The link below is to an article that considers the poetic legacy of W. S. Merwin.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that considers the poetic legacy of W. S. Merwin.
For more visit:
Poetry has played an important role in the history of Wales. From the medieval courts, to the ongoing National Eisteddfod (the largest music and poetry festival in Europe), writers have used verse to document the land’s culture. But while male writers, such as the 12th century poets of the princes and more recently Dylan Thomas, have presented one perspective of Welsh history and culture, female poets have documented a very different take on Wales through the centuries. Here are four who bring a different perspective.
Gwerful Mechain is one of the few Welsh medieval poets from whom a substantial body of work has survived to this day. One of the loudest voices speaking up for women of the time, Mechain was also one of the first poets in Wales to write about domestic abuse. To Her Husband for Beating Her is a poignant and powerful poem full of enraged language and energetic imagery.
Born into a noble family, Mechain was free to explore her own poetic interests without the pressure of securing patronage, unlike many of her male contemporaries. She became a prolific writer who was not restricted to one style. Her work includes religious, humorous and socially conscious poetry. One of her most well-known works, To the Vagina, chastises her male counterparts for praising a woman’s body from her hair to her feet but ignoring one hidden feature. She was bold and did not shy away from what some may consider crude imagery, as in her poem, To the Maid as she Shits.
Pob rhyw brydydd, dydd dioed,
Mul frwysg, wladiadd rwysg erioed,
Noethi moliant, nis gwarantwyf,
Anfeidrol reiol, yr wyf
Every poet, drunken fool,
Thinks he is just the king of cool,
(Everyone is such a boor,
He makes me so sick, I’m so demure)
Born in London, Katherine Philips – who later wrote under the moniker “The Matchless Orinda” – moved to Wales when she was around 15 years old. From her home in Cardigan she became a significant female British poet, as well as the first woman to have a commercial play staged, Pompey.
Despite the stigma against women publishing their work, Philips succeeded by circulating handwritten letters and volumes, as her male contemporaries did, while upholding supposedly feminine virtues such as humility and chastity in her works.
Though she was married with two sons, much discussion around Philips’ poetry and life concentrates on whether she was or was not a lesbian. The emotional focus of her poetry was often on women and the passionate relationships she had with them. Regardless of Philips’ own sexual orientation, her work was the first British poetry to express same-sex love between women.
Sarah Jane Rees (also known by the bardic name Cranogwen) is perhaps one of the most pioneering poets in this list. Born in Llangrannog, west Wales, she spurned all attempts to enforce gender stereotypes – her family wanted her to work as a dressmaker – and instead joined her father on board his ship for two years after leaving school. She continued her education, eventually gaining her master mariner certificate. Returning home by the age of 21, Cranogwen fought against opposition to run her old school, and taught children as well as providing navigation and seamanship education to young men.
In 1865 she entered the Eisteddfod festival as Cranogwen with
Y Fodrwy Briodasal (The Wedding Ring), a satirical poem about a married woman’s destiny. When she was announced as the first woman to win the prize, there was disgust from the established and renowned male writers who had been competing. Cranogwen became famous overnight and a collection of her poems was released in 1870.
The following lines are taken from My Friend:
Ah! Annwyl chwaer, ‘r wyt ti i mi,
Fel lloer I’r lli, yn gyson;
Dy ddilyn heb orphwyso wna
Serchiadau pura’m calon
Oh! My dear sister, you to me
As the moon to the sea, constantly,
Following you restlessly are
My heart’s pure affections
Lynette Roberts was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina to parents of Welsh origin. A friend of Dylan Thomas, during World War II Roberts moved to Carmarthenshire with her then husband, journalist and poet Keidrych Rhys, and stayed in Wales for the rest of her life.
Although now her work is seeing a resurgence, for a long time Roberts has been overlooked. She was a poet ahead of her time and her use of language is refreshing. Roberts was influenced by the rich colours and landscape of her childhood, which she entwined with the rural landscape and culture of Wales during a time of upheaval – World War II.
Roberts’s poem Swansea Raid is perhaps one of her most powerful and insightful works. It depicts a snapshot of a relationship between herself and fellow villager Rosie and the tension between war and home. The changing technological world of war brought out warm, colourful language in her work, setting the colloquialisms of quiet, rural Wales against the starkness of bombing and constant threat of loss. Her most influential work has to be the heroic poem Gods with Stainless Ears, on the war’s disruption of domestic life.
