The human animal in the room: The Grass Library by David Brooks

Central to Australian writer David Brooks’ meditation on the ethics and implications of existing in a truly honest and respectful relationship with the nonhuman creatures who share this planet with us, is the question of how one can properly write about animal experience at all without filtering it through a decidedly anthropocentric lens. Are words, as we know and employ them, even up to the task? These are neither easy nor straightforward questions, but the search for possible answers is a journey that Brooks stumbles into willingly, and frets about, fumbles through, marvels over, and shares with surprising humility in this engaging—and endearing—collection of interrelated essays.

It all begins with a sudden life shift when Brook’s partner, T., announces over dinner one night that she can no longer continue to consume meat. He takes it well, but when this declaration is soon further refined to exclude all food that comes from animals, he finds himself accepting, if at first a little mournfully, a vegan diet. Where this path will ultimately lead them he can hardly imagine at that moment, but within a few years they will have left their rented house in Sydney and moved—cautiously at first and with an intermediary purchase—to a small farm in the Blue Mountains where he, T. and  their dog Charlie will find themselves living with a growing “herd” of rescue sheep, not to mention the snake, ducks, rats, and all the other creatures that come and go. The resulting account is not a book about veganism or guilt but it is a book detailing one man’s ongoing effort to realign his values in accord with respect for animals. More importantly it is a lyrical philosophical tale of “discovery and wonder: wonder and wondering.”

But first, to set the stage, there is the move. Reluctant to cut ties with the city cold turkey, so to speak, they buy a house in a mountain town, but continue to rent in Sydney. When they finally try to make a permanent move to their new home, a variety of factors prevent them from settling in and feeling at peace. So, when they hear about a farm on the edge of town, they check it out. Two sloping acres, an old farmhouse and a small cabin just begging to be converted into a library. It seems to be perfect given a number of circumstances and dreams that are beginning to colour their thoughts of the future, so they buy it, move in, and within a few months are joined by a couple of rescue sheep—Jonathan and Henry-Lee.

The genesis of the text that will become The Grass Library lies in a vegan friend’s challenge to Brooks that he should write about animals. However, if that was, at least for the friend, envisioned to be part of a grander exposé about animal cruelty, this book is smaller, more intimate and close to home, but it raises fundamental philosophical questions all the same. He draws, for example, on the writings of Kierkegaard and on Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am. But the true beauty lies in the self-reflective exploration of what it means to write on behalf of another creature with an openness to possibility of experience—ours and theirs. Uncertain how to start, Brooks decides to begin with their rescue dog, Charlie, and his curious dusk anxiety. A window on the life of another, a life that overlaps with but is not contained within those of his human companions. See the problem? “Owners” is a fraught term. Even writing this review echoes the challenges of writing about animals—what can we ever fully know about anyone who shares our lives with us, even if they are of the same species, let alone if they belong to another species or even order of being? Brooks struggles to tell Charlie’s story as Charlie might, an exercise, at best never more than approximate and subject to an endless double guessing that he will continue to practice as the group of nonhuman animals who become part of his life and narrative expands.

The true nature of the nervousness Charlie displays as the day comes to a close is never fully understood despite efforts to analyze or assuage it, but it seems that once his family relocates to the farm, where he quickly takes to his fleecy new friends, he finds a comfort zone of sorts. Once “the boys” arrive, followed in time by an orphaned lamb, little  Orpheus Pumpkin, Brooks’ creature considerations extend and, for much of the book revolve around sheep. Living with these characters (and they are definitely distinct individuals) offers countless opportunities for observation, contemplation and, on occasion, serious concern. As for example, when David and T. decide that it would be an act of complicated kindness to have Henry castrated. A ram who exhibits a desperate longing for the ladies whenever ewes are nearby, they worry that he will either injure himself trying to reach them or harass his poor companion Jonathan, a wether, to the point of distraction. But whose comfort is really on the line?

