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

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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.’ www.poetryfoundation.org). 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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A Postcard from the Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writer’s Centre Residency

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The view from the desk at ‘Aldridge’, one of the writing studios at the KSPWC, Greenmount , WA, Australia with the Perth skyline on the horizon.

I had reached a very difficult point in the writing of the first draft of my verse novel The Sorry Tale of the Mignonette and needed some dedicated time and space to put what I had written into a coherent order. What an amazing thing it is to have uninterrupted time to work on your own writing and the KSP Writer’s Centre provides this and more with its lovely setting in Greenmount in the Perth Hills. I’d look up from my manuscript and find the wandoo (white gum) in the paddock lively with the breeze or with twenty-eight parrots and feel instantly refreshed. Although I was only at the Aldridge studio for one week, I far exceeded the goals I had set myself for my work there. Then there was the unintrusive level of assistance provided by the staff at KSP from being taken shopping for some forgotten necessities to lifts to and from the Film Night.

The cabins are beautifully appointed and self-catering with toaster, kettle and microwave plus use of the kitchen in the main house.

But it was not all about my writing, one of the special aspects of the week was being able to curl up with a good book in the evenings guilt-free at the time I was allocating to this wonderful activity – after all didn’t other writer’s in the journal helpfully left for me suggest I turn off my screen by 8pm and do something else!

I really appreciated the welcome I received from the writing groups at KSP and took full advantage while I was in residence. So a shout-out to the Writer’s Circle, Writefee Women’s Writing Group and the Thursday Night Group for including me so warmly in their activities. I’m only disappointed that there were some other groups I couldn’t go to as I had missed their meetings. Oh well! next time, I hope.

 

Angela Gardner

 

Those interested in 2020 positions should head to http://www.kspwriterscentre.com/residency-program

Established – DEADLINE 30 JUNE 2019

Emerging – DEADLINE 28 JULY 2019

Next Gen – DEADLINE 25 AUGUST 2019

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Review: to sing the song back to our land, Fume, Phillip Hall

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to sing the song back to our land

 

Fume by Phillip Hall

UWA Publishing, 104pp

 

Review by Angela Gardner

 

 

 

“A patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country

as she wrestles for her own being”

(Adrienne Rich ‘An Atlas of the Difficult World’ 1981)

 

Fume is a deeply important work that uses essays and poems to chart the depth of trauma and love of Country and of First Australians. It is a devastating love poem, a manifesto, aware of the political and personal tragedy of colonisation and post-colonialism. His discussion[i], during a recent workshop, of the differences between his first and second books and his move to a more eco-critical stance seemed to underline the distance the author himself had travelled in the crucible of his own and others’ trauma to discover our own implication and culpability in the colonial enterprise.

Phillip Hall is the author of a previous book, Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press, 2014), and a chapbook, Borroloola Class (IPSI University of Canberra, 2017); the latter’s poems are now included in Fume. The poetry in Fume was written between 2011 and 2015 while Hall lived and worked, as a sports instructor and outdoor educator in the remote Indigenous community of Borroloola on the McArthur river, almost 1,000 kilometres from Darwin, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. In the opening essay Hall writes, “I reject the idea of ‘wilderness’, as racism – yet another version of terra nullius – and challenge those with whom I walk to cherish the custodianship of First Australians.” Hall is well aware of the consequences on remote Indigenous communities of colonisation and dispossession and his personal engagement has resulted in a more politically aware collection than his first book.

Fume opens with an Acknowledgment of Country in the form of a poem and a note regarding cultural sensitivity. The rest of the poems (a full sixty pages) are sandwiched between two substantial essays ‘Bad Debt’ that charts Hall’s childhood relationships to Indigenous friends and to ‘country’, and ‘The Stick’ which discusses language, culture, and education in the Northern Territory. With his first-hand experience this essay alone should be an important resource for education administrators. It also includes six poems from the First Nations storytelling group, Diwurruwurru, which he facilitated in Borroloola. The book concludes with a useful (though not complete) Glossary of Language and Kriol words used in the text.

From the start Hall is keen to prevent any further acts of colonisation or cultural appropriation stating in his biography, presented between the title and half-title pages, that he “does not identify as a First Australian though Nana Miller has adopted him into Gudanji family.” The author and UWA Publishing are to be commended for giving room to this scrupulous and necessary documenting of the author’s relationship to Borroloola and its Yanyuwa, Marra, Guganji and Garrwa people.