This verse is from Roberts’ 1944 Poem from Llanybri:
Then I’ll do the lights, fill the lamp with oil,
Get coal from the shed, water from the well;
Pluck and draw pigeon, with crop of green foil
This your good supper from the lime-tree fell.
It’s a little more than a year since the death of Keorapetse Kgositsile, South Africa’s first post-apartheid poet laureate. Kgositsile, born in Johannesburg in 1938, became a prominent and vocal activist for the African National Congress (ANC). In 1961, at the behest of the ANC, he went into exile, initially to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and subsequently to the US where he became involved in the Black Arts Movement.
In 1990 he returned to South Africa and in 2006 was appointed Poet Laureate. In the many volumes published during his exile and after his return, Kgositsile repeatedly and fearlessly addressed the crimes both of apartheid and of global racism, advocating a revolutionary politics of resistance.
Kgositsile’s death in January 2018 was mourned across South Africa and indeed across the globe.
In a moving tribute in the introduction to Kgositsile’s final volume Homesoil in My Blood the poet, novelist and activist, renowned South African writer Mandla Langa draws attention to Kgositsile’s poetic skill and to his unwavering conviction,
“that art to mean anything must be involved in social activism.”
In a short aside Langa notes Kgositsile’s fertile association with prominent activists and writers across the globe like Pablo Neruda from Chile, and Cubans Nicolás Guillén and Nancy Morejón. The brief mention of Morejón belies the importance of the relationship between two activist poets, one which has rarely been addressed.
A consideration of Morejón’s engagement with Kgositsile as a fellow poet – and her visit to South Africa – shed new light on her poetic practice. It allows too, a reaffirmation of Kgositsile’s uniquely South African voice and to highlight the reach and impact of his transnational status.
Morejón, born in 1944, is, with Guillén, among Cuba’s most important revolutionary writers: internationally renowned for her work as a poet, critic and essayist, she has been widely translated. In 2001, Morejón was awarded Cuba’s National Prize in literature. Issues of race and gender are central to her oeuvre. Through her poetry she acknowledges the centrality and complexity of her Afro-Cuban identity from both pan-Caribbean and pan-African perspectives.
Morejón addresses the origins of her relationship with Kgositsile in a telling anecdote in her essay, “Viaje a Suráfrica” (Voyage to South Africa). In 1987 she attended the International Conference of Writers held in Congo, together with the Cuban poet and translator of African poetry, Rogelio Martínez Furé. She wrote:
We went to drink coffee with one of the writers who had intervened very boldly. He was a small, petite man, with broad and thick lips, with a physical fragility that contrasted with the strength of his word and his overwhelming sympathy.
Furé … decided to ply this new friend with questions. The last question was filled with anguish since we both expected a tragic response: ‘Do you know the whereabouts of the poet Keorapetse Kgositsile from Johannesburg? The only thing we know is that he is one of the poets who has been the longest time in exile and we have not heard from him for so long … Many fear for his life…’
With a smile full of mischief, our interlocutor, impassively, replied: ‘Keorapetse Kgositsile… that is me.’ At that moment my personal history with South Africa was born.
(Translation: Cynthia Gabbay)
The anecdote conveys Kgositsile’s frequently noted playfulness and the affection he commanded. It equally suggests the high regard in which he was held amongst the global community of writer–activists.
The importance of Africa, and of South Africa in particular, as a focus of Morejón’s poetics of resistance, and the extent of her identification with the struggle is evident in her 1989 volume, Baladas para un sueño (Ballads for a dream). In the poem “Silent Lullaby for South African Children” , Morejón addresses the iniquities of South Africa’s pass laws:
Mommy had no pass
and there was no bread.
Daddy had no pass
and he was punished.
Mommy had no pass
and there was no bread.
Daddy had no pass
and he died, slaughtered.
Mommy had no pass
and there was no bread.
(Translation: Cynthia Gabbay and Karin Berkman)
The poem makes clear the impossibility of any peaceful sleep for the child who voices the lament. Its evocation of the simple vocabulary of a child and its spare, plaintive refrains serve to accentuate its concern with the poverty and violence that are the legacies of apartheid.
