Review: ALL THE OLD DUDES All that Wasted Heat, Jonathan Hadwen

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ALL THE OLD DUDES

All that Wasted Heat – Jonathan Hadwen (Vine Leaves Press, 2017)

 

Review by Carmen Leigh Keates

This short book of vignettes is dedicated to, along with the author’s partner, the Brisbane suburb of New Farm. This is an area that I know intimately. The men’s hostels that are given so much attention in this work are located on Merthyr Road, where I lived for a brief time, and where years later I am sure one of my neighbours from another unit block in New Farm moved to when his rental changed hands. That neighbour was an elderly bachelor from Eastern Europe, outwardly presenting as alcoholic, as do many of the men Hadwen depicts; men whose loneliness and dysfunction is plain to those of us who live, or have lived, in close proximity to them. Very often (and this book highlights the tendency) this loneliness neither receives any specific attention nor is offered any ongoing help: it is seen instead to be part of the fabric of the place we all inhabit. In Hadwen’s book, however, there is the added layer of empathy in that the young speaker can see himself in these men, and depending on the character, he sees them either as a caution, or as an inevitability:

 

I see a man with his walker, shaking his way into the
front seat of a taxi as the driver waits. One day that will
be me.

 

The protagonist is aware of all those around him and a particular characteristic of the drama is how intensely he focusses on his neighbours and their preferences while at times seeming to maintain this awareness and connection with them so as ultimately not to be involved with them. Although I did not always agree with the order of the vignettes, the persistence of the observations’ calm tone is one of the work’s great strengths. In these observations the neighbours are shown to be quite fascinating, in a peripheral way, and the energy remains quiet and almost adoring, but, interestingly, the details flag things that are distinct irritants – like the man who throws bread on the roof to feed the birds, but the old bread that is left over attracts rats. So this world is presented to us as a sort of survey, or a birds-eye view, dream-like Queensland version of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, without the murder.

 

An old man called John turns up in the story – again, this is my territory as I am sure I know who this John is. The point of the anecdote in the book (which I do not think is trying to be strictly non-fiction) is that John passes away when the protagonist is overseas, so when he returns he realises that, in his own mind, the dead man has been, for a period, still somewhere “alive for me, pottering around his small house, reading, tending the plants of his vegetable garden,” and this is much like his attitude to his existing neighbours, whom he tends in his mental inventory but does not impose upon with ordinary ‘friendship’. Indeed, the speaker just likes to know the people are there, without going much beyond that. When things change, it’s inevitable and not resisted, however, all change in this part of the neighbourhood and with these elderly residents seems to be, without exception, very sad.

 

The title comes from a particular vignette about tolerating the sun blasting into the apartment in winter—tolerating the discomfort of the ‘glare’ for an idea of something greater and more sustaining, something for the good of the group. And flocks of birds figure all throughout this little book, always hunting after food, mostly noisily, and with the speaker himself finally realising he is known to and even monitored by them, seeing himself through the birds’ eyes because, “I am big, and warm, and always watching”. But there are also the frequent tropes of air and breathing (or coughing); space — people being alone, lonely, and then infringed upon; and of course heat, brewing (coffee) and precipitation:

 

The storm threatens, but never comes. The bruised
mass charges on, eastwards towards the bay. The sun
returns with its fistful of heat, and the birds are there,
basking in the palms above the hostel, a second dawn
to celebrate. They natter about seeds, or death, or
nothing.

 

The vignette format makes for quite compulsive reading and is perhaps a logical place for writers to operate in these days; it may be a superficial call based on digital reading styles, but I think we seem increasingly to like pace, strongly demarcated paragraphs, series rather than very large single works. The publisher, Vine Leaves Press, has fifteen books so far in its vignettes collection and has an award dedicated to the form. The fact that it intersects very easily with poetry or at least deploys a poetic sensibility is interesting too; I certainly read many of Hadwen’s pages as poetry (for instance, the quote above, with its “fist” and its “palm”) and as well as this revisited form being promising in so many ways, Hadwen’s contribution has a voice that is appropriately spare at the same time as being unexpectedly warm in its attentiveness.

 

 

 

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Review: INCARNATION IS NO BURDEN – Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold, Andy Jackson

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INCARNATION IS NO BURDEN

Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold – by Andy Jackson (Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets)

Review by Carmen Leigh Keates

 

In my early twenties, I moved, for a short time, around the peripheries of the local conservatorium’s social circles, where my friend was dating a concert pianist who was attracting excited attention. He had huge hands, predictably, but how huge was the thing, and the refrain in many discussions was that although he had an impressive ten-key hand span, this was of course not as much as the extraordinary twelve-key span of the great Rachmaninov. Next time you find yourself at a piano, I encourage you to see how many white keys you can cover with your one hand, then count out to twelve, and you will see what we’re dealing with when we invoke Rachmaninov’s physical figure. Speaking of the extraordinary naturally involves the inclusion of biographical specifics:

 

I lower my head to enter most rooms,

drive with great speed around Beverley Hills. Success,

 

apparently, awaits me everywhere.