The surgery does not go well, prompting worry, guilt and doubt, though Henry eventually does recover and seem calmer and, dare one say, happier. But, of course, Brooks cannot be entirely certain they did the right thing:

We began this process of—I don’t even know what to call it: stewardship? protection? attempted redress?—so naïvely, despite all the thinking that had gone before. But of course that had been thinking about the animal, in the absence of the animal. No one told us—who was there to do so?—that we’d encounter, almost inevitably, these pitfalls, dark holes, perilous places. As we open up to these creatures, as we apprehend more and more of their Being, or think we do, we’re dealing more and more with lives no less complicated, painful, traumatised, or liable to trauma than our own—indeed we’re dealing in most cases with lives that have been much more traumatised than ours are ever likely to be.

There are, as one can see, more questions than answers, and throughout this book, among the accounts, humorous and tragic alike, of daily life on the farm, Brooks invites the reader into his internal queries and quandaries. The closer he aligns himself with the ethics and obligations of animal advocacy, the more he is forced to re-evaluate his own childhood interactions—the shovel to the head of a snake, for instance—and, perhaps even more painfully, his enthusiasm for some of the literature and authors he once loved as he comes to recognize aspects of their attitudes toward animals as debatable, even distasteful.

Of course, in his evolving effort to articulate this growing self-awareness, Brooks’ engagement is not limited to animals, birds or reptiles. One of my favourite chapters is “Cicada Summer.” Referring to the insects as his “almost-totem,” this piece which could easily be read as an elegant and thoughtful stand-alone essay, describes the emergence of one particular season’s generation of cicadas from their waiting larval refuges buried deep on the roots of trees. He marvels at the fragile beauty of discarded carapaces, and even finds, with sadness, a nymph that has died in a failed effort to free itself from its shell. The song of the insects is the soundtrack of the season, implying in its consistency, an ongoing eruption of these otherwise short lived creatures—short lived, that is, in this stage of their lives. But of course, the cicada offer more than an opportunity for a little speculative natural history. In their epic drama, lies a lesson for us: “If we think we are anything other than creature,” he warns,—have crawled very far beyond it—we are kidding ourselves.”

He then goes on to draw a striking parallel between the discarded carapace of the larval cicada and the creative acts we human creatures engage in:

A book, a poem is like that: the shell of something that has emerged, gone. Writers work hard at those shells, but as soon as we finish them—a poem, a novel, an essay—there’s a sense in which we’re not there any longer. A cicada, I note, sheds multiple shells before the one we see clinging to the bark of a tree; and humans too—human animals—have to shed carapaces, create shells, whether they’re authors or not, if they are to mature. That can be agony, pulling oneself out of oneself.

The further Brooks’ effort to write about animals—and to write about writing about animals—takes him, the more it brings him write back to the human animal in the room: himself. And, for that matter, the rest of us too. As he recounts his and T.’s adventures with ducklings in the swimming pool, a persistent rat in the kitchen, or little Orpheus Pumpkin who spends his early weeks living in the house (and, like his fellow sheep, falling in love with T.), practical and philosophical musings and digressions are frequent. As such, the book has a sense of active construction—tentative, meditative, worked and reworked. Brooks is unafraid to confess to missteps, let the seams show, leave possibilities raised, but unresolved.

And then, through it all, there is the beautiful, poetic prose. It is as if all of Brooks’ years as a poet, essayist, novelist, and short story writer have been channelled into what has become a deeply personal life project. At the end, as he stands out in the paddock with Charlie, surrounded by all of “the boys”—Henry, Jonathan, Orpheus Pumpkin, and the latest arrival, Jason—there is a sense of a man at peace with the world. At least, perhaps, until the next, creature in need arrives on the scene.

The Grass Library is published in Australia by Brandl & Schlesinger and will be released in North America by Ashland Creek Press in June.

Letters to a distant shore: A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett

I have spent most of my life landbound, far from open water. As a result, oceans and seas have always held a special fascination for me—those distant horizons, blue fading into blue, and endless watery expanses. Similarly, poetry inspired by ocean imagery has invariably captured my imagination and that’s what I suspected Australian poet Felicity Plunkett’s new collection, A Kinder Sea, with its stylized black and white wave-decorated cover might offer. And it does, but of course it is so much more. It is a rich and generous exploration of an ocean of skeletal fragments, human longings, and loved and forgotten souls.