In June 1992, in the dying throes of the apartheid regime, Morejón was invited to deliver the keynote address at the annual conference of the Congress of South African Writers. After the conference she travelled across South Africa, giving workshops and lectures. She was accompanied throughout by Kgositsile, whom she terms her “cicerone” (guide).
In her essay on this journey, Morejón expresses her wonder at the beauty of the South African landscape, and her pleasure at the fraternity she develops with the poet and with her new South African friends. At the same time, her confrontation with the terrifying realities of apartheid induce in her a profound, almost unbearable sense of estrangement. With Kgositsile as her guide, she visited Crossroads, the shantytown near Cape Town.
She describes an intense loss of bearings, a “sensation of living in Hitler’s dream”: the public toilets at the edge of the camp are indefinable, part sarcophagi, part public amenities. The location loses its specificity, at once a dumping ground and a cemetery, the evidence of apartheid as “a diabolical aberration”.
Morejón closes her essay with a tribute to the people she encounters:
South Africa pulses in my memory for the same story that runs through my own veins, for its art and literature, for the friends of the Congress of South African Writers, for the travelling musicians, the muleteers, the stevedores, the sangomas, the maids who told me their griefs experienced under apartheid, their hopes of making it disappear even after its theoretical death.
(Translation: Cynthia Gabbay)
Cynthia Gabbay, Alexander von Humboldt Fellow and former Research Associate at ERC Project “Apartheid Stops” (at Hebrew University), Freie Universität Berlin and Karin Berkman, Post-doctoral researcher, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
The link below is to an article that reports on the TS Eliot prize winner, Hannah Sullivan.
In 1996, a graduate student named Mark Robson was creating a digital catalog of the University of Leeds’ Brotherton Library when he discovered a small manuscript on the shelf. The elegantly titled “Poems Breathed Forth by the Noble Hadassas” contained 120 poems and a half-finished prose romance.
As far as Robson could tell, the manuscript hadn’t been read in over 250 years. He hadn’t heard of the “Noble Hadassas” – nor had anyone he asked.
But a riddle scribbled in the manuscript offered a hint about her true name: “Marvel not my name’s concealed / In being hid it is revealed.”
In the Biblical story of Esther, “Hadassah” is Esther’s Jewish name. In early modern England, “Hester” and “Esther” were versions of the same name. They’re also anagrams. That allusion to “Esther” – in addition to a couple of references to an estate named Broadfield – gave scholars just enough evidence to search public records for possible authors.
The mystery manuscript turned out to be a collection of poems by a 17th-century English woman named Hester Pulter.
At first glance, the verses of a self-taught, unpublished poet might not seem remarkable. But Pulter was writing in an era of chaos and change in England. She was eager to explore some of the most exciting scientific ideas of the time. And in a time when women were expected to be silent and chaste, she took risks in her poetry and confidently expressed her ideas.
Now, a collaboration between literary scholars across the globe is bringing Hester Pulter’s poems to the public, in the form of an open-access digital edition called The Pulter Project, which launched on Nov. 15, 2018.
Pulter was born into the aristocratic Ley family in 1605 and married Arthur Pulter when she was relatively young. After marrying, she spent much of her life at the isolated Pulter estate, which was over a day’s journey from London. She wrote most of her poems at home and would occasionally travel to London to visit other family members.
Since Pulter mainly kept to herself and rarely left her home, most of what we know about Hester comes from public records. She gave birth to 15 children, only two of which survived to adulthood, and lived through the English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1651.
Literary scholar Alice Eardley, who produced the first scholarly edition of Pulter’s works in 2014, has suggested that Pulter’s relative isolation inoculated her from pressure by readers or literary society to conform to a certain style or subject matter. It gave her the freedom to write innovative, opinionated, emotionally complex poetry.
Pulter’s poems, which range from the political to the autobiographical, appear to have been written throughout the 1640s and 1650s. In the 1660s, Hester worked with a scribe to create a presentation copy of her draft poems, making notes and annotations on the manuscript.
It’s likely she never intended to publish her poems, however. In 17th-century England, women who published risked being seen as vulgar and sexually suspect. In order to avoid slander, the few women who did publish usually wrote about topics more aligned with proper womanly values: household guides, devotional books and diaries or memoirs of their husbands.