An unforged bronze-like sonority and an accuracy

bordering on the infallible. They attribute this to my long fingers

and extremely large hands. No – I am

 

like a ghost wandering forever in the world,

burdened with the harvest of sorrow.

(“Sergei”)

 

Andy Jackson’s Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold comprises a collection of “portraits” of people who have Marfan’s Syndrome. Some of the portraits derive from interviews Jackson undertook himself, and some address historical and public figures and are creative extrapolations of available biographical and autobiographical data. The latter include poems on Abraham Lincoln, the already-mentioned Sergei Rachmaninov, Mary Queen of Scots, and Osama Bin Laden. Although in many cases there is no actual diagnosis available for these historical portraits, Marfan’s range of distinct physical symptoms including extremely elongated limbs, large hands and other markers, in combination with Jackson’s intimate knowledge of the condition, make these pieces far more than someone just drawing a long bow.

In the context of Jackson’s work, things seem slightly in reverse here; this might well have been a book in which Jackson began his poetic exploration of Marfan’s Syndrome rather than being well along in his poetic career. It seems like a more broadly foundational work – looking outwardly and connecting to a community, instead of an individual speaking inwardly – than 2013’s The Thin Bridge (Whitmore Press). But in combination with Jackson’s collaborative theatrical production, Each Map of Scars, this new book signals the development of a larger body of work which, though it has at its heart an effort towards raising awareness, mostly does this within the significant framework of first-person testimony.

While the book is divided into two twenty-three sections, “23 Chromosomes”, together with a Prelude, Interlude and Postlude to round out the secondary musical theme, it is interesting that the book mixes its public figures with its everyday people. Arrangements such as this do tend to trigger my tertiary creative writing nerves (as I know the administration of these projects regularly imposes the need for clear structural plans that grow a bit stale as the true work evolves) but then again this has turned out to be a very clear and pleasurable structure to move through as a reader.

At the same time that the testimonials focus so much on physical symptoms, there is a common type of voice that comes through in many of the poems, a common manner situated as something like a non-physical being, floating, either in pain or deep inside the watchful frustration of one who is being medically treated, and sometimes the location of this voice is really more spiritual or at least otherworldly, the body being lit up and very directly related to in its literal ‘incarnation’:

 

My throat wrapped in bandages.

 

Feeding tubes. Malfunctions.

Vomit in the lung. I am drowning

 

in the water of my own body.

 

A third time, they pull me back out into agony

and I wish to God they wouldn’t.

(“Mitchell”)

 

This voice is most exalted, I think, in the Interlude, where presumably Marfan’s Syndrome itself speaks, and in many ways similar to its hosts when they are expressing their inner selves:

 

Incarnation is no burden. I arrive when the genetic stars align, optimistic every time. At first, their lives are mostly short, broken sentences. I love each one, dumb with pain or suffused with light or both.

(“i) for themselves (substance)” )

 

I love this eerie personification, which in theory could be regarded as a noticeably contrived idea, but Jackson brings it across with real, dramatic poise and it is especially impressive in a work of poetry that switches characters every couple of pages and is based on real people. To have this imagined persona speak with such authority and tenderness is to then highlight how the spirit of this voice infuses, to varying extents, the bearings of those with Marfan’s Syndrome, the voice truly portraying the condition and its residence and vigilance within it hosts’ bodies.

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Interview: Martin Duwell

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Martin Duwell is one of our most prolific critics of Australian poetry and publishes a review every month on his widely-read blog, Australian Poetry Review. In this interview, poet and Foam:e editor Carmen Leigh Keates asks Duwell about his writing, his reading, and how poetry – and the reading of poetry – has changed during his long career.

 

CLK: You once mentioned to me that readers of your reviews would sometimes ask in exasperation whether a book ‘was worth buying’ or not, in response to your style of reviewing which is very involved, close-read and discursive in a rich and highly developed way – not offering up any quick evaluations or, god forbid, star ratings. This type of writing is becoming rarer and rarer. Indeed, most creative and critical writing covered today in Australian universities is subject in some way or another to the journalistic and managerial paradigms that I can’t help but think used to be at least a little more separate from literary studies.

Taking this analysis to the actual poetry, do you think more poets are aiming for a market now? Is there a decline in ‘originality’, or at least poetry that does not have an eye fixed so obviously on how it might be sold?