Written over a period of seven years, the poems in this book seem to come together around their uniting element in an organic, interactive manner, forging connections and participating in debate with one another along the way. There is a clear sense, then, of a creative ebb and flow that runs through the collection. Referring to Paul Celan’s depiction of poems as “making their ways to readers like letters in bottles,” Plunkett describes her new work as “a book of unspoken hopes, un-mourned losses, of mute and unprayable prayers and letters never sent.”

If the poems that comprise A Kinder Sea arose, as their author indicates, over time, in conversation with one another, as missives in search of readers, they also exist in dialogue with artists and poets from whom Plunkett draws inspiration. Early on, Celan’s quote referring to poems as bottled messages, serves as the epigraph for the multi-part piece, “Glass Letters”. Twelve aching, embodied and intimate poetic communiqués follow:

This morning want-of-you has left me.
I test for its absence, press bruises, look clear

in the sea’s flat glass. No sign of storm’s spines:
sharp possibilities. Disturbance has bled

itself out. Shaken wordless, I wash syllables
in salt, trace remembered promises to

the place where they rolled in foam. You
erase waves from our correspondence:

excise agitation.

The palette she paints from is one of varied, often melancholy colours. Poets, most notably Emily Dickinson and Celan, but also Rilke, William Carl Williams, Sylvia Plath and others offer epigraphs, allusions and inspiration, alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Neil Young.

Felicity Plunkett writes with a formal sensibility and delicate precision, her language seems to register, not simply in the ear or the imagination of the reader, but on the very surface of the skin. One senses that each word, each line has been carefully honed to cast a reflection at once sharp and shifting—much like the surface of the sea. As in her award winning debut, Vanishing Point where flakes appear as a recurring image, in A Kinder Sea, there is, apart from the obvious connecting feature, a bone-level awareness and an existential grammar awash in the waves—the abstracted self as body and language. Consider the hospitalized speaker’s lament in “Songs in a Red Key”:

Conduct a river in plastic over
my shoulder through an elbow’s fold
My shroud stretches to fray
translucent at its seams, rolled
soft by the smooth stones
of a queue of injured
bones: white-gowned, awkward

-ly sheeted  nativity
angel, nameless, I shepherd
drip chamber and tremble-wheel
trolley across night’s locked ward
jitter this tangle through
silence: my hubris muted
below drug’s sea levels

Or the epistle to a secret, perhaps doomed, addressee in “Strand”:

Nothing to say when words lose their letters
in winter. Letter’s spines dismantle
in my silent hand.

I hear your name in a dream of sea. Dream
my secrets fall from my mouth, braced
neat as pearls

Broken mirror, split salt, opened
umbrella. Salt rain broke and I thought no
harm could come to you.

But, of course, the sea is the primary note sounding through this collection, sometimes as a passing metaphor, sometimes as a broader backdrop, and in one set of poems, as a vast, inviting, yet often unforgiving space that has drawn daring souls to adventure, even death. The sequence “In Search of the Miraculous” contains some of my favourite pieces: “Equal Footing Mermaids” honouring Donald Crowhurst, the British businessman who died competing in a single-handed round-the-world yacht race in 1969, and “Disappearing Act” in memory of Dutch-born film maker and performance artist, Bas Jan Ader, who was lost at sea in what would be his final performance, an intended solo voyage across the Atlantic. These poems speak to the romance of the sea that has always held a particular allure, in art and literature, for a landbound soul like myself.

A Kinder Sea has rightly been referred to as a masterpiece. It is certainly a testament to Plunkett’s ability to evoke recurring themes in a constellation of image and form that remains fresh, never predictable. And, like the ocean itself, there is an unmeasurable depth to this collection, one that invites slow, thoughtful engagement.

A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett is published by University of Queensland Press.

