Sunday, April 13, 2014

Susan Hawthorne's Limen

In case you missed Sotto, September 2013, my review of Susan Hawthorne's Limen (Spinifex Press, 2013) can be read here.

brb: be right back - A verse novel

Earlier this year I was honoured to be invited to launch Maree Dawes's second book, a digital verse novel, in Albany as part of the Perth Writers Festival in the Great Southern.
Monday 24 February 2014 was a warm, sunny day. A perfect time to escape from my usual routine and join the enthusiastic crowd enjoying the program at the Vancouver Arts Centre.
The launch was a lively one, and included music from A Mixed Bag (Sandy Bishop, Sue Tevaki and Barbara Watson) and  a dramatisation of excerpts from the book by Nic Spanbrock, Tarquin Smart and Sylvia Leymann.
Congratulations, Maree and Spineless Wonders, for delivering such a great read!

My launch speech:

I‘m delighted to be here today to launch this new title BRB: be right back written by Maree Dawes and published by Spineless Wonders.
BRB: Be Right Back ­is a verse novel, and an exciting blend of lyric and narrative poetry and cyber-discourse.
It’s the 1990s. Dawes’ protagonist, known as Boadicea, finds in online chat rooms an anonymity and freedom that liberates her from everyday life: her loneliness in a new town, responsibilities for children, her often absent partner and their unravelling relationship. In chat rooms she learns to be herself … or anyone else she chooses.
The first obstacles Boadicea encounters in chat rooms are culture and language. In order to even begin to communicate with the others there, she must undergo a kind of enculturation: become familiar with chat room etiquette, think and write faster, and be an adept of chatspeak – word strings of acronyms, abbreviations, pictograms, emoticons, etc. – which we now know as textese or sms, but brb is based in the 1990s when personal access to the Internet was still a novelty for many.
From the moment she gets naked online, Boadicea enters a world of discovery, eroticism and obsession.
This is known as delaying gratification ­– which must be terribly like cybersex, I think – I’m going to digress, because I want to talk for a moment about the verse novel and free verse.
Story has been conveyed in poetic form since the early days of spoken language, leading to the development of oral narrative poems such as the epic and the ballad. Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – along with Beowulf - provide us with some of the earliest written examples available to us of the ancient epic tradition. From that tradition evolved a range of narrative and poetic devices, and techniques of composition that remain in common usage to this day. brb is an excellent example of how these continue to evolve.
The poet and critic Leonard Nathan, writing in The New Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) (one of my bibles), traced the peaks and lows of narrative practice in poetry from the time of Homer to the present day. Rather than locating a continuity of a particular mode (or modes) of narrative poetry, Nathan found instead a continuous tradition of narrative in poetry. This tradition is peppered with works in forms that were perceived as being avant-garde at the time of their emergence and have since become classic (blank verse and free verse, for example). In recent times, this process has included not only a blending of some poetic forms with other poetic forms, but also a blending of poetry with other genres – such as the verse novel. Such hybridisation seems almost inevitable when one considers that for the last three centuries the novel has dominated narrative literature.
Free verse is a popular choice for the authors of verse novels. Poets can then concentrate more on narrative structure, as opposed to a strict-form poetic grid on which a narrative is to be suspended. Free verse, coupled with lyric poetry, can and does enhance sustained narratives, being dense with imagery, simile, and metaphor reinforced by the use of sound patterning techniques such as rhythm, alliteration, repetition, etc. In brb, Maree has put equal amounts of energy into both her poetry and her narrative.
I read an example of this: “The music teacher takes the stage” from brb. 
Free verse also lends itself to writing in the vernacular, i.e. the language of a particular place, in this case cyber-space. The use of textese, colloquialisms and unusual syntax is a point of commonality shared by many of the pieces in brb, especially in dialogue. Narrative will often employ dialogue to service the plot, in the guise of establishing character, exposition, and conflict. The choice of a chat room for the central location in brb provides the perfect opportunity for Maree to employ all these techniques, and to also play with language in unconventional, entertaining and sometimes humorous ways. For example: In Welcome to Yahoo! Chat you are chatting as Boadicea voices overlay each other: “huggles”, book discussions, and cyber-relationship building are punctuated by requests from a teenager for help with his English homework.
End of digression.
In contrast to Boadicea’s domestic arrangements, life in the chat room is un-constrained. Her wholehearted engagement with the cyber-world threatens to unravel her real life, but in terms of the writing it creates new opportunities for verisimilitude, i.e. likeness to the truth.  Indeed, the cybersex encounter in “Thistlehead PMs Boadicea” proved to be most educational ... But I’m not here to provide plot spoilers!
In summary: Narrative is easy to identify because the elements of story – beginning, middle, end, character, conflict, resolution, moral, and so on – are introduced to us at a very early age. Poetic language, however, is a consciously learned, figurative language that comes to us from an ancient tradition and is constantly evolving.
I quote from the words of the Australia poet Jan Harry, who said:
“Poets thrive on thinking of writerly ways to subvert or undermine conventions; by hitching verse to novel […] there are opportunities for poets to work in new ways …” (Narrative And Poetry: What Happened Next” Cordite, 1 February 2001)
brb; be right back is Maree Dawes working in a new way, a way that is extremely relevant to our world today. The outcome is a work which wears the robe of the novel, but speaks the language of poetry.

