Being sneaky and queer within: Brink by Jill Jones

This past fall I had several precious opportunities to speak with the exceptional Caribbean-Canadian poet, NourbeSe Philip. On the first occasion, we were riding in the rear seat of a vehicle en route to the venue where she would be performing from her innovative masterwork Zong! I told her that I was taking some time to focus on writing, admitting that I was troubled that, at fifty-seven, I only just beginning to try to find self-expression and was having trouble sifting through a mess of accumulated personal experience. She smiled and said, “Oh you’re still young.” She went on to say that, as far as she was concerned, novels might be the sort of heavy-lifting suited to younger writers, but that poetry required a significant measure of life-lived perspective, adding that Thomas Hardy, after whom she named her son, didn’t write any poetry until he was finished with fiction.

I don’t write poetry, but I think that, at best, I aim to write somewhere in the intersection between poetry and prose. The more I focus on writing, and the older I get, the more I find myself turning to poetry with a new hunger and intention. I am drawn to both the experimental and the expressive elements afforded by the form. And although I’ve enjoyed and deeply admired so many of the works—primarily shorter contained collections— that I have encountered over the past year or so, something different happened with Brink, by Adelaide-based poet, Jill Jones.

Now I don’t want to speculate on age, with only an author’s photo to go by, but I did sense a degree of generational comfort in my engagement with her poetry. And by that I simply mean that I sensed I was in the presence of a poet who has come to understand, as I have, that questions are easier asked than answered, and that observations are often best left open-ended. This is where the ability to continue to marvel at life’s small wonders crosses weary wisdom and the understanding that words are at once necessary and inadequate. The poems in this collection, which range from the lyrical to the linguistic and experimentally playful, examine the emotions, images, and concerns that reflect an awareness of place and of the passage of time on an increasingly small planet.

In an interview with Tony Messenger, Jones admits that this book which had, at the time of their conversation, just been released, “covers a lot of ecopoetic territory, as the title Brink would suggest.” Natural elements—earthy textures, weeds, leaves, sky, clouds, birds, waters—are all recurring images. The fragile state of the world’s climate is a longstanding concern for her. But this collection is varied in practice and purport, “a big mix of detail and dislocation, images and word play, a lot of play, actually.” Indeed, these are poems that demand to be read, not just for the alliteration, and the slippery shifting of vowels, but for crunchy crispness of the language and the unlikely juxtapositions.

Shape-not-shape and
other shape
move with

wind, mind
argument between
ground, grass, leaf, cloud

barely words
for ephemeral world
beneath breath bones

                   — from “Arkaroola”

What a poet imagines into her own poetic explorations and what a reader meets there is complex and dynamic. In my personal encounter with this collection, I was drawn into the poems that spoke to me of the weight (or weightlessness) of words, and the longing for a language to express or make sense of, a pervasive restless disconnect. This is a sensation that is fundamental and primal, but coloured with the mixed blessings and illusions of modern interconnectedness:

I’m helpless against sky, shadow, gutter
clouds without formality, empty grey branches.
How to explain light on glass
and how not to do that
in this return after work’s decorum
another animal listening into the air.

Each evening practices its street repertoire.
Night blurs lines against my gate.
Tonight the moon is nearly naked.
Forgive me if I seem scrawled
with prefab thought rather than thinking.
I’ve brought no conclusions with me.

                            —from “Scrawl”

Sometimes writing is as much about being unable to write than it is about being able to tell stories, articulate experience or find self-expression. As words try to reach closer to the self, the more contrived or meaningless they tend to become. In my efforts, as an essay/memoirist (a preferred construct) I am fascinated and frustrated by the difficulty of finding a way to talk about a real and persistent experience for which I had no vocabulary until I was in my late thirties. In the meantime, an entire queer discourse has arisen over the past twenty years to parse the intricacies of gender non-conformity, to simultaneously celebrate and police self-definition, and yet it says little about my own queered experience. The words I am searching for remain elusive. My favourite piece in this entire collection, the one that I keep returning to repeatedly and that has earned this book a spot on the shelf inside my bedside table, speaks so clearly to my existential voicelessness. It is called, most fittingly, “Self and Nothingness” and I’m reproducing it here in full:

I’m running all over the world. I’m running
within sight of what might happen.
I’m running with a crazy kind of make-do.