A deep and abiding melancholy: Saudade by Suneeta Peres Da Costa

There is a moment in our earliest years, if we are lucky, when the outside world with all its attendant ills and hardships cannot yet touch us, but it is simultaneously a vulnerable space, fleeting, ephemeral—even more so when we look back and remember how quickly it passed:

It was the middle of the dry season but each time her lips parted I found myself in an oasis in which I wanted for nothing; I had no need to look to the horizon but if I did, it would have gone on and on, a hungerlessness that might well be called paradise. The wind was blowing from the coast, a salt wind from the Atlantic which I would feel against me as a phantom presence even when it was not there any more. The sun was not shining and its not shining was neither here nor there; I was not waiting for the sun to reveal itself to me . . . Although I was old enough – three years, perhaps four – I seldom spoke at this time. No one really remarked on this fact nor how I hung off every one of my mother’s words. Indeed, I could have continued in this same vein for an aeon or more, unaware of the peril of what might lie ahead.

Set in Angola during the years leading up to Independence from Portugal in 1975, Saudade by Suneeta Peres Da Costa, an Australian author of Goan heritage, is a young woman’s account of childhood and youth during a time of increasing political unrest and instability. As she remembers the magic of her early, loving bond with her mother, in an idyllic setting secure in the comforts wealth affords, the truths she is not yet able to understand linger in the air. From the beginning, a tentativeness, a sense of an impending ending runs through the narrative, beneath the protection of a child’s innocence and an adolescent self-absorption, until it becomes evident that the last remnants of the colonial social structure must either face unfortunate dissolution or exile.

Named for the Portuguese expression meaning an unbearable longing or melancholy, Saudade is a novella of displacement. Narrator Maria-Christina’s parents, Indians from Brahmin backgrounds, their marriage arranged, had immigrated to Angola in the dying days of Portuguese rule in Goa. Africa was seen as a place of promise and hope for the future. At first they settled into a comfortable existence, and started a family. But their colonial experience, as such, has two sides. They have a certain status, hire African servants, and yet, to many Portuguese they are still bound to the reality that Portugal had once subdued and ruled their homeland. When, at school, Maria-Christina refers to explorer Bartolomeu Dias as an “invader,” her indignant teacher reminds her of her place:

Her voice tremulous, she declared that Bartolomeu Dias had been commissioned by João II and Isabel; she said that he had battled storm and shipwreck and cannibalism to claim Angola for Portugal. Bartolomeu Dias, she said, was responsible for civilising the people of Angola and was part of that long line of fidalgos who had cultivated my own loinclothed and mud-thatched and blue-godded people! When she had made this speech, the teacher from Coimbra was standing close to me and yet it seemed I could not see her; her face was blur. When she spoke, her breath smelt stale – as of onions and salt pork sitting in a pot too long. Not a day went by without one girl or other being humiliated by her, so I tried not to take the humiliation to heart.

After an initial period of prosperity, unrest begins to grow and threaten the security of the non-Angolan residents. As the fight for independence escalates, Maria Christina’s father is caught up secretive, risky activities, while her mother becomes increasingly stressed and homesick. Meanwhile, their daughter must navigate the mysteries and challenges of childhood and adolescence against a shifting social, political and domestic landscape.

The success of any Bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel, for me, depends on a certain recognizable authenticity of voice. Here the spare, wistful melancholy of the protagonist’s early memories, filtered through the lens of acquired understanding, carries just the right tone. Trusting and deeply attached to her mother when she is young, she gradually gains a more defiant edge as puberty arrives and the tensions at home and in the country intensify. Her relationships with her parents become strained as friendships and her first romance start to define her move toward an independent engagement with the world. That is, until political upheaval begins to draw her friends away from Angola, often to places and relatives they barely know. Yet, as much as this is a story of a family living through the final years of colonial power and privilege, the nostalgia for India is deep and  abiding—a loss that haunts the mother and leaves the daughter rootless.  Independence exacts huge costs for all and, of course, for the Angolans themselves, there will be many bloody years yet to come.

Saudade by Suneeta Peres Da Costa is published by Giramondo in Australia and Transit Books in the US.