* * * * *
Purchase brb: be right back online at Spineless Wonders/Tomely
More details, reviews, and information about the poet Maree Dawes can be found on Facebook at brb: be right back by Maree Dawes

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Christening the kitchen

A friend dropped in a bag of home grown vegetables today, and – as a result – tonight’s dinner was made much more interesting.

In the bag were: cherry tomatoes, beetroot, turnips, leeks, one yellow chili (banana-chili?), silverbeet and kale.
We gave the beetroot a good wash – trying to rescue all the beetles we inherited along with the beetroot, which by now were rushing to the surface of the water in search of oxygen, and then dispatching them  elsewhere – and put them on the stove to simmer away while I attended to dinner.
It's a tad challenging, cooking in the new (very old) house. We are not really unpacked/organised yet, and space is limited. I tend to spend most of my energy flogging from the stove to two different countertops, two fridges, to sink, to walk-in-pantry (ancient). Cooking can be quite exhausting, but is always rewarding.
I’d planned my favourite, tried and true, stir-fry recipe for tea, and decided to substitute fresh leeks for onion. I trawled the Internet for tips on how to cook kale and discovered some simple cooking instructions here and jazzed them up with some garlic, throwing it all into the frypan as the stir fry was reaching completion. Well … what a triumph! Dinner was delicious. The leek added a different flavour to an old favourite for sure, but topped with the kale (and stirred in after serving) we had a whole new dimension added to our dinner.

While we were appreciating the stir-fry, the beetroot was cooling in its cooking water.

After dinner, I discovered that my bloke had never had the pleasure of peeling freshly cooked beetroot. He was the only boy in the house, almost the youngest and – with three sisters and an old fashioned mother – missed out on a lot in the learning to cook department. (He’s caught up, though, he’s in charge of cooking steak and fish in our house.)

Whilst initiating the bloke into the purple-hand society, I shared with him my memories of my own mother cooking and pickling beetroot. How I loved the moment when freshly cooked beetroot had cooled down enough to pick up and peel. Encouraging the beetroots’ rough skin away from their smooth, bulbous fruit was bare-handed treasure hunting.
Now I am off to trawl for a recipe for beetroot pickling emulsion. All I can remember is deep-red vinegar suffused with aromatic spices warming on the stove. Then again … maybe I should just ring my mother?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dorothy the Dinosaur moves house

Battling the nausea that arrived with some stray virus this morning, I spent the afternoon topping up on fluids and having a long sleep. I surfaced in the late afternoon, and no sooner had I sat down in my new study - to consider my woozy state and the room’s chaos - than the landlord arrived to do some urgent repairs. While he mended broken things, I relieved another box of its contents: magazines, books, model boats, and Dorothy the Dinosaur (who belongs to K-girl, but lives with me).
We’ve been here just over a week, and both my husband and I have reflected on the reasons why this particular house resonates so strongly with us. Mostly, we've remembered that our grandparents lived in similar houses, i.e. weatherboard, wooden floors, bull-nosed verandas shrouded in lattice, a wide, lead-lighted passageway running the length of the building. This familiarity brings with it a feeling of comfort, of being at home.
Back in the early 1990s, I lived in a house very similar to this in the Perth Hills. My writing room had French doors that opened onto a verandah and beyond that a beautiful garden. I loved that house, even though I didn’t own it. My writing life was very rich during the time I lived there.
This new study, in yet another rental, has French doors opening onto a small, weather-beaten verandah and a garden bed featuring a flowering jacaranda tree that has carpeted the pathway purple. Despite my spinning head, the unpacked boxes, the shambles, I’m optimistic. I've completed two more degrees since I lived in the Hills, it's time to lose the word study. My new writing room in this new house is full of promise.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A work in progress

I've been giving this blog a bit of a facelift, but it's taking some time. In the meantime ... it's a work in progress.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

End of the world

With prophesies of rapture capturing the attention of many this weekend, I've resurrected "End of the world" from my archives. Inspired by an article in the West Australian, "End of the world" won the 1992 Tom Collins Poetry Prize and appeared in Shorelines: three poets. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995.

End of the world

Thousands of South Koreans spent yesterday preparing for the end of the world.
The West Australian, 29 October 1992

She was going to Heaven with her suitcase.