An aristocratic woman like Hester would have been expected to behave modestly, keep quiet and focus on her household rather than write about political conflicts and scientific experimentation. Pulter’s small family may have read her work, but it seems that her poems sat untouched after her death until they were rediscovered in 1996.
Although Pulter lived a relatively isolated existence, her poems reveal a deep intellectual engagement with the most pressing issues and ideas of the mid-1600s. From the references she makes in her work, it’s clear that she had read works of natural history, alchemy and descriptions of America like William Wood’s “New England’s Prospect.”
She also appears to have kept up with major scientific discoveries, including Galilean astronomy and the microscope. In “Universal Dissolution,” she acknowledges Galileo’s discoveries, describing the sun as the “front and center of all light,” the star around which all other “orbs perpetually do run.”
Pulter was also a keen observer of nature. In “The Pismire,” she describes watching an ant colony at work for an afternoon. “View But This Tulip” shows off her familiarity with alchemy and early experimental practices, and in it she begins to think about the human body as composed of recyclable atoms. These poems place her within a culture of experimental observation that was part of the rise of modern science.
And she certainly didn’t shy away from expressing her political views.
Hester’s parents were Royalists – supporters of Charles I – and she remained a Royalist even when many of her extended family and neighbors supported Parliament instead. Many of her poems express grief at the havoc the civil war caused in England, and mourn a breakdown of religious and social hierarchy.
In “On that Unparalleled Prince Charles, His Horrid Murder,” she compares a country without a king to the universe without a sun, both of which fall into chaos.
But her political poems avoid outright tribalism. Instead, they’re nuanced and well-informed, and they critique the ruling class for their role in social collapse.
Pulter is equally comfortable writing about personal experiences like her illnesses or a child’s death. She surveys the effects of time on her body in “Made When I Was Sick, 1647,” and in “Upon the Death of My Dear and Lovely Daughter, Jane Pulter,” deals with the grief of losing yet another child. It’s tinged with envy of parents with healthy children:
All you that have indulgent parents been, And have your children in perfection seen Of youth and beauty: lend one tear to me, And trust me, I will do as much for thee, Unless my own grief do exhaust my store; Then will I sigh till I suspire no more.
She also expresses early feminist ideas, and addresses, in complex ways, how society constricts women’s behavior, devalues their work and diminishes their intellectual value.
From “Why Must I Thus Forever Be Confined?”:
Why must I thus forever be confined Against the noble freedom of my mind? Whenas each hoary moth, and gaudy fly Within their spheres enjoy their liberty.
Hester Pulter is clearly worth knowing. Her works speak to the major issues of 17th-century England and provide a rare lens on English culture.
In an effort to bring Pulter’s poems to the public, early modern literature professors Wendy Wall and Leah Knight created The Pulter Project. They collaborated with a host of other scholars from the U.S., Canada, Australia and England to create a free, digital edition of Pulter’s works.
The Pulter Project allows readers to toggle between scans of the manuscript, basic and annotated editions of poems, and explanatory notes. Readers can also explore “curations” for each poem, which are images and selections from texts relevant to the content of a given Pulter poem.
Editors draw on their expertise of 17th-century English culture to contextualize the poems and also make connections to modern culture. The curated materials for “Made When I Was Not Well,” for example, discuss “invisible woman syndrome,” the social phenomenon of women disappearing from public view when they reach middle age, or are ridiculed and criticized for attracting public attention.
Curations for “My Love is Fair” explore racialized beauty standards, topics just as relevant for 17th-century readers as they are for today’s intersectional feminists.
The Pulter Project shows what’s possible when the literary canon is expanded to include new writers and more women. Poets like Hester Pulter change our understanding about who could – and did – participate in the scientific, political and intellectual debates of centuries ago.
The links below are to articles reporting on the 2018 Women’s Poets’ Prize, including the shortlist and winners of it.
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For many people, most of what they know about the futility, sacrifice and tragedy of World War I, they learned through reading the poetry of Wilfred Owen. But what they may not be aware of is how close the Armistice was when Owen was killed at the age of 25.
