Attention Conservation Notice: Thoughts on 21 more poems I read as part of the Just Read readathon in June, including poems by JS Harry, joanne burns, Lisa Bellear, Dylan Thomas, David Brooks, Jeannine Hall-Gailey, AD Hope and Adrienne Rich. Also some recriminations about not having read as many poems as I promised to. (1817 words)
I have shame.
In hindsight I think starting this whole 2 poems a day readathon during a week of leave from my full-time job set up some false expectations about the time and energy I’d have to commit to this endeavour. Short version: I have not read anywhere near two poems a day on any week since the first week of June. Nor have I actually had the time or energy to blog about what I have read. Hence: shame.
In any case I haven’t given up. I haven’t yielded to the temptation to fake my way through this either (“Oh yes! I read two poems from Blake’s collected every night in June over scones and Darjeeling. The imagery! The passion!”). So in the interest of keeping things honest here’s a look at what I’ve managed to read in June, plus a commitment to pick up my game in July and see how close I can come to reading… Let’s see… (2 x 30) + (2 x 31) … One hundred and twenty-two poems (holy shit) by July 31.
Anyway, if you want to help raise funds for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation by contributing to my readathon fund, you can do so by heading over to my Everyday Hero page. As of today I’ve raised just over $130 toward my goal of $500, so thanks to everyone who’s donated so far – you know who you are.
And now, the poems!
Tuesday 9th June – “West of Al Shualla” by JS Harry & “Light, I Know, Treads the Million Stars” by Dylan Thomas
“West of Al Shualla” is one of Harry’s Peter Lepus poems, featuring her recurring rabbit protagonist and, this time, his huntsman spider buddy Clifta. I’ve only just discovered Harry, thanks to Ivor Indyk’s obituary in the Sydney Review of Books, but after enjoying the unusual recurring devices of Jennifer Maiden, I’m looking forward to reading more of Peter’s adventures. In this poem he’s in Iraq, riding camelback with two humans (and Clifta hidden under the saddle) while contemplating discretion in the face of powerful enemies.
“Light, I Know” is a dark little sucker about fear of the dark/fear of death with a compelling rhyme scheme that I couldn’t quite work out – it seems orderly enough until You look closer to see that there are some rogue rhymes scattered through the regular couplets. There’s also a dramatically shorter line about halfway through that twists the idea of prayer into something very cruel:
…some attentive God
Who on his cloud hears all my wishes
Hears and refuses.
Thursday 11th June – “21 Love Poems” by Adrienne Rich
I’m not going to cheat and count this as 21 poems, even though it’d be easy to do that, (in point of fact it’s 22 poems – there’s an intensely hot and sexy unnumbered “floating poem” here as a bonus) but I am claiming it as two, based on length.
“21 Love Poems” is a raw emotional roller coaster about the start and end of a love affair between rich and another woman. Whether it’s based on her own life and a real relationship or not, it totally feels like it does, ranging from sections that made me wince with their too-candid honesty and others that made me nod and smile and sigh in wistful recognition. At times rich is highly literal and mundane, at other times incredibly metaphorical and abstract. I was genuinely saddened and perplexed by the end of the relationship rich writes about here, not wanting it to end, but brought close enough by the poem itself to trust her decision to end it.
I’m not one for turbulent, dramatic doomed-relationship poems, but the way Rich does it, the way it flows, the details she picks out to emphasise, created enough empathy and interest to inspire me to put my prejudices aside and properly enter this suite. I’m so glad I did.
Friday 12th June – “To No-One: And Mary Did Time” by Lisa Bellear
“To No-One” is just straight-up heartbreaking. The plaintive cries of a woman who still isn’t sure whether the death of her daughter was her own fault. Powerful, powerful stuff.
Saturday 13th June – “Suburban Sonnet”, “Prize-Giving”, “Early Light” & “Space Poem” by Gwen Harwood
“Suburban Sonnet” is a deft portrait of life at home during the day for a housewife and mother who once had a larger exterior life, now reduced to scrabbling for time to play piano in among the myriad duties expected of her: child-rearing, cleaning, cooking… There’s a lot of clever in this poem, and the idea that I have that Harwood actually wrote this under similar circumstances to those described in the poem offers hope that there can be artistic life after, beyond and amid the domestic duties that demand so much of our time and energy.
“Prize-Giving” and “Early Light” are taken from her “Professor Eisenbart” series of poems about the titular professor and nuclear physicist. They both depict the eponymous professor and delight in poking fun at his flaws (arrogance, self-deception, vanity, lecherousness, sexism…). “Prize-Giving” has the prof jerked out of complacency at a high-school awards night by the precocity and intelligence of a particular red-haired student’s come-hither piano recitation. Saucy stuff.
“Early Light” is equally saucy, depicting someone (presumably the prof) waking up in bed next to a lover (possibly the redhead?). Bonus points for introducing me to the word “ithyphallic”. Hee hee.
