Friendly Street New Poets Three:
The Red Shoes by Louise Nicholas
Her Mother’s Arms by Stephen Lawrence
Mending the Dingo Fence by Richard Hillman
Friendly Street Poets/Wakefield Press, 1997, 110 pp
ISBN 1 86254 405 0
South Australia’s Wakefield Press and Friendly Street Poets continue to publish and promote their state’s new and established poets in the good-looking volumes we’ve come to expect from them. New Poets Three contains the first collections of three new poets, each represented with thirty to forty pages of work.
Louise Nicholas’ collection contains poems that are simple and direct. The voice is assured and confident, without self-conscious attempts to be ‘clever’ or ‘poetic’. The subject matter is quite varied: there are several poems about a visit to Israel and the Gaza Strip, as well as reflections on motherhood, childhood, family relationships. Standout pieces for this reader include Four, which captures a child’s deeply Freudian fear of being caught at school without knickers on (p.12); On a Ribboned Road, about driving with fighting children in the back seat; and Sunday Afternoon, which remarks on the women who sometimes appear in the background when ‘great men’ are being interviewed on television, and how it is often these wives or daughters who most capture the viewer’s attention. Less satisfying was Poet (yet another poem about being a poet, more on this later), and Virginia (p.27), a short meditation on Woolf’s suicide. Several cliched or derivative lines let this latter poem down (‘who pays the ferryman’, and ‘not drowning but waving, striking out for the lighthouse’), and the piece had little new to say on the subject. In contrast, Flashback (p.30) is a moving, intimate piece that deals with the neglect of the poet’s mother fifty years ago when she was in labour with a sister who appears to have been left brain damaged:
‘it’s too late
and my mother says
they were busy
people make mistakes
and no-one’s heard
or quality assurance
or LA Law’
But Nicholas really shows what she’s capable of in Hafsaka (Coffee Break) (p.15), a fine poem about drinking coffee with six Israeli women. This poem reveals a lovely facility with metaphor:
‘Then cook leans across,
babbles something, pinches my cheek.
Her own fat cheeks,
red and shiny from steam and sweat
bob like apples above her smile,
jostle for space with eyes
like small black fissures
shooting sparks of igneous joy.
She says you look like her daughter’
Stephen Lawrence’s Her Mother’s Arms is a series of poems which together create a narrative around the character of Victoria, a young medical student, and her peers, as they experience their first cadaver dissection. Victoria has trouble participating in the dissection because the arms on the female cadaver remind her of her mother’s arms. There is an almost mystical feel to this idea, and the poems put me in mind of the old folk tale of the The Handless Maiden, about a heroine’s test of endurance, related in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who run With the Wolves. Victoria is also forced to endure, and is unable to touch the cadaver for some time. We experience her disturbance when faced with the stages of the dissection, and are given glimpses into her relationship with her mother, who
of what Victoria does during the day.
It is enough to be able to say
to friends and relatives that
“Victoria is doing Medicine.”’ (Discretional Ignorance, p.61)
There’s a striking picture in The Elite of the young medical students in their white coats,
‘wide flaps opening in the breeze like capes,
angels or superheroes
or camp commandants’
and we later hear the voices of some of these students, Victoria’s subtly sexist colleagues Gilbert and Rob, and the concerned Diana. The reverence or otherwise shown to the cadavers is really the point of this verse-narrative, and Victoria comes to an understanding that her reaction to the dissection was a good thing:
‘The arms are still her mother’s.
They will always be.
She is glad of it now:
they have protected her
and kept her human.
Many of her fellows
would struggle for years
to regain that.
She thinks she might manage
to become a good doctor. (Human, p.69)
It’s refreshing to read poetry that examines ethical questions; the strength of this narrative, which stayed with me for some time, leads me to hope that Lawrence might consider contributing in the future to the rapidly expanding catalogue of Australian verse novels.
Of the three poets represented in this volume, Richard Hillman’s work is the most complex and crafted, and more contemplation is required to enter into the work. I feel the collection is let down by the assumption that readers are as interested in Hillman’s personal writing processes as he is. This is a trend I find deeply annoying in many otherwise fine poets’ work. Far too many pieces here mention, or deal directly with, the subject of writing, poets, poetry, art, and the ubiquitous ‘facing of the blank page’. I suppose this is excusable in a first collection, but given the restrictions of a shared book, and Hillman’s facility with words, it seems like a squandering of valuable pages.