On November 4 1918, the 2nd Manchester Regiment received orders to cross the Sambre and Oise Canal near the village of Ors to capture German positions at the opposite side. But as the troops attempted to build a pontoon bridge, they came under heavy machine gun fire. Against the odds, they forced a crossing and routed the enemy, but in so doing they suffered more than 200 casualties.
The attack was one of multiple attempts made up and down the canal to push back the Germans, all with similar consequences. But what made the crossing at Ors different however was the death of its most celebrated officer – Lieutenant Wilfred Owen – who was hit while helping the men who were building the bridge.
The tragedy of Owen’s end, just seven days before the guns fell silent, stands out in the cultural memory ahead of the thousands of men who died – or were yet to die – during the final moments of World War I. As a poet, Owen understood the irony of heroism very well. He resisted giving concrete identities to the soldiers who populate his poems to stop their experiences from becoming mere anecdotes. One man’s suffering is not more tragic than that of another.
In a provisional preface, written for a collection of his verse he would never see published, he set down his belief in what poetry could do – or could not do – to appropriately remember the atrocity of war:
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn.
The sentiment here echoes a shift in war poetry, away from the jingoistic tenor of Rupert Brooke’s sonnets from 1914 about “some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England” and the men that gave their life for “immortality” to Siegfried Sassoon’s defiant denunciations of the evils of war.
The “big” words “War” and “Poetry” were ultimately not important for Owen – the more humane invocation of “pity” was poignantly written in lowercase. What the country needed, what the world needed, was empathy and regret, not hero worship – there was nothing glorious in being dead. But the time for this was not now. He disbelieved whether his own generation would ever be able to deal truthfully with the trauma. He was probably correct.
Owen had aspired to become a poet since boyhood. His early lyric verse written before the war showed promise, but it didn’t set him apart. The effects of war, and of his reading Sassoon, would change all that. Traditional lyricism gave way to starker rhythms, direct imagery and extensive use of assonance and half rhyme, which at once created sonic cohesion within a broken, phantasmagoric world. The protagonists in Owen’s poems are often no more than a spectre of themselves, mere voices who have lost all sense of their surroundings –- “unremembering” souls “[o]n dithering feet” who have “cease[d] feeling | Even themselves or for themselves”.
These poetic phantoms, spectres, ghosts were not shaped by the fighting alone; more than the trenches, it was Owen’s experiences at the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers, near Edinburgh, that coloured his vision. The four months spent there convalescing from shell shock would prove highly significant. Not only did he meet Sassoon there, who encouraged his poetic sensibilities, it was conducive to his creativity.
As part of their treatment, patients were subjected to ergotherapy, a behavioural therapy developed by Dr Arthur Brock, who believed that through useful work and activity patients would regain healthy links with the world around them. Owen was put in charge of The Hydra, the hospital’s literary magazine, and encouraged to write poetry. But his surroundings also furnished Owen with something more valuable: a space to process the suffering he had seen and was seeing around him. This emotion, recollected in tranquillity, is crystallised in the subject matter of some of his best known poems – characterised by an evocation of the sick, the wounded and the dying.
His manuscripts reflect that state of mind. Composition for Owen was neither frenzied nor easy, but rather it involved a steady process of probing words and phrases from which he manufactured the emotional intensity in his poetry. Differences in pen and ink show how Owen revisited his drafts and touched them up at different moments in time, at Craiglockhart and also afterwards when awaiting medical clearance at Scarborough Barracks.
In May 1918, C K Scott-Moncrief, who had tried and failed to secure Owen a Home posting as cadet instructor, told the young poet he ought to send his work to the publisher Heinemann. Owen was enthused by the encouragement. He drafted his Preface and hastily drew up a table of contents.
But it is likely that getting his work in order led to more writing and rewriting. Two poems, Hospital Barge and Futility (one revised, the other new), appeared in The Nation a month later – in August he received his embarkation orders to return to France. On September 17, at 7.35am, he boarded a military train to Folkestone from where he crossed the English Channel. With the exception of just five poems published in magazines, he never prepared any of his poems for the press, leaving the bulk of his work in various stages of completion.
In 1920, his friend Sassoon published a slim volume from the surviving manuscripts with Chatto & Windus, soon followed by a reprint in 1921, which indicates reasonable sales. (A more complete edition appeared in 1931.) The critical response, however, was mixed. Writing in The Athenaeum, John Middleton Murray praised Owen for achieving “the most magnificent expression of the emotional significance of the War”.