Distant and immediate intimacy in Felicity Plunkett’s Vanishing Point: A personal response

I want to say that the strength of Felicity Plunkett’s award winning debut collection, Vanishing Point, lies in the singular beauty of the images evoked. That sounds, perhaps, too, trite. I am, as I always confess when I set out to write about poetry, not a poet. And yet, that is what held my attention throughout the reading, even in the most unlikely moments. Many of the poems in Vanishing Point traverse the an unexpected terrain, drawing on the annals of history, science, medicine, and film production while others touch delicately on the familiar moments of life. However, all move with an intimacy that unsettles and reassures in one breath.

The collection opens with “Journey of the Dead Man”, a dreamlike vision that juxtaposes the words of the Hindu god Shiva invoked by Robert Oppenheimer in his remembrance of the first nuclear testing in the desert of New Mexico, with the Jewish notion of sitting shiva after death to offer a powerful poetic commentary on destruction and mourning—one that rises, in its closing passage, to a shattering conclusion:

Stand in the desert, your hands
open, the shards flaking away,
and call the name of Shiva.
Omega: let there be an end to it.
Death be not proud now I am become you.
Cover me with your furious limbs
and shatter me when our eyes engage.
Remember you are dust,
and unto dust shall you return.

This is a very assured collection; Plunkett’s verse weds a poised formality with a lyric passion and perceptivity that may well appeal to readers who are resistant to poetry. Her poems are accessible, but offer a curious mix of tenderness and tenacity. Recurring themes, grounded in embodied emotion and experience, provide a certain, if not always comforting,  continuity, while flakes, in many different forms and contexts—flakes of skin, flakes of snow, flakes of paint, the flaking away of a dream—form a unifying motif, one that speaks to the transient quality of desire, memory, life. Such transience, is often conveyed in familiar terms, such as in “Restraint,” which begins:

Soft now on their wooden clavicles
each of your frocks once knew its place.

The speaker goes on to call to mind memories of a mother’s loving dedication to the tasks of rural domestic life before returning to the dresses:

Now I run my hands through
mended cotton, starched linen
stiff skirts, blouses still holding a remembered body
and my touch awakens mothball mint and lavender—
those ghostly scents.

The reminiscence then moves on to the more ambivalent questions of life, with all its joys and disappointments, carried unspoken in the living, and now left to linger in the air.

Vanishing Point is very much a book of passages, of uncertain pasts and uneasy futures. Within this tapestry, birth and death, are closely wound threads explored most vividly in the closing section of the book—from the overview of the medical and philosophical understanding of female reproductive capacity, traced in the delightful “A Knitted History of the Uterus” to the fragmented processes of pregnancy, delivery, and the vulnerability of the body. The imagery, again, is often striking, as in “The Negative Cutter”, a multi-part piece which incorporates quotes from a text on film editing to expose the accepted performance of diagnosis, treatment, and grief:

DISCONTINUITY EDITING
Any alternative system of joining shots together using techniques unacceptable within continuity editing principles. Possibilities would include mismatching of temporal and spatial relations, violations of the axis of action, and concentration on graphic relationships.

Clowns rehearse outside the next caravan.
You crush words hard against your teeth.
They fly out of your mouth like shots
or you spit them, blooded and cutting,
fretted and strung with beads of shiny feeling.
You are drowning inside yourself, alone.
Anger jerks out of you, or unstopped crying that falls fluent
the way it does in dreams: salty, benedictory.
The skirt of your feelings, stuck in the car door,
flaps at passersby without your knowing.

This collection has a strong feminine awareness, but paired with a curiosity  and a measure of physical disengagement. The female bodied experience extends beyond the specific to the universal—inviting a distant and immediate intimacy. Or at least that is how I responded. Vanishing Point was published in 2009 and, a few years earlier, some of the material might have triggered a particular discomfort for me. But I come to it now as a transgender male reader and writer finally beginning to reclaim aspects of his female past  after nearly two decades of estrangement from a perceived reality incompatible with the coherent history of a man, including the birth of two children. Whether it is the benefit of sufficient remove or the growing need to be able to embrace a whole life lived, I don’t know, but it is fortuitous that I picked up this wise and wonderful book at this time.

Vanishing Point by Felicity Plunkett is published by University of Queensland Press.

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.