The new plants waver in the cold evening.
It’s cooler than when I left these things, these ideas
in rooms. Is there a knack to it?

If I could shift my head without the world
shifting: It can’t be that hard to look up
into the trees. I know they’re there.

I’ve argued over silence.
I’ve collected nonsense.
I crave nothingness.
I know it doesn’t exist.
That it does.
I am a source of virtual violence.

What senses are, I’m not sure, or how many.
I smell strange but that could be
the way the air is.

The craft is the devil, disquiet a relief
jokes become bullet points, and my life
an account explained in columns.

Perhaps the essence has dissolved, become paler.
Whether to drink it, whether to pour it
whether to watch something else drink it.

Perhaps it’s all a set-up. It doesn’t matter
what it is. Everything in my mouth
cracks like a sweet.

I am a project as I scour the streets, for
what it’s worth, and I’m looking for ways
to write back the damage.

                    — Jill Jones, “Self and Nothingness”, from Brink

Looking for ways to write back the damage. Looking for ways to be. Mid-way through this collection I encountered a poem that, in the moment, spoke to me of conversation about a mutual sense of groundlessness that a faraway friend and I had shared.  I immediately had to photograph the page and send it to him. That is poetry that speaks.

In the end, Brink is, for me, a strange brew. It is blend of perceptive, sensual imagery; a confident exercise in word-crafting; an ode to a stressed climate; and, above all, wise counsel to: “Take better joy.”

Brink by Jill Jones is published by Five Islands Press.

No country for young men: Border Districts by Gerald Murnane

The reflective, circular “report” that occupies the narrator of Gerald Murnane’s latest, and if he can be believed, last, novel is presented as an account “of actual events and no sort of work of fiction.” This clarification, coming in the midst of an extended extrapolation of possible impossibilities, anticipates the skeptic:

As I understand the matter, a writer of fiction reports events that he or she considers imaginary. The reader of fiction considers, or pretends to consider, the events actual. This piece of writing is a report of actual events only, even though many of the reported events may seem to an undiscerning reader fictional.

Of course, in Murnane’s mental terrain the line between fiction and events actually experienced is a slippery one, but Border Districts reads like a meditation on a lifetime of traversing imaginary landscapes as a reader and writer famously adverse to physically travelling beyond the confines of his home state of Victoria, refracted through a playfully multi-toned meta-fictional prism. This is a novel about perception and memory, and the degree to which we can ever hope to grasp the contents of our own minds. More critically it’s about the way our experiences and our experiences of our experiences are inflated or telescoped with the passage of time.

The narrator of Border Districts has relocated from a capitol city to a small town near the state border, echoing a similar move made by Murnane a number of years ago. He has not entirely shunned the city, he makes several return trips to visit friends and family, but his stated goal in moving to this remote place is to spend his last years focusing on the images, emotions and words that have stayed with him over time, “guarding” his eyes, as he puts it, so that “I might be more alert to what appears at the edges of my range of vision.” Anticipating the essential, fragmentary quality of this mental inventory he embarks on a meticulous effort, paragraph by paragraph, to trace the connections from one recollection or set of recollections to another.

The result is a digressive internalized odyssey. Perspective shifts from first to third person for a time as the book-hungry boy approaches the remembering man. Uncertain boundaries exist between recalled events and the fiction writer (and reader)’s inclination to wander off on paths not taken, to imagine what might have been, sketch out potential storylines, flesh out characters that could have existed, and step out from the shadows of possible unlived trajectories to anticipate a meeting of minds on the open plains of a mental landscape. Idiosyncratic sideways cognitive processing is acknowledged, examined, and entertained. But the challenge with exploring the way our minds work is that we can never clear the workspace, step back from the stage. We are always in our own way.

There are a number of key motifs or pivot points to which the narrator returns as he attempts to maintain order and control of his own report. Lines of thought that keep circling back and merging. Readers familiar with Murnane will recognize the elements of the rural Australian landscape, the fondness for horse-racing, and a certain literary cynicism. Houses with return verandas hold a peculiar affection. But the key image that recurs is one of coloured glass—from the windows of the unassuming church in his adopted hometown, to observations about stained glass, to a treasured marble collection—and the difficulty of accurately perceiving the shade and details therein. Just like our memories, in our mental images, appearances are mutable. Light is the key because:

. . . a coloured pane better reveals itself to a viewer on its darker side, so to call it; that the colours and designs in glass windows are truly apparent only to an observer shut off from what most of us would consider true light—the light best able to do away with mystery and uncertainty. The paradox, if such it is, can be otherwise expressed: anyone observing the true appearance of a coloured window is unable, for the time being, to observe through the window any more than a falsification of the so-called everyday world.