In Fume he sets out to show us how cultural activities impact upon Country and how Country shapes its inhabitants. For example, the annual rodeo week in Borroloola, arising from the introduction of the cattle industry into Yanyuwa Country, has become a distinctly Indigenous cultural event – a type of reverse cultural appropriation. Through the poems we learn there is an altogether more complex, more multi-valent relationship between the wet season, Law[ii] (author’s word usage) and the Rodeo. Note: where an Indigenous or other voice is used, or a poem is collaborative this is acknowledged by Hall through the use of italics.

an if you come modaka out bush wid millad mob

                                           us dance dat storm like kardu buckin’ bullocky –

 

a screwed-up muscle-sprung bellowed barrel

like a didged rodeo’s cheerin’ mental-as-anything king

(Borroloola Class for Noela Anderson p31)

 

It is clear that the storm in the poem has Law attached to it, communicated through dance (among other means of transmission) that is also interpreted in modern life through the bullock ride at the annual rodeo. This is made clearer in the following poem (a collaborative work with Diwurruwurru). In the poem Elders have come

an dey bin singin us mob bullocky dreamin song

                                                          dey bin learnin us mob

                                           for to sing im an everyone deadly safe

                                           we like learn for singin us mob song

                                           for ceremony, culture, land an law

                             millad mob strong in dat rodeo an in dreamin us proud

(Millad Mob da Best! For Patsy Shadforth & Borroloola’s kids P32)

So that by the time we read ‘The Wet Season’s first rain/is a buckjumper’s cock-a-hoop eight second rattle’ (Waterlily Light Well p42) with its implication of a fast and furious ride or “that frog stones/ the coolamon gushing/ open all the sweet/ shared streaming waters of a land…’ [The Gudanji’s Dry Stone Country p46) the reader is better able to understand the close observance, respect and interconnectedness that powers the wet season for Indigenous people of the Northern Territory.

The strength of Hall’s poetry is in bringing his own close observance and respect to each poem and so show the reader the essential interconnectedness of life and Culture. From the description of ‘raucous rocket frogs’ ratchet-like croaking’ (Borraloola Blue p26) to ‘the river’s sacred/ rainbow serpent gouged/ in high grade zinc…’ (Welcome to McArthur River Mine p66) Hall paints Country in vivid word-pictures. Yet Borraloola is also ‘a bloom/ of asbestos and neglect’ (From on a Cloud Looking Down p61) and the landscape/mindscape of its inhabitants (for the two are intertwined) is one of incongruity from ‘a bridge built to span/ flooding waters and golden middens of XXXX cans…’ (Concourse p28) to the author drinking ‘chardonnay on ice,’ [while] ‘Yanyuwa youths ran amok/ on ganga, throwing stones and chiaking at our padlocked gates.’ (Borroloola Blue p.26).

Of course, there are many positive events that the poetry responds to, from the rodeo to the two-way learning of the Turtle Camp that has participants recording scientific observations then singing the turtle mothers back into the sea. Footy also plays an important part in the life of the poet and the community and so it is hardly surprising that it is reflected joyously in some of the poems, from the discipline of training to the excitement of the game:

…a drop

punt and the perfect hooting

screamer.

(Walk up Tank Hill, for my lil-dad, Dwight Raggett, Gudanji man’ p22)

 

But as the opening dedications to both of Hall’s families, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, attest “There is so much Sorry Business”. The title of the book itself, Fume, could refer to the author’s anger, petrol sniffing or the results of various resource extraction processes. There are poems about the difficult and stressful lives that Borroloola’s inhabitants live; lullabies that are nightmares, poems that describe knots and guns (a Bush Ballad of the Frontier Wars), and names that are omitted due to Sorry Business [sorry name]. These are deeply sad poems often filled with an understandable outrage. Following the bush ballad another poem, ‘Talking English’ (p57), makes the connection between people ‘dragged/ to heel by Martini-Henry carbines’ and the enforcement of English-speaking and the proscription and neglect of Indigenous languages. Only four of the dozen Indigenous languages of the Gulf now remain. The guns really were talking English and the damage to culture through loss of language continues because of the recent loss of bilingual education programs. [Note: as a reviewer I speak here as someone born in Wales whose family were Welsh-speaking two generations ago. There is a strong correlation between language and culture and suppression of language is often colonial tool].