I look forward to a followup that contains more work of the calibre of bush monitor, pension day, and mending the dingo fence. These poems reveal an observant eye for detail and a strong sense of ‘Australianess’. Hillman is potent on the bush and other subjects that move him personally; the results are less even on more observational pieces. Two of the latter which did satisfy were tandanya and child, a response to questions raised by the ‘Native Titled Now’ exhibition (Adelaide Fringe 1996), and from a photograph of patrick white, an impressive portrait in words of the literary giant,
‘ … the wry-neck perched in the willow,
the folded-neck fleshed upon the pillow, the stretched-neck
wrung from too many turnings of attention.’
‘… the old eagle
who’d winged from his nest in search of prey.’ (p.88)
This is lovely stuff, and on an iconic subject worthy of attention.
Miriel Lenore, sun wind & diesel, Wakefield Press, South Australia, 1997, 80 pp, ISBN 1 86254 365 8
Peter Lloyd, Black Swans, Wakefield Press, South Australia, 1997, 88 pp, ISBN 1 86254 398 4
Phil Ilton, More than Words, The Domain Press, Melbourne, 1998 (Limited edition of 100 copies), 58 pp, ISBN 0 9585394 5 6
Michael Terrax, Pain Darkness Reflection, Self-published, 1999, 136 pp, ISBN 0 646 37092 8
Miriel Lenore has been visiting a central Australian Aboriginal community since 1982, and two-thirds of this collection reflects her experiences there. The first section, sun wind & diesel, won the Red Earth Poetry Award in 1994, and has also been anthologised. It contains ten poems with Aboriginal titles, containing specific descriptions of the landscape and the community. It appears here almost as an introduction to the second section, outside the camp, in which Lenore reflects on the interface between black and white cultures, and her own reactions to it.
These poems possess a strong sense of ‘reality’, as if the poet is bringing to her subject her own life experiences rather than an overlay of cultural expectations. Rather than being polemical or didactic, as many are when tackling this subject, the tone is contemplative and gentle, and she lets us in on her gaffes and their results. Hence, in grubs (p.25) the poet unwittingly offends a woman who has offered her pocketsful of witchetty grubs, by saying, ‘too much … give me one or two. The woman
‘picks them up disdainfully
throws them all to her sister
who accepts without fuss
roasts them casually in the ashes
I take one … rich and fatty …
digesting more than the grub”
A similar situation is described in stories (p.19). The poet is out gathering honey with the tribal women, and likes their song so much she asks for more.
the women look away walk on
my friend touches my arm
it’s a gift she says you receive a gift’
In the dance (p.40), she describes sitting with the women while the men light a fire and paint their bodies:
‘at a signal I don’t know
the women turn away and hide their eyes
order me to follow
one pushes my head to the ground
her long thin arms are powerful’
The other woman will not let her lift her head: ‘is she enjoying this?’ the poet wonders. Then,
to see the dancers in position
the ancestors’ power on chests and faces
my neighbour’s eyes meet mine
we smile as we straighten
her face is vibrant’
Life out in these communities has a different rhythm and different etiquettes, and it is these the poet shares with us. In the third section, choices, we’re back in Adelaide. There are some competent poems here – reflections on local sculptures and statues, the beach, children, cemeteries, death, and a couple of wryly positive pieces about divorce and its aftermath (a day and break, pp.62-3). sun wind and diesel is one of those poetry collections that at first seems deceptively straightforward and simple. Yet I found its images staying with me days after my first reading, and had to revisit its world.