Yet knowing this limitation does not diminish the narrator’s natural inclination to want to penetrate the opaque surface of the window, to truly see the nature of the glass itself. He even attempts to capture, on film, the coloured windows of a friend’s house. When he retrieves the processed images and brings them home, he realizes that the image-panes are less colourful than they were when he photographed them. Was this a function of his modest photographic skills or further evidence of the unreliability of memory? Perhaps. But the explanation he chooses to endorse, is that the qualities he perceives as lacking are not inherent to the glass, but rather unique to himself:

. . . what I missed when I looked at the photographic prints was the meaning that I had previously read into the glass. And if I could give credence to such an eccentric theory, then I might go further and assert that I saw in the glass part of the private spectrum that my eyes diffused from my own light as it travelled outwards: a refraction of my own essence, perhaps.

As he makes his way through a range of remembered images, experiences, and feelings, obscured with the patina of time, he is interested in what details he does recall. What he has forgotten, if it does not resurface on its own by association, is of no regard. He is keenly aware of his age and fascinated by the memories that have persisted, with a measure of intensity, for thirty, forty, sixty years. The narrator’s associations and meanderings are unique to him, but they reflect our own idiosyncratic mind loops—those layered networks of connections constructed through exposure to art, literature, landscape, life experience—which increase in depth but become more firmly attached to our specific pivot points or mental signposts, as we get older.

I have come to this book midway through my sixth decade (as frightening as that sounds), younger than Murnane and his alter-ego, but close enough. I come to it as a writer interested in capturing his perceived experience, rather than biographical detail, and inclined to believe that we only have the ability to know what we think we know, a through-the-coloured-glass perspective at best. Border Districts is an older writer’s reverie. It dips back to childhood and adolescence, marriage and parenthood, and spins off into realm of possible lives unlived. There is something to greet a reader at any point in life, but I wonder what my twenty-eight-year-old self might have found. What I do know is that this novel entertains the kind of questions about memory—about the feelings, colours, and images that linger ever “on the edges of my range of vision”—that occupy me more and more with each passing year.

 Border Districts by Gerald Murnane is published by Giramondo Publishing in Australia. It is now available in North America through Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The beauty of bloody fists and broken bones: The Agonist by Shastra Deo

Once again, my attention turns to a work of contemporary Australian poetry, and this time it’s a remarkably gritty, often grisly, exploration beyond the raw edges of physical and emotional endurance. Embodiment. Disembodiment. Lyrical evisceration.

Evoking characters and imagery drawn from diverse, seemingly unlikely sources—anatomy textbooks, World War I poetry, a scout manual, boxing, entomology, ichthyology, divination, tarot cards—Shastra Deo’s debut collection, The Agonist, is an impressive, unforgettable experience. Like a sucker punch to the gut.

But in the best way possible.

Agonist: (n) one that is engaged in a struggle

The narrators that move through these poems—the voices Deo borrows or inhabits—cover terrain familiar to poetry. They speak to pain, love, loss, damage, healing. But they engage with the world at a visceral, cellular level. Their words work their way into and through the hollows of memory, exploring what slips though the passages of the brain, examining what the muscles retain and imagining the intersection between reading the past and foretelling the future.

So what does that entail? The Agonist is divided into three sections, each of which opens with an illustration from Gray’s Anatomy. Many of the poems in the first section deal with relationships, familial or romantic, employing surreal thaumaturgic, and anatomical imagery.

“Arrhythmia,” for example, details the painful, desperate emotions of the partner not ready to accept that a love affair is coming to an end:

             You count the notches of his spine.
His eyelashes flutter and he sighs, his breath
so warm that for a moment you can
pretend you aren’t cold. You want
to crack him open and hold
his heart in your hands, sink your fingers
into the thin membrane of his lungs.
You want to pull back his skin
and curl up inside his ribcage.
You want to know what he is inside.
Find the symptom, the sickness,
the anomaly that let him love you.
You want to be warm again.