 

MD: It’s a complicated issue and it really means that we have to think about what criticism is actually doing and what it feels it should be doing. And anybody who thinks they have the answers to those questions is fooling themselves. I think there is an evaluative component in criticism, especially reviews-criticism: I don’t want to make fun of the knots that people get into trying to argue that one poet is better than another. I think of it as running parallel to something like the evaluations art-dealers and antiques-merchants make. There you have to have the confidence and courage to pick something out among the piles of junk which you think has presence and will sell. I don’t think of Ezra Pound as a critic but his ability to pick people who could become great writers was sensational – as was the generosity with which he supported them. For Pound it wasn’t a remote observation that a particular writer ticked boxes that he had already worked out and was thus worth following but rather a complete commitment, a matter of putting what little money he had where his mouth was!

Although I’m ok with this aspect it’s very far from my personality. I come out of an intellectual tradition and so my initial impulse is not to evaluate but to try to understand, to ask “What is this poet doing?” or even “What is this poem doing, what does it think it is?”. If you can’t make an attempt to answer questions like that then canny evaluations that one particular writer might be really good are built on sand. It reduces criticism to a matter of vague sensations and auras. My own image of what I do is not one of browsing through poets looking for a “hit” but of being a linguist dropped into one of the continents of a new planet where a few hundred languages are spoken. I try to give a brief summary of the grammars of all the languages I can by immersing myself in each language for a couple of weeks. Having people back at base complaining and saying, “Yes, very good, but which language is better than others, which should we follow up and get established in Earth school curricula?” would just be irritating and, when you think of the complex issue of what value means when applied to a language, pretty silly.

How this ties in to the middle part of your question is a bit complex and I’m not really well-enough informed about it. In my crude “child’s guide to Australian literary criticism”, critical writing in Australia was dominated by journalism until the post-war period and the rise of the universities. There are certainly a lot of tensions between the two but it’s good to compare the critical writing of, say, Douglas Stewart, with that of Vin Buckley. It’s not as though one is simply evaluative and the other more interested in what the work actually is – what you might think of as an intellectual’s approach.

 

Judith Wright wrote one of the most sophisticated analyses of

the poetry of Australia up to and including her own time and

she wasn’t based in a university.

 

And then, as you hint, there is the change in universities themselves over the last half-century whereby they seem to be infected by that dreary managerialism that means that good work gets done despite the institution rather than because of it

As to the last part of the question, it isn’t something I’m really qualified to talk about. All I have is the poems and any inferences about motivations would be speculative and unhelpful. I do think that if you are worth publishing and worth reading then financial rewards are going to rate fairly low on your list of priorities though poets, not necessarily always the best at having a balanced, sane outlook on life, have been known to fantasize that the world will buy the book they are working on in such numbers that they’ll pay off the mortgage (and then go on to win the Nobel Prize). In my experience the only way a book might make any money through sales is by being a school text. For most poets, any money is going to come from winning one of the major prizes of which, it’s pleasing to be able to say, there are a large number. There are problems with this, of course: the judges are fellow poets and the whole system might be said to be no more than poets taking turns to allocate portions of the large “prize-purse” to fellow-poets knowing that their time to be recipients will eventually come round. That would be a jaundiced view, though: I think, at heart, it’s a good system and no doubt the early Greek playwrights moaned about the patently biased judges who had probably been suborned to put their rival’s works first.

That applies to books. There’s no doubt that prizes for individual poems (of which there are also many) have encouraged poets to write extended sequences.

 

CLK: Something of a cult has developed around the minutiae of writing behaviour, and this discussion is especially active on social media. On Twitter, there is a particularly infuriating hashtag (in my opinion) – #amwriting – applied to material in which people tell us what they are diligently working on (so diligently that stop writing to tell ‘followers’ that they are, indeed, writing). But before this kind of impatient reporting became common, there are of course many examples of writers’ and artists’ daily routines being shared – not for their own edification, I don’t think, but because of a genuine curiosity in the audience as to how individuals settle into their particular grooves of productivity. You write a review every month, among other commissions, which is quite prolific given you are officially ‘retired’ for more than 10 years now from being a Lecturer in the old School of English, Media Studies & Art History at The University of Queensland, and you handed over the Queensland Literary Awards judging reins in 2015. Can you give us a brief run-down on how you keep across your writing and reading these days?

 

MD: I’m glad you said “writing and reading” at the last moment there since I don’t really consider myself a professional writer but I do think of myself as a professional reader! I think it’s good to be interested in others’ practices both in writing and reading. Yes it is all anecdotal and probably exaggerated and perhaps is driven mainly by a gossipy sort of interest but I think it does have a lot to tell us. I read Douglas Stewart’s Fire on the Snow in school and can remember – more clearly than I can most of the text – his “advice to young writers” in his preface that, when trying to write an extended work, you should break off work for the day at a point where you know how to continue at the beginning of the next day. Simple and obvious but very helpful to hear!!