Hall’s response is as fierce and intense as it is crafted. Fume is by turns the terrifying and sublime result of someone willing to put themselves at risk. But what he describes is the contemporary lived experience of people still suffering from the colonial enterprise. When I started listing to myself the major trauma that Indigenous people have lived through: the Frontier Wars, The Act, the Stolen Generations, the disappointing limitations of Native Title, the NT Intervention, it was difficult to see any period of let-up. And yet Indigenous people remain resilient and strong. The elders continue their work

…singing

lifting his country: making it good, making it listen’.

(Dawn Song, p40)

 

Australians use over 400 Indigenous language words from kangaroo to yakka[iii]. In the same way Aboriginal English is distinct, inventive and lively and, in some cases (Gammon and humbug for example) preserves a rich history of Victorian era usage lost to the wider population. The vibrancy of Aboriginal English and the ‘deadly’ humour of First Australians enriches the language of Phillip Hall’s poetry. In ‘Icy Pole Trade’ where a nuwalinya (mermaid) story is being spun at a waterhole ending with the teasing “dey bin lovely when dey grow quiet an who knows/ an inside-out coconut might sweeten in dat lovin-up/ drowning” apart from the teasing humour the consonance of the ‘dey’ and ‘dat’ sounds form their own sonic rhythm to the lines.

The Indigenous Elders of the community Hall worked in are well aware of the long history of their place in the world and call out the differences between earlier mutual trade links and the later European ‘scorched earth’ mindset that led to a history of egregious acts from massacres to detention centres for refugees:

The bardibardi call time

on mununga slogans of ‘stop the boats’

shaping-up and giggling

their Macassan memories…

(Build-up p52)

 

This collection is consciously eco-poetic in its interrogation of the human and non-human worlds, with a clear eye for post-colonialism in all its manifestations. The poems are less confessional than they are protest poetry: personal, political, and powerful. These are poems that inform, provoke and inspire, fulfilling, in addition, Hall’s own demand that his writing have a clear narrative and that the poems themselves really ‘work’.[iv]

Hall draws upon his own experience of privileged access to extraordinary people and places. This book is a love song to his adopted family and their ongoing custodianship of Country. There is a generosity from his Indigenous family that is extended to us as reader through Hall but also directly through the poems, in the essays, and from the Diwurruwurru / Message Stick poetry writing group: sharing their culture and allowing it to be published. (Phillip explained when I met him at the State Library of Queensland that he had permission to use and print some words but that others, although printed, must not be said out loud and songs must not be sung off-Country).

As Adrienne Rich suggests, in the epigraph to this review, the true patriot will “wrestle for her [or his] own being” but through this “wrestles for the soul of her [or, in this case, our] country”. In the writing of Fume Phillip Hall has done just that. I pay my respects to Phillip Hall for the difficult journey he took to bring this collection to the reader, to the Yanyuwa, Marra, Guganji and Garrwa people who are trying to maintain the songlines of their Country, and I wish, with Phillip, that “Diwurruwurru is a feast…more Australians shared” as we will all be enriched if this is so.

The author now lives in Melbourne. With such an embedded piece of writing as Fume it will be interesting to see how this will affect his eco-poetics in the future.

 

 

[i] Ecopoetics Workshop run by Phillip Hall, State Library of Queensland, 28 Feb 2018, that I attended.

[ii] In the absence of specific work on Law/Lore I have been able to find as it pertains to Yanyuwa I refer to Meggitt, M.J. (1962). Desert People: A Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press to unpick the meaning of the word Law. In 1962 Meggitt published his study of Walbiri society, which had had minimal European contact. He produced a summary of the rules of customary law, which categorised a number of offences which the Walbiri recognised as unlawful. The Law covered ritual, economic, residential and kinship rules and conventions. It also covered the care of sacred objects, the division of labour by gender, the avoidance of mothers-in-law and even the rising of the sun. Meggitt believed that in pre-contact times rules of law and norms of politically appropriate behaviour were probably not distinguished. The Australian Government’s ‘Australian Law Reform Commission’ Report into this illustrates just how problematic for governments definitions are when it requires recognising Indigenous Law’s existence in conflicts with the concept of ‘Terra Nullius’ and the subsequent rights over land such as title and mining and other usage that relies on the absence of Law prior to and continuing since British settlement. See Definition of Aboriginal Customary Laws

[iii] Australian Aboriginal Words in English, Dixon Moore Ramson and Thomas, OUP Melbourne, 1990: Kangaroo first recorded Captain Cook’s journal 23 July 1770, Yakka from the Yugara language of Brisbane meaning work, first recorded 1840s. Quoted from SLQ guide accessed 2 March 2018:

[iv] at the Ecopoetics Workshop held at the State Library of Queensland 28 Feb 2018 Phillip Hall discussed his criteria for an ecopoem.