Deo is adept at creating a surprising, brutal beauty in her romantic imagery. We see it again with “Cutman,” a graphic, meaty piece that opens the second section of the collection. Here the connection between a boxer and the attendant who cleans and cares for his wounds between rounds is reimagined in intensely intimate context:

He comes home each night with his hands soaked red,
and when he smiles it’s sharp and jagged and his teeth
quake in his wet mouth. You card your cold fingers
through his hair and lead him to bed, wait
for the weight of his arms around your neck, warm
and drowsy, the familiar shape of his bones and tendons
cradling the base of your skull…

In this part, Deo calls on themes drawn from war and boxing to engage in dialogue with other poets and experiment with poetic form. Included are three centos formed from the Index of Titles and First Lines in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Moving into the final section, inspiration is found in, among other things, a Boy Scout manual from 1914 and a deck of Tarot cards. Consider “XIII—Death”:

. . . I live in the present tense,
tensed and present at the wheel
of a car wreck. My name is re-
membered. I apologise too often
for my lack of biography. He
does not yet know what divinity
he belongs to, but he knows I was
not born for this. He takes the
sheets off the mirrors. He escapes
our mythology.

In my experience of this work, which is of course, all I can honestly speak to, The Agonist is a collection in which the sound of the words and the impact of images are central, the point from which a narrative emerges and takes form. These are not autobiographical poems, for the most part. Nor do they read like “stories” so much as they remind me of paintings or photographs out of which vignettes have been abstracted with vivid, scalpel-sculpted, incantatory language.

Reading this book has left me with the sense of having spent time in a gallery. Attending a deliriously disturbing exhibit.

Shastra Deo was born in Fiji and raised in Melbourne. She presently lives in Brisbane where she is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing. The Agonist is published by University of Queensland Press and, as ever, the indefatigable Tony Messenger has a review and interview with Shastra on his website.

With a multitude of voices: Star Struck by David McCooey

There is a line from Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge that has haunted me since I first encountered it about a month ago. Quoted at the opening of Franz Fühmann’s At the Burning Abyss it reads: “For poems are not feelings, as people think (you have feelings early enough)—they are experiences.”

A simple statement, but one that instantly made sense. Poems are experiences. Rilke goes on to insist that everything the poet observes, everyone he or she encounters becomes part of the potential material for a poem. I have read a few highly praised poetry collections recently, typically by popular younger poets, that seemed to be exploiting emotional intensity without sufficient substance. By the end of a short book I tend to feel a little bludgeoned by the sameness and relentlessness of the imagery. I find myself wondering what the same poet might be like with just a little more life to draw from. Experience.

And so to my first review of the year, which happens to be the last book I finished in 2017. It is a collection of contemporary poetry and, once again, it’s Australian. David McCooey’s Star Struck is another book that came to my attention through a review and interview on Tony Messenger’s website. What initially drew my attention was a very immediate and personal connection. I was intrigued by the fact that one of the sections was inspired by his own encounter with a life-threatening medical event. Like McCooey, I have spent time on the cardiac ward and, whether the circumstances differ or not, there is nothing quite like heart trauma to upset your fragile equilibrium. To this date, I have not been able to write about my own experience, much of which is forever lost to my memory. And so I was curious to see where he would take his own explorations. Of course, I also found much more.

Star Struck is a lyrical collection, rich with musical and literary references, that relies on a wide range of voices and characters. Two poems, both titled “This Voice,” frame the work, reflecting the ambiguity and universality of speakers to be found within:

It goes without saying
that it sounds like your voice.
But is it yours? And if
not yours, then whose?

In his interview with Tony Messenger, McCooey admits that the second person “voice” here is intended “to be alienating, and to undermine simple ideas of my poems simply expressing ‘my voice’.” This is an awareness that continues, in varying forms throughout the main body of the text. Divided into four sections, the first part, “Documents,” traces his hospital adventure, from presentation at Accident and Emergency through surgery to rehabilitation. The experience is recounted with a level restraint that is mediated by the use of the second-person perspective. Addressing himself at a distance has several advantages—it allows the poet to ensure that it is not entirely about himself, accommodates exploration of some of the oddity of the hospital environment, and, as I read it, captures the strange surreality of the patient experience itself, the temporary suspension of control required:

There had been an earlier
waking,
in the ICU,

a time you have
deeply forgotten,
when you had the worst

of it—the pain, the detubation,
the harrowing scenes
of your return to life…

– from “Intensive Care (ii)”

