eliot, with some variations due to the work itself, and its age and particular history. It comprises the following menu items:

  • All 154 Sonnets in text form
  • Performances, by different people, such as Jemma Redgrave, David Tennant, and Stephen Fry, of each sonnet (filmed performances with the text synced to it)
  • Facsimile reproduction of the first published edition of the sonnets in 1969
  • Perspectives, that is, commentary on the sonnets, including their form, history and Shakespeare’s use of them, by various academics/Shakespearean scholars, such as Katherine Duncan-Jones, James Shapiro, Don Paterson – filmed talks, with transcript of the text.
  • Notes, that is, Arden’s detailed notes on each sonnet, including notes on individual lines.
  • Arden’s scholarly Introduction
  • Favourites, which as you’d assume allows users to save and share – yes – their favourites.

There is a Home icon so you can quickly return to the menu screen to navigate around the app. And there are also well thought through navigations. For example, on the screen containing the straight text of the sonnet are icons linking directly to the Notes, the filmed reading of the sonnet, and the Facsimile version. If you then  choose Notes, you get three tabs – Arden Notes (explanation of allusions and idioms, definitions of obsolete words, and the like), Commentary (critique) and My Notes (make your own notes).

As with all Shakespeare – given the unfamiliar-to-us language of his time – the sonnets come to life when read by people who know what they are doing.  You can read them in order, or navigate easily to particular sonnets. You can also read/hear them by performer, as when you touch a performer’s image up pops a windows listing the sonnets they perform.

Anna Baddeley, reviewing the app for The Guardian says

The Sonnets app, like its older sister The Waste Land, has the power to awaken passions (in my case, Shakespeare and poetry) you never knew you had. Reading outside and trying vainly to shield my iPad from the glare, I prayed the sun would go in so I could see what Don Paterson had to say about Sonnet 129.

Paterson’s commentary is the best thing about this app. It’s like sitting in the pub with a witty, more literary friend, who uses language such as “mind bouillabaisse” and “post-coital freak-out”. Most fascinating is his emphasis on the weirdness and borderline misogyny of the sonnets, a view echoed by the other academics interviewed for the app.

I don’t know Don Paterson, whom Wikipedia tells me is a Scottish poet, writer and musician, but Baddeley is right – in the sense that his commentaries are fresh, engaging, personal, funny and yet also meaningful. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re the best thing about the app, because it’s the whole that is important, but they certainly give it life.

This is not something to read in a hurry, and it is a BIG app, but how wonderful it is to have these sonnets so readily available on my iPad wherever I go.

Have you used this app, or would it interest you?

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s sonnets
iPad app
The Arden Shakespeare, Touch Press and Faber and Faber, 2012

Oliver Wendell Holmes, The deacon’s masterpiece: Or the wonderful “one-hoss-shay” (Review)

Oliver Wendell Holmes 1879

C1879, By Armstrong & Co. (Boston, Mass.), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Oliver Wendell Holmes is one of those wonderful names that, once you hear it, you can’t really forget it – at least, I can’t. But, the thing is, I often hear wonderful names of people who’ve “done things” without actually knowing what they’ve done. Oliver Wendell Holmes is one of these, and so when he popped up in the Library of America’s Story of the Week series a few months ago I made a note to check it out. The story – actually a narrative poem – has the title heading this post, with the additional subtitle, “A logical story”.

Holmes Sr – his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, became a Supreme Court judge – was one of those multi-talented men. Wikipedia says that he was a “physician, poet, professor, lecturer, and author” and that “his peers acclaimed him as one of the best writers of the day.” His friends included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which helps me put him into perspective. He was a medical reformer, and was dean of the Harvard Medical School. Indeed, Wikipedia reports that “his essay on puerperal fever has been deemed ‘the most important contribution made in America to the advancement of medicine'”. With this focus on medicine, there was a big gap between his early published writings in early to mid 1830s and his return to writing in the late 1850s, but he returned to it with vigour, so much so that, as Wikipedia says, he is now best known as “a humorist and poet”.

So now let’s get to the post’s topic. He returned to writing around the age of 50, encouraged by a friend to become a founding contributor to a new magazine, The Atlantic Monthly. He wrote a monthly column reviving his earlier creation, Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. LOA’s notes describe the column:

each piece is written as a table conversation monopolized by the unnamed Autocrat, with interruptions (including poetry, stories, and jokes) from other residents—including the Professor, the Landlady’s Daughter, the Schoolmistress, the Poet, the Old Gentleman, the Divinity-Student, “the young fellow called John,” and others. The new and improved “Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table” appeared in the debut issue of The Atlantic (November 1857) and immediately became the most popular feature in a magazine that boasted works by such celebrities as Emerson, Whittier, and Longfellow.

The eleventh column is the one the LOA published as their story of the week. It describes a “one-horse chaise” (the “one-hoss shay”) that is built to last. The poem became so popular, apparently, that it was published separately in 1892 as an illustrated book.

As the story goes, a deacon builds a one-hoss shay “in such a logical way” to ensure it would not break down. He uses the very best of materials – “the strongest oak/that couldn’t be split or bent or broke” – and makes sure there is no weak spot. The shay lasts for a hundred years:

Colts grew horses, beards turned grey,
Deacon and deaconess dropped away,
Children and grandchildren–where were they?
But there stood the stout old one-hoss-shay
As fresh as on Lisbon earthquake-day!

Built, then, on the day of the Lisbon earthquake, 1 November 1755, it breaks down while being ridden by the current parson on 1 November 1855:

How it went to pieces, all at once,–
All at once, and nothing first,–
Just as bubbles do when they first.

It is a delightful read in terms of tone, voice and rhyme. I particularly love that the rhyming pattern varies, which helps keep it fresh and the reader interested, and prevents it, I think, from reading like doggerel.

Conceptually, though, it’s also interesting: this idea that you could logically work out how to build something that won’t break. You find, as Holmes describes in his introduction to the illustrated edition, “what point any particular mechanism is likely to give way” and make sure that part/point doesn’t. Then you “find the next vulnerable place, and so on”, until you arrive “logically at the perfect result attained by the deacon”.

LOA describes the work as a “semi-farcical ode to Yankee ingenuity and New World rationality”, but also says it’s been seen “as an allegory on the demise of Calvinism”. LOA also says that “the poem’s fame was such that one-hoss shay became a term used in economics and statistics, designating ‘a capital asset that exhibits neither input decay nor output decay during its lifetime’.” However, in terms of economics, I can’t help thinking about his image of what “bubbles do when they burst”.

Describing his old age, and the fact that his friends – like Emerson, Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne – predeceased him, he apparently said “I feel like my own survivor … We were on deck together as we began the voyage of life … Then the craft which held us began going to pieces.” I wonder if in saying this he thought about his “one-hoss shay”!

Oliver Wendell Holmes
“The deacon’s masterpiece: Or the wonderful ‘one-hoss-shay’”
First published: The Atlantic Monthly, September 1858.
Available: Online at the Library of America