Peter Lloyds Black Swans contains poetry of maturity and strength, with a strong use of metaphor and simile. It’s clear we’re dealing here with an older poet with rich life experience; the author notes at the front states that ‘most of his working life has been dedicated to providing housing for the under-privileged’. Lloyd focusses his steady, unwavering gaze on this less-than-easy world. His preoccupations are ageing, death, disability, and the small pleasures to be found in the events of daily life in the face of imminent annihilation. But his world is not bleak – rather, it is honest, and accepting of human frailty. Carer (p.10) is a beautiful piece about love and dependency, a sister caring for a severely disabled brother. Here, Lloyd doesn’t make the mistake of being pitying or patronizing towards the ill, old, or disabled. He seems to have an empathic gift, expressing what their lives and limitations might feel like to them. There is beauty and triumph in small things, like the woman walking across the grass on calipers in The Red Underwear (p.38). The poem describes her difficult progress, but the real focus is not on her disability but on her pleasure at wearing brand new red underwear to the sheltered workshop.
Lloyd is an astute observer. Hence, we have poems like Invisible (p.66) which describes the silent women who accompany a group of macho migrant men in a restaurant; The wedding party (p.75) where the poet considers what it’s like for
‘the mother of the groom –
dead neon in stone
under a blue picture-hat,
making an anonymous gene-donation to another family’.
Autumn mist (p.78) is a reflection on three leaves from different trees, prompting thoughts on dead poets and their legacies – a profound poem which engages deeply with nature. But one of my favourites was The kiss (p.80) a description of an elderly couple in bed, with all the familiarity and sexual relaxedness that a long relationship brings. These are poems of affirmation, poems that measure emotional gains against the inevitable, and often disturbing, decay of the body.
More than Words by Phil Ilton contains a far more direct body of work. These are simply-expressed observations on everything from Pauline Hanson to multiculturalism, the death of a father to sexual encounters. The poems have a strong sense of orality, not surprising given their placement in the streets of Collingwood and Fitzroy. This reader can almost smell the coffee in the Melbourne cafes of Ilton’s world, and hear a gently mocking voice delivering the words at some reading or other. The longest poem in the collection, Where It s At (p.44), mercilessly satirises everyone at a party, from baby boomers on, and just when you think it’s all getting a little too nasty, Ilton announces that
before next Saturday night’s repetition.
And if I don’t get a better offer
I’ll be there too’
thus placing himself in the same category as ‘Mr Maudlin’, ‘Mr Wit’, ‘Clingers’ and ‘Cleavage’, and we forgive him everything. Nestled against this are poems such as Diagnosis and Buttons (pp.28 and 29), searing descriptions of the breakup of a relationship, and the joyful The Book, the Washing Machine, and, about a couple’s decision to have sex on their washing machine. My only complaint about this book is that Domain has only published 100 copies, a decision that seems odd given that the perfect binding and design are first-rate, the work would sell well at readings, and the production costs per book decrease with a larger print run. Interested buyers might have to search a bit for copies of this one.
Pain Darkness Reflection contains all the elements first-time self-publishers should watch out for – didacticism, preachiness, too many poems on similar themes, (too many poems period), awkward rhymes, an ISBN number but no details for interested buyers to contact the writer, and an astounding back cover blurb (by a person whose claim to fame is a B.A. in English Literature) that states ‘Here is a book that is not just another collection of poems, but a treasure trove of great literature that deserves a place among the masters!’
Michael Terrax’s theme is the ‘pervasive, unforgiving darkness in the human condition’ – read death, gore, the ‘seamy side of life’, with an intensity that seems borne of too many horror films, songs and novels. I guess that’s to be expected when the ‘inspiration’ for the collection is a list of mostly heavy-metal bands. But a writer of Nick Cave’s calibre he isn’t. I can imagine people who think the band Slayer‘s lyrics are poetry might be drawn to this work; those of us interested in more than facile song lyrics to be lost in a wall of sound are bound to be disappointed. The poems speak in generalities and platitudes, and it’s as if they’re directed at someone who knows what events the writer is alluding to. There’s a lot of disturbance, suicide and murder, a lot of ‘Oh why was I born’ lamentation using archaic, self-consciously ‘poetic’ language, but not much for this reader, at least, to really engage with.
This is not to say Terrax is totally untalented. Many of the pieces possess a kind of rhythmic intensity and would probably work well in front of a band or at a performance poetry venue. But the dark despondency is unrelenting, and seems as self-conscious as a group of Gothics in a Brisbane summer. Production of this book is handsome and must have cost a packet. I’d suggest the writer’s money might have been better spent building and studying a library of classic and contemporary poetry, sending the work to be scrutinised by real editors, and letting go of the idea that everything that flows out of his pen is a work of genius. It’s not.