Literary references appear throughout this work, his cardiac patient turns to Calvino, Muriel Spark and Tomas Tranströmer, while Georges Perec-style constraints shape a simple domestic scene; but since McCooey is also a musician, it is no surprise that he delights in incorporating characters and themes drawn from popular music into the eighteen dramatic monologues that comprise the third section of Star Struck, “Pastorals.” Here he takes on the voices of artists like Joni Mitchell and James Morrison, imagines scenes involving rock stars, music fans, and even peers out of the eyes of a caged primate watching a curious tailless creature  in a poem with the Peter Gabriel-inspired title “Shock the Monkey.” There is a restrained  confidence in these resulting mini-portraits that shift effortlessly between male and female speakers, taking their cues from music, musicians, movies, along with classic poetic sources, to give voice to those moments in life marked by association with an artist or piece of pop culture.

Poems as experience.

What marks the reading of this collection for me, moving in and out of it for several weeks as I have, is the way that the simplest observations can be spun into narratives that hint at a larger story. This is not say that there are not pieces that take on grander themes—“Election,” for example takes direct aim at the detention centre on Manus Island—but it is in the ordinary that we see ourselves. However, being drawn to this book for its hospital poetics, if you will, the poems that struck closest to home for me were those that revolved around the experience of illness and recovery. The final poem (before the closing version of “This Voice”) is one of my highlights. The narrator of “La Notte: A Tale of the Uncanny” is a widowed sixty-two-year-old who is recovering from a recent illness and surgery. It is a extended meditation on aging, loneliness, and the strangeness of post-illness existence, every other stanza an aside in parentheses:

I put off the performance of dinner, deciding
instead to have a lie down. Perhaps I had, after all,
overdone things a little by going out that afternoon.

(Time takes on a different quality when one lives alone;
the hours I sometimes longed for thirty years ago
can now feel like a ghostly presence in the house.)

I went to the bedroom, which used to be my son’s,
about to lie down, when something caught my eye.
The small glass owl on the windowsill had been moved.

(I do not say ‘had moved’, since such objects can’t move
by themselves. This goes without saying, I know, but I
want to make it clear this is not a supernatural story.)

Sometimes serious, sometimes satirical, Star Struck offers much to enjoy. Unsentimental, but attentive to the nuances of character, McCooey highlights the passions, regrets, and familiar associations that bind us in this accomplished collection.

Star Struck by David McCooey is published by UWAP, the poetry series of UWA Publishing of the University of Western Australia.

Another winter solstice: A dark year ends brightly

2017 has been a difficult year for many, personally and globally. It has become my custom to stop on this day—the shortest of the year, 7 hours, 54 minutes to be exact—and tally an account of sorts for the year just passed. That typically also includes some variation on a “books of the year” theme. This time I will refrain from the attempt to gather a formal list, but will work in some of my literary highlights.

My year began on a very low note.  2016 had been a year marked by significant creative achievement tempered by great personal loss. With the advent of the new year, I was awash in a mix of complicated emotions. Toward the end of February, probate was finally granted on my father’s will and I received the first part of my inheritance. This relieved the serious financial concerns that had been haunting me for months, but paradoxically, I felt worse than ever. As a wave of loneliness, threatened to completely overwhelm me, I sat down and composed a short blog post that, much to my surprise, garnered more views on the first day than any post I’ve ever made. Clearly I was not alone in my loneliness.

I don’t think I can say that post changed my life, but it represents the beginning of an awareness of the extent of the very real community that can develop online. Most tangibly it led to an invitation from fellow blogger Tony Messenger to take part in the annual extreme walk for charity he organizes in central Australia. And of course, because nothing is as perfect as we would like, I picked up an extreme cold somewhere between Calgary and Alice Springs, so I didn’t walk very much (or very fast), but to have almost two weeks out in the heart of the desert was an experience I’ll never forget. And the beginning of a deeper level of grieving for my parents. At the moment, much of the journey is, like so many of my photo files, unprocessed.

These things take time.

And, having travelled halfway around the globe, I had to at least stop into Melbourne and Sydney and catch up with some Twitter and online friends along the way. Every encounter was wonderful, and contributed to shrinking a large, lonely world a little, even if just for a few hours.