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Review: ‘A body full of organs’ – Soap, Charlotte Guest

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‘A body full of organs’

 

Soap

Charlotte Guest

Recent Work Press, Canberra 2017

Review by Angela Gardner

I was intrigued by the title, thinking immediately of the Francis Ponge book of the same name (Le Savon, 1967). Ponge is known as the ‘poet of things’ believing that “a mind in search of ideas should first stock up on appearances”. Holding the book and thinking about Ponge and his attention to objects I admired the precise shade of pink chosen for the front cover and the perfectly placed title. Recent Works Press really are to be commended for making the physical aspect of the book’s design concordant with the themes and content of the collection. After reading and rereading Charlotte Guest’s Soap I concluded it was the thorough examination of a subject that both Ponge and Guest have in common. In the case of Ponge these are everyday objects whereas in the case of Guest they are as often mental objects encountered through everyday situations.

 

There is a self-conscious performativity to our lives, of which Guest is well aware. Early adulthood is a time of sexual awakening and of attention, some of it unwanted. But nevertheless there are choices available. In the first song-like poem, ‘Harvest’, about women’s cultivation of cassava, the dangers of incorrect (deliberate or otherwise) preparation act as a warning. It is as if in invitation of reading on we are being offered choice or hazard.

 

Guest’s subjects: the political charge of girl’s bodies, the possibilities of youth, and the wider project of all types of love is thoughtfully handled in a variety of modes. In ‘Egg Tempera’ [p.3] she establishes the continuity of the ‘period eye’, that is the male gaze, from Renaissance paintings into a contemporary bedroom. Some poems like ‘Hush, Memory’ [p.4] that opens “The lodgings at the end of girlhood/ are not as advertised”, read like cautionary tales, while the prose poem ‘Picnic at the Rock’ [p.7] return to the dreamlike state of Joan Lindsay’s novel, but are concatenated with her own childhood experience. Throughout the collection poems are presented in a variety of forms and include some prose poems and one untitled concrete poem.

 

The gender-politics of ‘Networking Drinks’, that well-known and awkward social situation attached to a working life, renders the conversation understandably and unavoidably clunky. A young woman appears to be being ‘hit on’ by either an old unreconstructed male or a self-satisfied youth. No description of the speaker is provided but the conversation is no meeting of minds. Unrecognised privilege, with its unwillingness to listen and therefore learn, is at the heart of the poem. While the male dismisses ‘race and gender’ while taking ‘a swig from his Old-Fashioned’ (a deft touch), the female responding makes no headway in her academic dialectic on intersectionality. Suddenly this level of incoherence and incomprehension between the speaker’s in their miscommunication is marvellously translated into the age-old problem it really is, in a surreal and dreamlike history lesson:

 

I open my mouth and

push bubbles out.

We are talking

underwater, sacks

over our heads, like

dipped witches.

(Networking Drinks, p2)

 

 

The fact that it is difficult for a woman to walk alone at night without attention is the subject of ‘Hey Sweetheart, Hey Love’. The tone is ‘fact-of life’. That there can be no doubt that half of the population has experienced this does not need to be said; if the reader is a woman she has. The poem is too subtle to address directly how this danger can be acceptable to the whole of the population, enumerating only strategies to deal with it:

 

I –

a look up walker, a lock up

walker, a parcel of soft

runnels – am gunning my way

home.

(‘Hey Sweetheart, Hey Love’ p9)

 

 

However, from both ‘Bivouac’ and ‘Goodfella’s’ it is obvious that thoughtful and meaningful interactions between men and women are what are sought; and it is only shallow interactions that demean both parties that depress. Instead in speaking intimately to a lover the poem Bivouac suggests they:

 

… act out

attentiveness to language, small acts

of understanding, setting all else aside

to erect a shelter under each other’s

smells, each other’s sounds.