Before the scheduled departure,
she’d been to an abortion clinic.
The foetus had to go –
it had a potential for submitting to gravity.
She’d left a cluster of cells
in a bucket by the door
for the architects of flood and famine
to collect on credit for Christ.

Before midnight, she’d cleansed her skin
curled her hair, shaved down from her legs –
paying detail to the area around her ankles
from where Mercury’s wings would sprout –
ironed her halter-neck dress so her shoulder blades
would be bared for the promised explosion of feathers.

She bled still, wondered if rapture
excluded sanitary precautions.
Waited for midnight,
the pain in her pelvis dulling over time.
She’d left food out for the cat,
fed the dog for the final time,
left the last of the supper dishes
soaking in the sink.

Her strong-box brimmed with the word of God
but she’s seen the painstaking hands of time
overtake midnight twice,
checked her diary and the stages of the moon.
She’d got that part wrong once before
but does rhythm equate with rapture,
with the riot police outside her house,
with a foetus in a galvanised pail.

Beyond the kitchen window,
with its appliquéd café curtains
and wind chimes,
the horrors of the world
have overtaken ecstasy.
In Seoul, an angel is bleeding
over the soft blossom of singing pinions
budding from her ankles.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Chook Poems

Recently, after a friend, Sarah (who has an amazing blog @ A Wine Dark Sea), experienced an attack on her flock of hens by several stray dogs, I promised her I would post my chook poems here. 
The chook poems were written a long time ago. Many of them appeared in my first published collection (with Michael Heald and Roland Leach) Shorelines: three poets Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995 (now out of print). Before Shorelines "Mangiare alfresco" (1992), "The Thursday Fox" (1993), and "On finding white feathers" (1994) were published in the Weekend Australian back in the days when Barry Oakley was the Literary Editor there. Barry gave me one of the nicest compliments I have ever received when he said: "I just can't resist your chook poems."
"Mangiare alfresco" recently received new life when it was selected for WritingWA's "22", and "On finding white feathers" was featured in the South Perth Poetry Park (Neil McDougal Park, South Perth).
The chook poems worked their way into my life at a time when my family and I lived in the Perth hills. My writing desk was located in front of a huge window that looked out onto our backyard, a bush block, with our flock of free-range hens (and the occasional wet rooster) parading by. During that period of time we nurtured several households of chooks, loving them, and grieving for them when sickness, old-age, or fox/dog-attack decimated our flock. Valuable lessons were learned. Along with the large doses of humor that arise from sharing your life with a hoard of feathered individuals, the simple, cruel tragedies of the backyard crept into those being enacted by the larger world around us. For example, in "The Thursday Fox", the story of Bobbie Cullen, a student at Curtin University and a victim of domestic violence who died when I was pursuing studies in creative writing there, seeps into a poem about a fox attack I've never forgotten: the dark, tortured night when I, with my son, Clifton – who was only about 10 years-old at the time and very, very brave – ran blindly around in the bush trying to save our hens ahead of the fox coven committed to beheading them a step ahead of us.

Woman at Desk with Writing Space
Her writing space is in her head, sleeping,
hiding between its cotton sheets, it goes
snug in the place behind her ears and eyes.
Sometimes it’s there when she’s away: sitting
on a bench at the lake, in a clearing
in the woods, on logs in the chicken run ­–
once – amidst a herd of cows. Would it run?
It wouldn’t jump-start! She suspects sleeping
was on its mind. More commonly, clearing
its throat loudly, it is in her car. Goes
skidding around corners, sighing, sitting
frozen at stop signs. Blue lights in her eyes.
It fires over dirty dishes, its eyes
running with onion’s scent, but daily runs
leave it puffed in the driveway or sitting
exhausted in her chair. When she’s sleeping,
hand in hand with dreams - no spare room - it goes
about dusting cobwebs, firebreak clearing, 
washing the floors for visitors, clearing
fog from the bathroom mirror. To its eyes,
her desk is a mess but it likes it. Goes
cursing to the landlord: its stockings run
catching on splinters from her page - sleeping
cat on cushion. Her writing space, sitting,
jumps when the phone rings, hides away, sitting
on the edge of the curtain rail, clearing
its line of sight to catch the deep-sleeping
trailer with its overflowing cat’s-eyes,
beer cans, bike tyres, junk, time for a dump run
with leaves. The rake that broke yesterday goes,
says her writing space. And as the sun goes
down, its rays highlight the paper sitting
on her desk with coffee rings. A dry run
to the chook yard with scraps, her mind clearing
ashtrays, dust from the keyboard. Her space eyes
the livestock’s feathers, ruffled from sleeping.
Out the window it goes, to the clearing,
hens sitting, scratching, blinking lidded eyes -–
writing space on the run: writer sleeping.