Brighton Beach, Melbourne
Glebe, Sydney
Sydney icon

Over the course of the summer, my brothers and I managed to get our parents’ home fixed up and ready to go on the market. They lived on an acreage outside a small village in a region of the province where the real estate market had been dormant for over a year due to the depressed oil industry. However, things were just starting to turn when we listed the house in late July. Within a week we accepted an offer. Now there are still some estate matters to clear up (and lots more stuff to dispose of), but with a measure of closure we can all start to move forward.

My highlight of the autumn was my city’s annual reader’s festival, Wordfest. I volunteered as a driver for the first time and had a blast. One has an opportunity to engage with authors in a completely different way when driving them around town. And this year’s event featured a strong line-up of Indigenous writers and an excellent poetry cabaret. But by far, my singular thrill was an opportunity to witness the phenomenal M. NourbeSe Philip performing from her experimental epic Zong! I had several opportunities to speak to her privately, and she was generous, supportive, and enthusiastic about my own writing project.

However, when I think back over 2017, I feel like I have been less productive as a writer. I would like to think that the work has been germinating… In truth, 2016 saw the publication of a couple of pieces that had been fermenting for a few years. This year it has been harder to find the focus, but I feel that shifting. I also limited critical writing off my blog, again an energy and concentration issue, but I am very pleased with the reviews I did publish. I’ve also been editing more, an invisible but very highly rewarding activity. And I’m excited to see where my new role with 3:AM Magazine will take me in the year ahead.

And so, at last, to the year in reading. I read many great books—and acquired many more that I’ve not yet gotten to—but here are some of the highlights:

This year I read, for the first time, several writers I have been meaning to get to for a while—Fleur Jaeggy, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Gerald Murnane—and I was in no instance disappointed.

I collected and read an embarrassing amount of poetry. These are a few of the collections I’ve been spending time with:

And somehow I’ve ended up with a healthy selection of contemporary Australian poets (with a few more still on the way):

Meanwhile, a couple of Canadian Indigenous writers really caught me off guard and I have since gathered earlier works by each to catch up on:

As a memoirist (or memoirish writer), I paid special attention to a variety of excellent (and different) memoirs:

And although I can say with confidence that almost every book I read this year was published by an independent publisher, I took special pleasure in supporting some very small indie outfits:

I also like to think that reading should be both intelligent and fun,so with that in mind, these are a few books that really surprised and delighted me:

And finally, I loved every single book released by Two Lines Press in 2017, including two of my absolute favourites novels of the year:

Last, but not least, 2017 is the year I became rather obsessed with French author Michel Leiris. I read the first part of his autobiography, Scratches, which I will write about soon, and purchased the next two parts (the last part has not yet been translated), along with his essays, fiction and correspondences. But, by far, the most demanding and rewarding reading experience I had all year was his monumental journal Phantom Africa. (With the exception of most of the poetry, I wrote about every book pictured here on my blog or for other online magazines. Links can be found on my Review Index 2017 page.)

Now, as the year is coming to a close, I am, of course, still reading. I’m also writing, and looking forward to an upcoming trip to India where I hope to be able get even more writing done. But the true reason this winter solstice is brighter than those of the past few years is that, as of tomorrow, my son who is just about to turn twenty-eight, will have been sober for two weeks. After eight years of heavy drinking and all of the discord, danger, and stress that loving an alcoholic entails this is something I feared I’d never see. I don’t know why he suddenly stopped. I have not asked. I am simply being supportive and hoping that this is the beginning of a new future for him.

So, at least for the moment, it’s all good. I hope everyone else finds a little goodness in the days ahead.

Idly tossing stones: Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes

Although I’ve never been a stranger to poetry, I have read (and acquired) more this year than ever before. I have even, cautiously, attempted to write about some of the shorter collections that have resonated with me most strongly. However, whereas the more I read, the easier it is to articulate why some books—even a couple of those by the celebrated young poetic stars of the day—fail to win me over, I am often at a loss to write with confidence about the collections that draw me in, hold my attention, and continue to call me back.

If there’s a moment when the proverb that likens offering unjustified criticism to throwing stones seems especially apt, I can’t think of a better one than this: my attempt to gather my thoughts about Glasshouses by Australian poet, Stuart Barnes. And yes, I know I am twisting the intent of the original wisdom, but I am slowly learning enough about poetry to be increasingly aware of what I don’t know.