Prince of the Apple Towns by Damien Balassone
ISBN 0-646-40130-0 Self-published, 98 pps, 2000,
available from firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
Two of the most interesting lines in this book occur in the introduction, where Damien Balassone writes:
‘I do believe there is no basis for the argument that free-verse is more expressive or spontaneous than other forms of poetry. In his pursuit of truthful expression, a writer of free-verse poetry is just as likely to recast a line a thousand times as a writer of rhyming poetry is.’ (p.5)
‘The duty of the writer should not be to impress literary people, but rather to communicate to literate people.’ (ibid)
Both statements suggest the writer is aware of the endless debates in the poetry community between the rhyming, bush poetry tradition and the relative ‘formlessness’ of free verse, and is prepared to state his position which falls, mostly, on the side of rhythmic storytelling. I have no argument with this, (being myself a longtime fan of bush bards such as A. B. Paterson and Lawson), but I do feel that in all but the most skilled hands, an insistence on rhyme tends to let most poets down, especially when used throughout an entire volume. This is certainly the case with Prince of the Apple Towns where the rhythmic, storytelling style at times becomes wearing on the reader and overpowers the content.
Like most self-published books, Prince of the Apple Towns suffers from a lack of editorial input – some poems are quite strong and promising, while others seem meandering and vague, as if the poet hasn’t really decided what it is he is trying to say before attacking the blank page. The book lacks author details or cataloguing information but my guess is that Balassone is a young man whose views on life are still forming, so the vagueness is not surprising, but a tough editor could have greatly improved the overall quality of this collection.
Often the writer comes across as moralistic, but seems unsure of his values. ‘The Principal of Macedon’ (p.14) is fairly successful in achieving a balance between story and moral, while the morality of ‘The Pervert’ (p.31, where a ‘mute’ insists in court that his habitual following of attractive women is a sign of respect and that the judge is the one who is ‘evil’) is hard to fathom. This is followed by ‘Warts and All’, a rather mean-spirited little poem in Blakeian form that reviles an old woman simply because she has a wart on her nose. ‘Dandaloo’ (p. 39), on the other hand, uses the natural rhythms of Australian Aboriginal place names and the form of a bush ballad to good effect, and less ambitious pieces such as ‘The Lighthouse’ (p.64) paint a competent picture in words.
At his best, Balassone can be funny and folksy (as in ‘How Great it is to be Bald’, p.36) and acerbic in a style akin to Dorothy Parker (‘Abominations’, p.41). At worst, the work can seem immature (‘My Fellow Youths’, p.33), and/or awash with tired religious imagery (‘Conversations & Confrontations’). There are also a number of poems that seem unsuited to the general reader, (being simple vehicles for religious evangelism or lovepoems to his girlfriend), that should have been omitted.
Damien Balassone is not without talent, but as I often tell young poets, there’s a reason why poetry books contain acknowledgements pages – to show that the writer has submitted to the processes of submission, rejection and editorial opinion. Self-publishing might get you a nice-looking book, but it won’t guarantee quality, nor will it gain you instant respect. Only the long hard slog most poets well know can do that.
whispers from the faraway south: translations of selected Australian poetry.
Translated by Raghid Nahhas, selected by Anne Fairbairn, with drawings by Raghid Nahhas, Alabgdya Publishers, Damascus, Syria, 1999
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
As I am not an Arabic speaker or reader, I regret I cannot comment on the translations from the English in whispers from the faraway south, but only on the presentation of the book and the poetry that was selected. For the record, I read this anthology twice, the first time from cover to cover as a general reader, and the second time as someone who possesses an overview of Australian poetry. The first section, ‘The Whispers’, leaves an overall impression of our desert landscape, our history in war (particularly in reference to the Anzac tradition), the flora and fauna of the bush, rural idylls and cows in paddocks, and a smattering of pieces representing Aboriginal life and culture. As a grouping of poems, this section is quite satisfying and gives a real sense of the ‘Australia’ we often present to the world – that is, a sense of the bush as opposed to cities and industrialisation, and nature poems rather than social commentary. This bias, however, leaves many worthy contemporary Australian poets out of the loop, (but more on this later).