As a writer I’m driven mainly by self-imposed disciplines. If I had undertaken to upload a review when I felt like it, I’m sure I would have produced precisely nothing. I have a little hump of dis-ease a few days before I start to write that I have had to learn to overcome and it’s the knowledge that something must appear on a certain date that drags me across it. I try to read something from whatever I’m reviewing every day of the month, rather than coming to it with a few days to go and working intensely (the way all those amazing writers from Dr Johnson to Shaw and beyond did). Either my way is just better or it’s better for me.

 

I tend to think of the month in roughly three parts: the

first devoted to reading and rereading the poems in the

book, the second to reading the author’s other books or

reading other contextual material (while still rereading a

poem or two), and the third to roughing out and then

rewriting the review.

 

This must seem ridiculously self-indulgent to those with full time work who have to write minor things like reviews on the run, but I console myself that the beneficiary is more likely to be the poet than myself. I don’t find the act of writing especially difficult but it isn’t, at the same time, at all pleasurable. It’s a bit like marking essays – the only pleasure you get is when you see that you’ve finished it.

That’s why I think of myself as mainly a reader. Reading is an immensely pleasurable act, it’s where I am “most myself”. And that isn’t because it’s somehow passive and thus easy: it’s a lot more hard work to read Finnegans Wake or Ariosto than it is to write a two and a half thousand word review or a five thousand word essay.

 

My reading practices are very complex and probably

slightly mad. I have half a dozen slots that are on the go

at any one time.

 

I try to read all the books of Australian poetry that come my way (that was easier when I was a judge than it is now that I’m reliant on review copies), I have a non-fiction slot (very often biographies), I have a light fiction slot (I’ve read through all of Wodehouse, some of it several times, all of Agatha Christie – not so rewarding – all the Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, all the Fred Vargas novels etc etc), I have a couple of “discipline reading” slots where I force myself to read four or eight or ten pages of something that isn’t exactly a “page-turner”: Proust, Ferdowsi etc etc. And then I have various projects. I spent the first half of last year reading (and rereading) all the translations of all the medieval romances that I could find, not only French and German but Norse, Hebrew and above all, Persian. At the moment I’ve got a system for reading contemporary English poets based on a list of receivers of the Eric Gregory Award: two books by each poet. If I tried to look at my practices from outside and see any sort of pattern I’d say that there’s a pleasing tension between randomness – most books are chosen from a slight suggestion of some sort, perhaps a mention in something else I’m reading – and a desire for completeness – so that once I read one book by one writer I want to be able to say that I’ve read them all.

 

CLK: To finish off, I wonder what it means to you that your     website,  australianpoetryreview.com.au, recently surpassed 1 million views. To me, this is another possible point of dissonance – these numbers indicate that poetry and poetry criticism is being accessed more than ever, but I don’t know if this manifests in the mainstream — even the arts mainstream. How do you see this milestone?

 

MD: There is more criticism written than we might have predicted but I expect that the problem is that there are almost no critics – it’s usually a matter of poets doubling up to write reviews as well. At any rate, online journals like Cordite can keep up a very wide coverage of what’s going on. It’s a lot different to what it was a half century ago when print journals would squeeze half a dozen new books into a single review. Although you get lots of opportunities for interesting comparisons in this system, I’ve always thought that a book under review should be treated as a self-contained entity and get its full allotment of time on stage in the spotlight. Whether this criticism is good or bad I can’t really say because I don’t read much of it. That isn’t being snooty.

 

Many poets know that they have the sort of mentality

that needs to work alone to develop what they are doing

and it’s the same with me in criticism.

 

As to the website’s recent milestone, it did come as a bit of a surprise. I should rephrase that since I’ve had plenty of opportunity to look at the growing number of page views: when I started I would have been very surprised if I’d been told that it would go on to be used as extensively as it is. And if I’d known then what I know now about the extent to which it’s used, I might have done things differently. It’s clear, for example, that many of the readers are students looking for information and criticism which will help them with their essays. It’s only been accidental when the website has been useful for these students – there are reviews of texts that are part of their study program that turn up in the stats time and again and attract an incredibly high number of page views. If I had my time over again I might well have sought out what texts students have to read and tried to devote one review per year, say, to one of them. It must be a bit disheartening for a school student to have to search through pages of critical prose in the hope that a poem they have to write about might be looked at. And then they’ll probably find that I deal with the poem in a way that meshes with some overall point I’m making and doesn’t quite satisfy their needs. What I hope, of course, nowadays, is that students who read my work might get an experience of what an engagement with poetry might look like and be influenced and encouraged by it. I know that when I was in the last years of high school I understood at some deep level that if you loved poetry then you loved the contemporary poetry of your own culture, you didn’t spend your entire time exploring the wonders of Shakespeare and Milton. I would have loved to have had access to something like the Australian Poetry Review – I think it would have been both a model and an inspiration.

 

 

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