(‘Bivouac’ p10)

 

But gender politics are not the collection’s only concern because the move into adulthood encompasses many facets. There is a lovely ambiguity in the opening stanza of ‘Things that have weight Must exist’ [p.27]:

 

Falling into a wide and glassy lake

she catches sight of her body

before smashing through its limits.

 

It would remain a simple word picture yet her piercing of the reflection of the sky expands so that this breakthrough now shifts the position of objects in the sky. With the hills and valleys below forming a cup, and we can, with her, believe this world is all that exists at this moment. This poem comes after ‘Summer Doors’ that contemplates the change that comes upon us on lengthy holidays. The door being an invitation to move through and explore what is on the other side. The sequence that the poems in the collection appear is also deeply thought-through.

 

The poem ‘From Everything to Air’ [p18] makes a list of people subsuming their identity into their work-day roles, with lengthy descriptive worries and inattentiveness to actual reality, that ends with the deft simplicity of “The children toss their hoops” that cuts through in content and in metre, emphasising without belabouring her point.

 

The poignant and aphoristic final poem in the collection ‘Notes on the Disappearance of a Friend’ p37 has some beautiful moments not least its opening “In time, it becomes bearable:/this is the most unbearable part.” The open layout of the poem, with all its white-space quiet is the perfect way to bring out the best of the poem. Again, congratulations to Recent Works Press for giving the poem room to breathe.

 

The epigraph that Charlotte Guest chooses to preface her collection, Soap, comes from Fay Zwicky, the acclaimed Western Australian poet: “Is anyone ever ready for exactly who they are?” It is particularly apposite a question for it is difficult to remember when reading such mature and thought-through poems that this is first collection from a poet herself is still a young adult. In Soap she connects us to a reality of her cohort of young women approaching adulthood through her own ‘examined life’. I am with Lucy Dougan in believing that Charlotte Guest is “one to watch” and hope this is just the start of a career in poetry.

 

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Review: Of its gilt edges and evident fanfare – Glass, Rose Hunter

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Of its gilt edges and evident fanfare

 

Glass

Rose Hunter

Five Islands Press, 2017

Review by Angela Gardner

Although Rose Hunter is the author of three previous poetry books and a chapbook published in the U.S.A. this is her first book to be published in her home country of Australia. Glass, published by Five Islands Press, is the result of their highly competitive annual manuscript call-out.

 

That Hunter has spent many years overseas is immediately obvious from the subject matter of many of the poems and the well-placed use of Spanish language words and phrases inside the English-language text (Hunter has lived in Canada and now in Mexico). This multilingual aspect of her poetry, in the words of Jennifer K. Dick (Of Tradition and Experiment XIII Notes on Newness & the Radical, tears in the fence 66 Summer 2017) is frequently used “to shred the unicultural, monolingual nature of a poem” and “can reveal a new awareness of each of our inherent language’s limits and limitlessness at once.” Edward Hirsch suggests that the “fusion of languages speaks to complex modern identities.”

 

The book is divided into three sections, all derived from place names: mexico city, jalisco and brisbane. In her words Glass “slides between and beyond two events: the death of a close friend of mine in an accident in Mismaloya, Mexico, and the mysterious illness that came over me the year after, which left me unable to walk well for much of that year.” But Glass is also a descriptive evocation of place: in the physical infrastructure of the city, but more-so in the soft architecture of its people and the manifestations of culture.

 

In the death of her friend, we return to the central subject of a previous well-received chapbook descansos, a book of memory, grief and elegy that is named for the wayside memorials that mark the site of an automobile accident. In these new poems, ‘sean’ accompanies her, as a continuing presence and sounding board over new territory.

 

The poems are noticeable for their use of caesura, their enjambment (even across sections of a poem on different pages), description that is vivid, use of non-English phrases, lack of capital letters and sentences that are left hanging as in the final line of ‘plaza garibaldi’ [p.21] “with the fade of things past dated stamped, partially” There is not even a full stop, the poem starts in media res and we do not leave it. This isn’t the only use of punctuation to further the feeling that we are in a constant unstable present:

 

he handed me a coat fit for a swan, i took it

then mistook it    for a sort of suffocation or strangulation

 

?            device.