For Clifton
The boy in the paddock
down the road
has frost on his eyelashes.
His hen was paralysed, dying.
He’d placed her in the nesting box
near the morning’s eggs,
and closed her eyes
against the sunlight.
He cried on his way back through the trees –
‘Spider webs in my eyes.’
The boy is watching the henhouse –
breath, making mist, trails
through the railings of the gate.

Mangiare alfresco
He’s a featherbrain,
a feather duster. He’s been caught
feathering his own nest.
He’s a rooster stalking up
and down the chicken run.
Shut-in bird bedraggled by rain.
He’s stalking up and down
the fence. Black and white.
Not soft. Wet. Stringy.
Water bonds feathers to bone.
At the corner of the yard, he turns,
tail feathers, like bridal trains
behind him, duck and follow.
A parson’s nose. He’s a parson’s
nose in a baking dish
bubbling in his juices.
Crisp. Brown. Salty on the serving
dish. On the counter.
The parson’s nose. First to go.
Next, drumstick.
His huge legs stalking featherbed.
Feet, up and down in the mud, march.
Disappear. Appear. Turn.
His voice an angry buck, buck. No crow.
No breeze. Christmas kitchen dish.
The roast, the hot, hungry
trace of basting Buff Orpington.
He stalks, walks like a Sergeant Major,
round and round the chopping block,
around the axe.

On Finding White Feathers
In the corner of the shed,
my favourite: a small, white Silky hen -
found in a nest of wings and straw -
quite dead.
She was a good breeder.
I relied on her
to increase the flock,
now she’s decreased it - by one.
She’s the fourth this week.
I’ve lost an English Game Cock,
a Bantam and a Plymouth Rock
crossed with something else.
Some days there is a body,
sometimes none.
A hole under the fence
of the chicken yard
can mean one more in my garden,
I am making compost with feathers.
I’ve closed their door for the night,
a log, new-felled, pressed firmly against it.
I stack rocks around the wire
jamming my hand between them,
lose skin, bleed.
Loss pierces my swelling thumb –
it is sharp as the swift yellow beak
of a small, white hen hoarding eggs.

The Thursday Fox
for Bobbie Cullen
The rubbish truck’s late again. It’s Thursday.
A fox has breakfasted on the hens. Eggs
and laying pellets combined, a kind of
hybrid omelette on the floor of the coop.
And the garbage bags, Glad, on the road verge
are full of headless chickens, and I hate
the way the fence collects loose feathers, hate
hens for losing their heads on a Thursday.
Midday, and I wash dishes on the verge
of tears. Outside: cat, striped yolk-yellow egg-
white, with magpie carnivals from tree. Coop’s
so empty. Their shadows blend, a kind of
melting: the bird, the cat, the wire, and of
steam, dishwater, window rivulets. Hate
the way soapsuds dry my skin, my flesh cooped
up, this body-house. Rubbish, next Thursday,
will be dull compared to this – fertile eggs
and guillotined bodies wait on the verge,
and will I know what’s missing next Thursday?
Will I wake, alone, sense the absence of
rooster crow, my body between sheets – eggs
absent from pantry, and summon up hate
for fox? Whose hands held the axe on the verge?
Not mine, they’re dry, no evidence. The coop?
Lock up? Convert to vegetable patch? Coop
with cucumber, marigolds on the verge,
pumpkins like perfect golden suns. Thursday-
time: a battery-driven clock which speaks of
bed-making rituals, detergent, fox-hate
congealed on towels. No slow breakfast, no eggs
for cakes or child-delight. No scrambled eggs
on toast, no Sunday brunch, no walks to coop
with scraps – no clustering, dumb birds. I hate
the way soap-suds dry my skin - but verges
and cats crouch over their slack bundles of
feathers. It’s a white, black and white, Thursday.
No hens hoarding eggs. Silence verges on
the grasstrees, vacant coop. The silence of
the graveyard now, after the Thursday fox.

A Letter to my Chooks
Please don’t poop on the doormat.
When you wake at 4am –
and the moon floats
on a luminous cloud –
please don’t practise the lyrics
of your favourite songs.
My aspidistra was placed outside
for sunshine – not for you.
Your menu consists of laying pellets,
kitchen scraps and wheat.
The seat, my seat, situated outside
the front door, catches the first
of the morning’s rays. I enjoy
coffee and newspaper in that chair.
Please inform the rooster, the cocky one
with the crooked spur, not to perch there –
evidence is difficult to discover in the dark.
Yours faithfully seems a token gesture
when my fine new boots, and Levi’s , are wet
and pegged on the clothes line
in the moonlight.
I’ll mail this letter in the morning –
nail it, in fact – with recipes for à la King
and cacciatore, to the handle of the blunted,
rusted axe leaning against the woodshed door.