The hidebound Basil de Selincourt, on the other hand, dismissed Owen’s “soothing bitterness” in the Times Literary Supplement. He countered that “[t]he only glory imperishably associated with war is that of the supreme sacrifice which it entails; the trumpets and the banners are poor humanity’s imperfect tribute to that sublime implication”.
Owen’s posthumous reputation, however, owes much to the way that first volume introduced his work to the public. “All that was strongest in Wilfred Owen survives in his poems”, Sassoon wrote in his introduction. Unwittingly, perhaps, that phrase – and the frontispiece of Owen in his regimental uniform – entailed an act of monumentalisation that went against Owen’s preface that his book was “not about heroes”.
Owen’s legacy is inscribed into a culture of remembrance (that persists to this day) which seems to go against his own views. By 1920 the nation was in the grip of commemoration as it began the erection of monuments to the war dead all across the country – and the language adopted was the language of glory, honour, dominion and power which Owen had found repugnant:
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Book Review: An Open Book, by David Malouf (UQP)
A new book of poetry is offered to a world of readers where very few of us have or take the time to read poetry. Most of us are skeptical about it, suspicious of it for asking of us so much of our time and attention, and possibly giving us little back but puzzles.
Nevertheless I open the book. The first word of the book is “Parting”, printed twice: once as the title of the book’s first poem and again as that poem’s opening word. Parting, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean an ending, for it is essentially what every new life requires.
“All things new/move us”, David Malouf observes part way through this opening poem (playing again on a word that carries several layers of conflicted meaning), uniting reader and poet in a common understanding of partings as beginnings. This is a clever, wise and benign manner of reminding the reader that they have left something in order to arrive here where this very act of holding an open book becomes an aspect of the rhythms of a wider cosmos.
The stance of the poem is characteristic of Malouf, with its poised consciousness of a speaking self on display through reference to the poem’s presence on the page and the poem’s witness to the act of writing. In a Malouf book it is rare to find the direct personal pronoun, “I”, but there is always somewhere the presence of a writer, a voice, a reflection of someone present at the occasion of the poem.
This reticence about saying “I” might be coyness, it might be a natural shyness, it might be to do with a conviction, along with T.S. Eliot and many before him, that the poetry in a poem is rarely best served by making the poem personal. Or it might be the realization that so much more is possible by way of allusion, insinuation, investigation and imagination if one comes at the truth in a poem slant — as Emily Dickinson demonstrated so well.
The neat couplets of this first poem move confidently through free verse lines constructed sometimes on the swing of the phrasing, sometimes on the drama of the imagery, or on a turning thought. Gentle rhyming and near-rhyming run through the poem (e.g. distinction-perfection, moon-room, lost in-begin), along with repetitions of certain words when the rhetoric lifts a little towards what might be an utterance meant to be heard across the room.
This quiet neatness of execution too is characteristic of Malouf’s poetry, and perhaps increasingly so recently. Even a more ragged poem in this collection, such as Aubade.com, reminiscent of From the Book of Whispers in Malouf’s Typewriter Music, comes to the page with a coherent grace, wit and rhythm. The impression of control — of never putting a foot wrong — might have to do with Malouf’s superb feel for bringing a poem to its point, often through a sensual gesture.
I read on. The fourteen poems following, titled Kinderszenen — scenes from childhood — are named after Robert Schumann’s 1838 melodies, which he called “small droll things” composed in response to his wife observing that he could be like a child. These poems are brief and mostly playful reflections on childhood, on imagery in language, and on the possible stances of poetry towards a wider world where poetry can, perhaps, hear what is not yet here —
From a clear sky
the whine, beyond human ears,
of a long-distance missile. History. (from Eavesdropping)
From this series, Dancing with a Giant is as much about reading with a child’s engaged imagination as it is about being a child in a grown-up world — a world where, in a game of “gleeful terror”, each child will soon enough find themselves “Already/in up to the neck.”
It might be that in a Maloufian world every object and phenomenon of nature takes on a human face just as in ancient Greece the Gods were as human in their impulses, rages and jealousies as any of us are; or it might be that in the Maloufian world we manage to share with nature its relentless, rhythmical inhuman moods. Whichever way one turns these poems to the light, there is in them a sense of connection between all things (a poetry that can “span a Beurre Bosch pear/in a fruit bowl to the planet”), and that is perhaps the great lesson poetry offers to our fragmented and catastrophically destructive contemporary world.