[bellas artes p.19]

 

These are highly polished and controlled poems wielded with great skill and a consequent audacity that comes from getting it right. The first poem ‘mixquic’ addresses the absent ‘sean’, speaking to him conversationally with few full stops, but slowed down from a break-neck rhythm by the use of caesura to a more processional pace as if they walk together. His still vivid presence means that it does not feel like a monologue but rather he (and us the reader) are given sight through her description. There is something magical about her word choices:

 

in this carnival     river crowd steam and he says historical

(‘mixquic ii’ p. 12)

 

Descriptions are disoriented then stitched together seamlessly from places, dreams, memories and thoughts. In the poems, life is lived with only a semi-permeable barrier between conscious and unconscious modes. Yet Hunter deprecates her skill:

 

how much more beautiful to mix paint pour wax

or chip away at a block than to tap on keys

(‘mixquic ii’ p. 12)

 

Mexico appears the ideal location to find the strangely surreal and the location, both geographic and in language, imbues the collection with a dream-like logic but it is Hunter’s sure-footed lexical choices and dynamic metre that are key:

 

we will be like the children we never were.                show me

your pony gait your ice cream cone fur and jester ears

show me your sugar knuckles and sign above your head, it says

(look santa claus is not coming) remember don’t forget forget.

(‘alebrijes’ p14)

 

Although the streets of Mexico are peopled with crowds, a distinctive character enters in ‘bajÍo’ of a “sky-teller”, a modern kenning, possibly an astronomer or Native American storyteller. The poems are enigmatic, seemingly full of particulars, where meaning is subsumed by the lyric and becomes elusive. As reader I am unsure if the sky-teller is ‘sean’ or someone new yet I cannot be sure this isn’t deliberate destabilising, after all her handling of description is masterful, as in this conjuring up of a panda in a zoo:

 

wide back squash against reinforced plastic, stubby legs splayed

floppy trout shouldered and flute-like munching.

(‘bajÍo’ ii p.18)

 

Incremental repetition is also a feature of Rose Hunter’s poetry “i was crying/over some spilling i was spilling out more of the same” [‘yellow’ p.36] or “to think/ not of the pictures but the pictures of him taking pictures” [alebrijes p.14] or in the form of consonance of “riding in reaper robes” [mixquic p.12]

 

In ‘balloons’ Hunter acknowledges her desire (i wanted/       you or wanted to be you?) emphasised by the line-break but also the complex relationship we have with the dead where we carry them with us inside the self; “sean” in life a real person now functions as a guide reminiscent to me of the way Beatrice existed for Dante both as memory and with a literary existence so complete it goes beyond mere device.

 

Her poetry has something of the complicated, delicate tracery of the cover photograph, reflected and split by kaleidoscope. When I read Rose Hunter’s poetry I am immersed in the flow of her music, as if the conscious world is an intensely coloured envelope of experience: wonder mixed with something dark and unpredictable. Anyone who can say “a cantaloupe is the fruit equivalent of a lobster” has my full attention.

 

a cantaloupe

is the fruit equivalent of a lobster and not just because it is orange

if you call it a rock melon this is far less true.

Bajio ii p.18

 

There is a moment in ‘pretas’ [p.40] which functioned for me as a minor example of what “prithee

undo this button” does in King Lear, as tension and release (though less universal in its tragedy):

 

…villa not much by the sea

where we lay, how to forget what we’ve done to each other

but open the window

[‘pretas’, p40]

 

An image that carries over into the title poem ‘glass’ where the windows won’t open and turn out to be

of “looking-only glass”. Glass and mirrors are constant conscious metaphors for external points of view and

of internal states “we/ are seeing people only as our dirtier or cleaner mirrors…” [hotelito de los sueños

p.60] a poem near the end of the collection set in dreams and memories during Hunter’s return to Brisbane

for medical treatment.

 

In the final section we move from Mexico back to Brisbane, from technicolour into black and white or more

literally to grey:

 

the grey plastic rim under the grey bottle cap, until grey disgust

covered my grey concrete floor grey shards of grey orange rind

like grey confetti

[Compostela, p.49]

 

The use of Spanish language in the poems diminishes but not the power of language “of course I made you

up, partially, so /what.” [coconut, p.54].

 

In ‘bellas artes’ she says “ten years in the circus taught me that/how to do something different?” Her poetry

does feel different from other Australian poets, her use of language with its long lines and pitch-perfect

word choices and rhythms, is complex in a way that is both satisfying and puzzling. Although you may

“… become irrelevant/ to the place you’re leaving right before you leave it.” [‘central camionera’ p.41] as a

reader this demanding combination requires relationship with the text, requires return.

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