Review Welcome to struggle town (rinse & repeat), Newcastle Sonnets by Keri Glastonbury


Newcastle Sonnets

Keri Glastonbury

Giramondo, 78pp $24


Review by Angela Gardner


The sonnet has been around in various stylistic incarnations for half a millennia. It is obviously a durable form, possibly due to its flexibility and, despite its brevity, its ability to accommodate more than one image or direction. The modern sonnet with its less strict rules on metre and rhyme endures as fourteen, or in some cases, a decimalised ten, lines. As Ted Berrigan found in The Sonnets although it holds its own as a singular entity it is also the perfect building block to construct a long poetic sequence. In her 76 sonnet Newcastle Sonnets Keri Glastonbury has used the structure as a constraint but also as a structure to approach her subject: the layered reality of contemporary urban life.

Glastonbury has based her sonnet sequence on Ted Berrigan’s New York sonnets. On the surface equating Newcastle and New York is audacious. It is difficult to imagine the city of steel works and the largest coal-exporting harbour in the world as a stylish and sophisticated, pleasure-seeking Floating World (ukiyo) that New York, capital of the world represents.  Audaciously that is what Glastonbury imagines:

The city’s lazily retooled past lives,

a slurry of toxic carcinogens leaching from the gasworks

hidden in full public view.

Outside, parents are waddling their kids to school

– it could be the East Village.

[Goodbye to All That, p3]

In her Newcastle Sonnets Glastonbury appears to be arguing is both that the physical city of Newcastle has changed through gentrification, and that this analogue world is itself overlaid by a new digital reality that disrupts the conventional dimensions of any city through dating apps and immersive games.

The pebblecrete poles of the East End

speaking to an historicist melancholy

plastered all over Instagram.

[Skye Is a 2 Bit Whore, p11]

The city has changed and so have we, so now even a regional city is a world city. It is the unlikeliness of the juxtaposition that arrests. The power of an image being in inverse proportion to its proximity to the object portrayed.

The demimonde is a slippery cusp

– the latest addiction sweeping Tomago steel.

[Cloudy with a Chance of Rain, p55]

The necessarily urban Floating World, or demimonde, is also an ironic allusion to the homophone ukiyo (憂き世, “Sorrowful World”), the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists sought release. Every half or floating world is double-edged and this is evident in the descriptions and a constant ironic attitude toward the subject matter.

Keri Glastonbury works as a Senior Lecturer ‘in a world class ‘gumtree’ university’ [In Newcastle, In Tokyo, p1] and the University appears in the sequence, not as in an idealised past, but in its current form where ‘blended learning sounds more like margarine’ [What would I Say, p6] with its connotation of an inferior substitute. Ted Berrigan also took a clear eye to University education famously “returning the diploma for his master’s degree to the university with a note saying that he was “the master of no art”; he was, he would tell friends, a poet because he wrote poetry, not because he had mastered poetics. To say that one could “master” an art was to imply that it was a matter of learning lessons and following rules.’ The extraordinary Newcastle Sonnets is a powerful combination of the value of academic attention, poetics and what can be learned from experience in the world beyond. So we can be given:

Hashtags call specific & heterogeneous publics into being

built around ad hoc vernacular and memetic modes of expression

[Hardly on Throsby, p20]

which for all its Habermassian truth-telling manages to have the music of poetry with its paired consonance of ‘Hashtags’ and ‘heterogeneous’; ‘being’ and ‘built’; ‘memetic’ and ‘modes’. Or in another of the sonnets, an image from Nature is equated with the black marks on text of a texta to create an erasure poem…and yet, and yet ‘blacks out’ gives a further reading as falling unconscious:

The Islington figs release the bats & the sky

blacks out like an erasure poem.

[Two Dog Night, p43]


The sequence is full of moments of unfinished narrative that fire the imagination:


I’m haunted by that woman we saw smoking in her Kingswood

& on the powerline in Lambton, a cockatoo screeches ‘John’

[Nobody Cares About Your Cat!, p47]


Her characters are neither heroic or supernatural but herself and those around her. The sequence appears to have been written during a break-up and so the viewpoint in these sonnets is not always as a detached observer but as an emotional participant.

as you ride off on your active transport,

Brooks seat nestled in your snatch.

[Unilaterally Headfucky, p27]


In all this Glastonbury is acutely aware of distance, emotional or otherwise.

Seeking neither the uniform distancelessness

of the network nor the uniform nearness of suburbia.

[Goodbye to All That, p4]


Through her writing an urban actuality of hedonism, imagination and transgression (ukiyo) emerges into an altered and alterable landscape that is her experiences of living in Newcastle ‘David McDiarmid’s/ ‘I want a future that lives up to my past’, or Berrigan’s impossible ‘erudite dazzling slim and badly loved’ given a wake-up call by gritty reality. In Glastonbury’s muscular language ‘having a Sunday roast chicken/ expertly stuffed up the jacksie” [Chronotope Hwy, p45].

There is a feeling that when faced with ‘we are the cheapest’/ the bragging rights of spectacular discourse’ [Penguin Bloom, p75] we have as a society have settled for less or been fooled by the capitalist structure we are all part of: ‘the teenagers proudly sitting/on the boot of a Barina’ [Everybody Loves (Raymond Terrace), p34] or ‘the poetic ideal of a Dreamworld/ run by ardent leisure’ [Penguin Bloom, p75].

Layered in with the hard structures of the city: its architecture and geomorphology; are its soft faces: the people, trade and culture, the semi-precious amalgams of bitumen and coal mixed with a grit of toughened glass. For all her profession that

I am the phoney with the ‘All Stations’ tin sign.

[The Star Hotel, p60]

an allusion to the derisive view ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’. [Theresa May, 2016]. In this this warts and all, loving (its complicated) portrait of ‘Newcastle, where “the beaches/are overexposed/ & underdeveloped’[in Newcastle, in Tokyo… p1] Glastonbury is not stateless or drifting but has claimed a personal somewhere and described its particularity.

I am perplexed, by turns entangled and bewildered by the interwoven languages of academia and the demotic and it’s a delicious feeling. Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets is a shifting, dangerous and mesmerising space to occupy, let alone to sashay through as she does.


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