The harmony of whispers is changed somewhat by the second section, ‘Anne Fairbairn and the Arabs’, which contains a three-and-a-half-page summary of Fairbairn’s career and a group of six poems that are firmly grounded in the Arab world – as opposed to the rest of the volume which deals with Australian themes and subjects. Although I enjoyed this second section, I questioned whether this book was the right place to publish these poems, or whether they more rightly belonged in a solo collection. The book was produced with the assistance of an Australia Council translation grant; but perhaps more thought should have been given to the initial choice of poems to be translated. Though it may seem churlish to quibble with the choice of poets represented, seven poems by one author and only one for everyone else can hardly be described as a ‘balanced editorial treatment’. Having said this, Fairbairn’s input was clearly integral to the project, and her work in promoting Australian Literature to the Arab world has been extensive and admirable. It’s clear from the introduction by the translator, Raghid Nahhas, that he holds both Fairbairn and her poetry in high esteem. I guess we should be grateful that such a project was ever dreamed up or funded in the first place.
Fairbairn has attempted to give an overview, and the selection of poets is fair enough, I suppose, starting with two tribal Aboriginal songs then moving on through Harpur, Kendall, Paterson, Brennan, Lawson, then to contemporary poets (Peter) Porter, Wright, Oodgeroo, Malouf, Murray, Shapcott, Dobson, Rodriguez, Dawe, Rolls, Harwood, Manifold, Campbell and, of the baby boomers, a selection including Sharkey, Gould, Maiden, Tranter, (Robert) Adamson, O’Connor, Harris, Beveridge, and, of course, Dransfield. But I have some quibbles with the choice of poems – especially as the translator states in the introduction that, up until now, ‘only Arab academics would have read original non-Arabic poetry’ (p.22). If this is so, why is there no ‘Faces in the Street’ from Lawson, but instead the obscure ‘Ned’s Delicate Way’; no ‘Clancy of the Over- flow’ or ‘The Man From Snowy River’ from Paterson, instead the turgid ‘Pioneers’; no ‘Not-So-Good Earth’ or ‘Life Cycle’ from Dawe, instead the inferior ‘The Flag of the Future’. At least Slessor’s ‘Beach Burial’ and Hope’s ‘The Death of the Bird’ made the cut (though I personally would have preferred ‘Australia’ for its take on our history). And the entries for Dransfield, Maiden and J.S. Harry seem tokenistic in their brevity.
And where are the contemporaries of the past two decades who have surely made their mark? Obviously not everyone can be included, but to choose work by poets who are only just marketing their first books while leaving out established, prolific award winners such as Dorothy Porter, Anthony Lawrence, Eric Beach, Coral Hull and Steven Herrick, (not to mention ‘innovators’ such as PiO and Komninos, and the many fine poets who have emerged from the readings circuit in the not-so-recent past) smacks of the kind of favouritism that should be abhorred in a project claiming to be an overview.
My other criticism is the number of typos that made it through the editorial process. This may seem pedantic, and anyone who’s been involved in publishing knows that errors inevitably sneak in, but in poetry every word counts and some errors ruined the sense of the poems they occurred in. Thus I encountered ‘corroberee’ (corroboree), ‘lurba’ (lubra), ‘goal’ (gaol), ‘glimse’ (glimpse), ‘antient’ (ancient), ‘seen’ (scene), ‘Gwen Harrowed’ (Harwood), and Les Murrey (Murray). In the biographical notes, the editors seem unaware that Robert Harris had considerable success with his poetry long after winning ‘an award’ in 1975, or that he has since passed away. And if the dates are to be believed, Barcroft Boake lived to the ripe old age of 126 years! (My services as a proofreader are available, if anyone’s listening!)