“Space Poem” is a kooky little science-fiction rhymer written under one of Harwood’s many pseudonyms, Timothy (TF) Kline, a 19yo beat poet from Hobart (!). She was a cack, was Gwen. This is a cool poem, all rockets and lasers and aliens with a proper Twilight Zone twist to it.
Sunday 14th June – “The Death Of the Bird” by AD Hope & “Australian Heroes” by Michael Sharkey
“Death of the Bird” is a bleak and maudlin formal exercise that, while technically majestic, left me wondering what its point was. I mean, it’s a good poem about death and futility, but it feels somehow cold and mechanical. Hope evokes a documentary feel in this poem about a migratory bird, with its clarity and strong imagery, but while this is undeniably a powerful poem, it all felt a little too clinical to evoke much emotion. But don’t take my word for it – the RN Book Show did a close reading of the poem, which features a gushing endorsement from Clive James, which you can listen to here.
“Australian Heroes” is a rollicking paean to Australian drinking culture and the morning after, weaving idiom traditional and modern around a sadly universal experience in a light and at times piss-funny way. I was lucky enough to get the chance to perform this poem recently, and if you get a chance to read this one out loud, to a friend or even just yourself, I highly recommend doing so.
23rd June – “kindling” & “several floppy discs”
Both of these are taken from the “written while watching TV” sequence in burns’s 1992 On a Clear Day collection. They’re both funny and cynical prose poems, the former taking the piss out of the inanity of commercialism masked as forced glee and intimacy as a woman on a gardening show tries to convince us we really need a plastic terracotta pot and a new garden gnome.
“several floppy discs” is a caricature of an arrogant TV investigative journalist contemplating what kind of posthumous memorial would celebrate him most appropriately. It’s a nice satire of the vapid, egotistical media personality written over 20 years ago that makes me curious to know if burns has written anything more recently about reality TV.
24th June – “Head Lice”, “Ars Poetica” & “The Death of Poetry, Again” by David Brooks
Three from Brooke’s Urban Elegies. “Head Lice” is a sweet father-daughter moment immersed in the domestic that shifts into melancholy over growing up and the transience of time.
I wasn’t so sold on “Ars Poetica” or “The End of Poetry” – both felt like they lacked the core intent and oomph that “Head Lice” does. For my taste they reflect too much on the art of writing poetry. I’ve never been big on poems about the poet writing or reading poetry.
I wasn’t really sure what they were about either. It sort of feels like they’re trying to work that out for themselves in a loose, meandering sort of way, more like small talk than poetry, and that another, tighter draft may have been warranted. That said, from what I know of Brooks he’s a massive brain on a stick and obscenely widely read, so this effect may well be intentional, or a reference to some obscure 16th-Century French poem cycle, or I may just be too inexperienced to pick up on what he’s doing here.
Thursday 25th June – “Heroines at 40; Isabel: I Delight in a Moat”, “I Forgot to Tell You the Most Important Part” & “Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon” by Jeannine Hall-Gailey
I found “Heroines” in the Henry James issue of Spolia, the issue in question devoted to reimaginings of Mr. James’s works. I should come clean now and admit I’ve never read any James, but even without his work as a grounding this is an amazing poem about personal and social empowerment with a fantastic postmodern fairy-tale edge to it, all dragons and castles and magic and shit. After reading it over a few times I got Wikipedia to fill in the gaps for me, so now I know that Isabel is the heroine of Portrait of a Lady and that this poem imagines the best possible alternative ending in response to the ambiguous, probably not very nice end of Isabel’s story.
Inspired by “Heroines”, I googled Jeannine Hall-Gailey and found her website, which had “I Forgot to Tell You” and “Wonder Woman” up as samples of her work. Both are equally great feminist retellings of legends, putting darkly humourous and sophisticated spins on the stories of Cinderella/Red Riding Hood and Wonder Woman, respectively. Really, really good stuff. They’re on her samples page on her website. Go read them.
Friday 26 June – “Sonnet XXV” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
This is one of the love poems EBB wrote for Robert Browning and then hid from him because he said that women should never write sonnets or some rubbish. Eventually she did show them to him and proved him completely wrong, inspiring him to declare them the equal of Shakespeare’s. This one is about love dispelling depression and despair. It’s heavy stuff – really piling on the blackness before coming good with the relief of being saved by love. Aw. Just- aw.
Okay so that’s 21 poems over 22 days. Almost one a day (unless you count “21 Love Poems” as 22, not 2, in which case it’s 41, but okay yes I said I wouldn’t do that). Not as bad as I’d initially thought. This brings the grand total of poems read so far to 35 (or 55, but yes okay I know), which means I have to read around 87 (or 67 – ;P) poems between now and the end of July to hit the designated target. Hm.
Okay, then. Let’s have a crack. See you next week, even, maybe.