I read this book through, listening to the rhythms, enjoying the wealth of rural and natural imagery, the sensitivity to the nuances of familial and intimate relationships, and the recognizable cultural references. And then I hit the detailed Notes at the end of the book and discovered what a cento is (a patchwork of lines taken from the work of other poets), and learned that some of the poems sample or rework other texts, or incorporate very specific structures and form. Tony Messenger’s interview with Barnes further confirmed my suspicion that I was missing entire levels of structural significance and poetic discipline; an awareness that is at once exciting and intimidating.

If one stops at superficial impact is that enough? What does it mean to enjoy a poem? If a line that catches me short in a cento actually originates from another work, who owns the power? The poet who crystalized the image, or the poet who re-envisions it, a jewel among other salvaged (and fully credited) jewels? Or—and I should hope this is correct—both but in different ways?

At the same time, returning to the closing poem in the collection, “Double Acrostic,” one of my favourites, after taking a moment to refresh my memory (again) about what an acrostic poem is (words or names are spelled out through the first—and if double, last—letters of each line), I found it thrilling to re-experience the poem on two levels, appreciating the beauty and the precision of the language anew.

For the novice poetry critic like myself, Glasshouses is a luminous example of what can be done within an array of poetic forms. Barnes openly takes rhythm and inspiration from his mentors, his favourite music, and from the application of specific limits. As he admits in the interview linked above:

I adore writing in form, be it fixed or one I’ve altered or one I’ve conceived; when writing in form I feel as if I’m at my most creative; I feel liberated, not constrained.

But, of course, the true test is, do his poems work for the casual reader? I would be inclined to think that form, if it is effective, should function beneath the surface—neither obvious nor necessary for the enjoyment of the piece. After all is there only one way to understand a poem? Poetry is, ideally, not written from the top down. A poem is not an intentional exercise to illustrate the universal by forcing specific images and allusions; the poet enters the process of writing to see where it takes him or her, and the reader has to feel comfortable to do the same.

Or perhaps I am tossing stones after all.

And so, to the reading. Glasshouses is a collection that feels intensely intimate and personal, in the sense that Barnes seems to be engaging directly with his reader, sharing his love of the poets who have guided him, directly or through his careful reading, drawing inspiration from his family and from his own experience as a gay man, and openly riffing on the influence of music and pop culture. The wide range of voices that emerge, together with the variety afforded by his delight in structure and form, allows for a reading experience that never falls into tired and predictable patterns. There are misted melancholic pieces, and poems that explode in loud, energetic bursts. In short, this collection is so much fun to read that I can easily imagine myself returning to its pages again and again.

Yet, within the limitations of this brief review/reflection, it’s impossible to offer more than a glance at a poem or two. Many cannot be reproduced because they are printed in landscape format, are shaped, or employ unusual fonts for emphasis and impact. Otherwise, it is difficult to zero in on any one representative example. For me, at this point in my life, I found the translucent beauty of a series of in memoriam poems to be especially powerful—“eggshells” and “colour wheel” in particular. The latter (i.m. Mervyn Barnes) begins:

The American-
barn-red-off-centre
timber shed

trumpeting
through blood &
bone the glasshouse’s
yellow stars

the front yard’s statue-
sque rooster
screaming blue
murder till blue

in the face
Bay of Fires’
orange lichen,
zinc-creamed lips…

However, since I began with an allusion to a proverb, it seems fitting to close with a taste of “Proverbs”—a playful literary take on proverbial witticisms:

A fish always stinks from the elegy down.
Hell hath no fury like a metaphor scorned.
The senryū does not change its spots.
You can’t get blood out of a trope.

Love of the couplet’s the root of all evil.
Procrastination’s the thief of metre.
Nothing is certain but stress and narrative.
The darkest stanza’s before the dawn.

Ah, yes, but fortunately I have a copy of Glasshouses to wake up to.

Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes is published by University of Queensland Press.

Suburban elegies: Bone Ink by Rico Craig

I have been drawn to poetry more than ever this year. A sign of the times. Poetry offers an antidote, a distillation of imagery and emotion, in a world that assaults our senses through the 24-hour news cycle and social media. But, it is also a reflection of my own evolution as a reader and a writer. I want to immerse myself in language, structure, and form. Poetry opens knots in my prose.