Despite these criticisms, there is much to enjoy in this volume. My personal favourites were Michael Sharkey’s sweet and funny ‘Poem For Translation Into Any Other Tongue’, Anne Fairbairn’s lyrical ‘High Country Dreaming’, and Judith Beveridge’s lovely ‘Catching Webs’ which features on the book’s cover. Let’s hope this project is the first of many further, and hopefully wider-ranging, exchanges between the two cultures.
joanne burns, aerial photography, Five Islands Press, Wollongong, 1999, 92 pages, $12.95. ISBN 0 86418 618 5
Jennifer Harrison, Dear B, Black Pepper Special Editions, North Fitzroy, 1999, 68 pages, $19.95. ISBN 1 876044 27 6
Many of Joanne Burns’ ‘prose poems/short fictions’ deal with issues of modernity and its attendant technology. Some hail a return to a more standard
layout on the page, with shorter lines and stanzas instead of the large ‘blocks’ of previous books, but this change of layout doesn’t alter the overall tone. There are no archaic words or flowery phrases here; Burns is concerned with twentieth century domesticity, with its microwaves, touchfones, ATM’s and computers.
The long piece over the page is a series of musings on the act of reading, and how the location in which a book is read can colour one’s view of a work. Thus, Austen’s Emma represents a claustrophobic lecture theatre in the chemical-smelling botany department at Sydney University in the 1960’s; Camus is linked to a cafe in Double Bay; White’s Voss conjures up an ocean liner cruise; Carey’s The Tax Inspector recalls a doctor’s surgery while anxiously waiting for test results; Death in Venice has associations with schooldays and a particular corrugated iron walkway; and Gunter Grass is linked to Burns’ adventures in Crete and Bali.
Photography also features strongly in this collection. blowing the candles out (p.61) and anniversary (p.71) both draw on photographs of childhood for their inspiration. The title poem, aerial photography (p.72) describes the anxiety of putting a partner on a plane to New Zealand, two days after an identical flight has crashed. In the silent home, small things come into sharp relief:
‘… I notice on
the clothes rack that you’ve left
your swimming costume at home to dry’
as if in expectation of tragedy. But then the sun,
‘forcing its way underneath
the blind like a philanthropist’
causes the poet to drift ‘off above the collapse of my body’, to see what the loved one sees, ‘the psyche’s aerial photography’ and
‘everything snaps into place …
(you’ll be home in 17 days)’.
Other standout poems for this reader include dry dock (p.58), on the suburban desire for a green lawn in the face of water rationing; and tourism (p.16) in which
‘carp swarm the television’s
rivers and lakes like late
night ads for cheap fertility
and refuse to be switched off,
‘come spilling leaping
out across the carpet
they knock your tea to the
ground, smacking thwacking
their lips to usurp your
spot on the lounge’.
This bit of succinct, understated humour speaks volumes on globalisation and the takeover of Australian culture and environment. In tableau vivant (p.20), a fridge becomes an icon,
‘… its giant
door opens to illuminated providence,
one thinks of the glowing revelations
of jesus’ sacred heart’.
In other places, microwave ovens and smoke detectors are also given iconic status. I laughed out loud at another new year (p.35), a poem about struggling with writing, where
‘… an insect
voice rasps make it new make it new –
a decision to give up writing for sandwich
making seems quite positive’.
And I loved teatotalling (p.32), a long four-part poem about the special joys of tea drinking, and the preference for gossippy pots over teabags. Burns is a self-described ‘teapot tourist’ who lists all her preferred blends and, when discussing the teas named after British royalty, acidly remarks ‘some tongues must be surely/hanging out for a pot of princess di’.
Burns’ tone is conversational, satirical, sometimes surreal, and bitingly honest. Her approach is refreshing in that she doesn’t overly distinguish between the high and low-brow; she has no qualms about her readers knowing she consumes trash TV and magazines along with a steady diet of ‘literature’, and her trawling of the media for subject matter has borne some thought-provoking and gently amusing fruit.