Still with this series, Fifth Column shares a sensibility with Sylvia Plath’s famous Mushrooms, though in this case it is time not the cloned mushroom that arrives as a sly invader sending its agents out. The poem begins with a childhood wartime memory (Malouf was five or six when the second world war began) and quickly dances through decades of change, then back like Plath’s poem to the ironic solidity of domestic details.
Less political than Plath’s poem, Malouf’s (like hers) is buoyant and hopeful:
… Time, that sly
invader who sent his agents
out, who looked
like us and talked like us,
through all the rooms of
the house to change the coins
in our pockets, the oaths we sealed
with spit or blood, the weights,
the measures. On kitchen shelves,
and tables, set for lunch
and dinner, the plain thick serviceable
crockery for china.
Where Plath’s poem breathes foreboding and prophecy, Malouf’s is one that opens awareness to an ongoing unheeded upheaval within everything. He notes that what we have recourse to when we yearn for permanency is whatever seems “serviceable”. Here too, there is a place for the poem, particularly those that are at least on first appearances serviceable — or as Wallace Stevens put it, are at least “what will suffice”. I think that this is the kind of poem Malouf is trying to find himself writing as he goes.
Malouf’s poetry is not quite an open book, for “books/like houses have their secrets”, as he notes in a poem that responds to his mother’s claim that she could read him “like a book”. This poem is one his rare first-person poems, though it slips into the third person before the ending. Fittingly enough it is focused upon his attempt not to be simply the “open book in his mother’s lap” but rather to be one who is far enough apart to see and dream and wait for the plot to thicken.
Another first-person poem much later in the book seems to me to bring into itself most of the themes and images and preoccupations of the entire collection. And on top of that it is a charming, spellbinding poem, one that deserves to be anthologized well into the future. Incident on Myrtle Street brings scents, scariness, night, death’s angel, domestic attention to detail, and self-consciousness over the act of writing all together in a narrative that is not only charming but hauntingly told. I will leave you to purchase the book, or browse it in a shop, and go straight to it (it’s on page 56).
I can’t leave the book without noting that the words “presence” and “present” recur across the poems. One is even titled In the Presence. Among these poems of presence, The New Loaf is one that fills its moment with a presence that includes somehow all of human history and all the knowledge we might need to be kin, while offering us a loaf of bread in such light that Vermeer might be considering painting it. It’s another poem worth the price of the book, and that’s a bargain really — two poems in one book that make the purchase worthwhile, and promise an abundant return in pleasure for your time spent reading in that strange art of poetry.
If poetry served Malouf as an apprenticeship on his way to becoming a novelist, then this late return to poetry in three recent collections seems to bring him back in a new way to steadying poems that do justice to the open gaze, the sly wit, the swift imagination and the poise he has in spades.
This might be a quiet kind of poetry with little bitter irony, little engagement with the world of technology and social media, few linguistic pyrotechnics, and no confessional stripping of the self, but it is something special to have read it and found in it much that is genuine, graceful, true, surprising and delightful.
I read the poems through for the second time (I confess to reading the book three times now) at a table in a café with a group of deaf children and women beside me. They were surprisingly noisy, tapping the table, slapping parts of their bodies in exclamation, letting out brief bursts of involuntary laughter, and moving around, leaning into each other, touching each other, lifting an eyebrow at each other or sticking out a chin.
I was distracted by them and convinced by them all over again that we are creatures of deep abilities when we want to communicate with each other. I love poetry that moves towards the kinds of inchoate communications words and text can’t usually manage. Malouf’s poetry has this quality, if a reader can sit with it for a little while.
The link below is to an article that looks at the winner of the 2018 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, Jorie Graham.
As readers and followers of this Blog will know, I have been an avid reader of the Patrick O’Brian novels in the Aubrey/Maturin series. So when I came across this article concerning the unknown poetry of Patrick O’Brian it caught my attention. Next year, probably in March 2019, this collection of Patrick O’Brian poetry will be published as ‘The Uncertain Land and Other Poems.’