But writing about poetry tends to intimidate the non-poet, or the person who has not been trained to read it. But I write about prose without any special training. My intention is typically to attempt to write through the experience of reading a work, a process that, in itself, feeds a deeper reading. So why can’t I apply the same logic to writing about poetry? No reason at all.

Which brings me to Bone Ink, the debut collection, from Australian poet Rico Craig. I bought this book when I was in Sydney earlier this year, and had the good fortune to connect with Rico a few days later. I have often read the work of writers I have come to know online, but this is a rare instance in which I am writing about the work of someone I have actually met in person. So I allowed myself a little space before giving this collection a proper read. And my response is simply: Wow!

This book is divided into two sections: “Bone Ink” and “The Upper Room.” The first part opens with “Angelo,” a gut-level elegy for a dead friend, fueled with adolescent spite and spinning tires:

On the day he died we drove stolen cars
through the suburbs, spray cans knocking like eggs
in a swaying nest. I melted the dash and flicked

matches through the window.
From Parra Rd to Blacktown, our sweat mixed,
desperate, with the stink of scorched plastic;

& we sprayed mourning consonants on every
archway we found. Cops killed Tsakos
& dash lights were our campfire, & in the fretful

lustre we might’ve been mistaken for men.

The poems that follow continue in this vein, marked by visceral imagery, faded nostalgia, and gritty settings peopled with reckless youth and hardscrabble characters. Intimate dramas are played out in bedrooms, on oil rigs, along hospital corridors—childhoods lost, friends misplaced, loves not quite forgotten. These are stories boiled down to their most essential elements, the bare bones and sinew, nerves and raw energy. No word is wasted, every image evoked tells a larger tale. “Hamburg,” for example, begins:

If anyone asks I will say, you are oceans away,
afloat in the ventricles of a great city’s heart,
your fractious brain pecking the afternoon press,

your relentless devices compelling you toward
a smoky eyelet. I will say there is nothing left
to summon. The Rathaus must be dripping

ice, rock salt strewn on our streets of Sternschnaze.

To end, a handfull of stanzas later:

. . . If we meet again
it will be unexpected, as will-less shoppers,
caught lingering in front of a cheese cabinet,

shocked, seeking salvation in a slab of brie.
We’ll both be empty handed, shoeless,
one sock lost in the tide and the breaths we share

will be stained with the silt of industrial cities,
the taste of places bright enough to burn sand into glass.

Upon finishing this book, I returned to an interview conducted by my friend and fellow blogger, Tony Messenger, at the time of the release of Bone Ink. It was no surprise to see Craig explain that he “started as a prose writer trying to write ridiculously long and complex stories, it didn’t go well, but I kept trying, maybe for too long. I finally clicked with poetry as a form when I understood that it gave me a way to tell a fragment from a longer story, but tell it in a way that was satisfyingly rich.” I had forgotten this comment, but it resonated with and reinforced my own reading.

The second part, “The Upper Room,” is more abstract, featuring primal, vivid imagery drawn from art and nature, and woven into stories and urbanized folktales. There is a more mature allegorical quality to these pieces. This section opens with “With Chris Ofili in The Upper Room,” a magical visit to an exhibit of the British painter’s artwork that turns surreal when monkeys slide off their canvases and lead the narrator on an escapade across the city. It closes with the wonderful six-part “Lampedo,” a sequence of taut poems that forge a febrile romance between a contemporary urban dweller and his mythical Amazonian queen.

Here, as in the first section, several of the poems employ shape and form to work in concert with the content to affect a heightened sense of melancholy as in the couple’s bus ride through London re-imagined in “Hand in Glove”:

flex a fist          blow your mist of winter words
into a leather glove                we’ve set course

for the sun-scribed cloud        our bus ride mapped in fine
nibbed biro             a pattern of ley-lines inked

on the surface of your gloves         you trace capillary
streets across threadbare fingers

check off monuments marked on the pleated palm
out the window gulls          unveil    euphoric from ledges

and totter against wind          plunging in great Trafalgic arcs
across the span of our window

This collection, in the span of less than sixty pages, offers a finely tuned series of condensed narratives—indelible portrayals of passion, heartache, and loss that linger in the imagination. Rico Craig’s Bone Ink is a poetic testament to the instinctual urgency of being alive.

The publisher of  Bone Ink has gone out of business. For more information about Rico and this book, see his website.