Jennifer Harrison’s Dear B contains poems of a much more sombre and understated nature. This is spare free verse, not particularly metrical or strong on metaphor, but with an often surprising depth beneath the simple language. There are observational pieces inspired by places, psychiatric syndromes, medicine, ballet, film, and a citizenship ceremony. The title sequence is a series of memories of a trekking trip in the Himalayas in 1980, short poems laid out as letters to ‘B’. It’s interesting from the point of view of a couple’s particular experiences while travelling, but there wasn’t enough, for this reader at least, to fully engage with. I find it irksome when I read cover blurbs that make a point of how much an author has travelled, as if this fact alone makes them especially exotic or interesting, and as if travel in Australia carries less weight in terms of ‘important life experience’. As someone who has not had the ‘Himalayan experience’, I can’t say this sequence made me any the wiser, whereas some of the shorter pieces set in Australia revealed a clear eye for the outback:
‘An emblem of the town’s history,
a shack made of beer bottles becomes a museum.
Easy to imagine someone down on their luck
slapping the cement on an empty.’
Lightning Ridge (p.3)
Harrison is strongest on deeply personal subjects. The Boston Poems (p.10) describe a brush with breast cancer, its diagnosis and treatment, and the unspoken fears and angers that accompany such a health crisis. But these deeply moving, deceptively simple poems are hardly self-pitying. What emerges is a sense of strength in the face of uncertainty, and the triumph of successful treatment. Part of this section was selected for the Anti-Cancer Council’s Literary Exhibition at the NGV in 1997, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s definitely the best work in this volume.
I also liked the quirkiness of The Question Mark (p.63)
‘Ear-lobe studded with a jewel
perhaps a diamond or a single milky pearl …’
‘Quite a handy hook to hang
enquiry on, a single drop of blood
trailing from the amputated shoulder’
‘In the anonymous ancestry of marks
it is the eccentric aunt the family would prefer
to forget …’
This is a beautifully presented volume. The cover design by Gail Hannah is striking and memorable. At a time when the big publishers are turning their backs on all but a handful of poets, it’s heartening to see small publishers like Black Pepper picking up the slack.
M.T.C. Cronin Bestseller. Sydney, Vagabond, 2001
Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
Sydney-based poet M.T.C. Cronin has published several books of poetry, and won several major awards, since the mid 90s. This latest, from New Zealand publisher Vagabond, is beautifully-produced, with a cover theme that vaguely resembles heiroglyphics.
I found much to admire in the beginning suite of eight poems, “The Poet in an Epoch of Affluence”, and such meditations seem even more timely in the light of recent world events. Her concern in these poems is with war and suffering, and the strange otherworld the affluent West inhabits, as we watch events unfold on television. In the face of human misery, writing poetry can seem like a vain, pointless act, and it is this she attempts to address: “I am the worst of things, a poet / Who has grown a shell, who lives among riches, drinks / wine and casts a net widely …”
“There is a bad trend in politics to speak badly / And in platitudes / It is possible to say: / Three quarters of the world’s people / Without making a fool of yourself / We have managed to compare a leg with a bowl of noodles / With an ocean liner with a tree / With a plastic figure …/
Similarly, “Death of a Million” is a meditation on “the day the young princess died”, a piece which has a lot to say about the way the death of an iconic figure (Princess Diana?) takes on such enormous social significance, while, conversely, millions of faceless, nameless people die in obscurity every day. It’s a good point. And there are others that are similarly pithy and effective, such as “‘Magic’ Strawberries”.
At times the concrete becomes abstract, the metaphors can seem barely comprehensible, yet still they possess the power of the unexpected juxtaposition: “The tree, I know, fits into the space / of a fabulous starfish” (“These Days”). She offers the justification: “I do not need / The meaning of these songs / For them to sing.” / (“The Enormous Night”). Certainly postmodernism seems to have spawned a particular genre of poetry, where the word itself is as (if not more) important than meaning, and references within the poems to the act of writing poetry, being a poet, and the work and opinions of other poets, become de rigeur. Several poems address the shift in meaning that a writer’s work can take on after publication, when it becomes subject to others’ interpretations. This latter issue is one Cronin seems very concerned about.
All this appeals to poet and critic Peter Porter who, on the back cover blurb, describes Cronin’s work as “a welcome element of abstraction to modern poetry’s politically correct concretism”, and three of the poems as “nearly perfect”.
My only reservation is some of the pieces seem deliberately obscure, almost as if the poet’s hiding behind her words instead of seeking to communicate. The poems I liked best were more straightforward and masterful. Bestseller is not ‘easy reading’ – but the more obscure poems do “unfold” with further effort.