Tag Archives: Anne Sexton

QPF Spotlight #14 – Jessika Tong’s Desert(ed) Island Poems

Last year at QPF, one of my highlights was an afternoon reading by local Brisbane poet, Jessika Tong; words raw and engaging, pulling the crowd into her at times unsettling world. Audiences will again have the opportunity to hear Jessika at this year’s QLD Poetry Festival, so I asked her about the poems she would tuck into her hip-pocket if she was heading off to a Desert(ed) Island.


Jessika Tong


Lady Lazarus – Sylvia Plath

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

This poem, to me, is beautiful. I have always admired the sharp, short but brutal lines of ‘Lady Lazarus’, as well as its honesty and brave approach to language.  I first read this poem when I was fourteen and have come to greatly appreciate its place amongst my collection of favourites with its stabbing lines and bold imagery. I have always been an avid reader of Plath and a great admirer of the ways in which she chose to express herself.

Ash, ash –
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there –

I don’t think ‘Lady Lazarus’ is sun and sand material but I would take it, regardless of the scenery.


Bindawalla, binda, bindi, bindii – Elizabeth Hodgson

I enjoy the simple words of this poem. The way it doesn’t glamorize but haunts with its starkness (deserted island) – this is what makes it appealing. I discovered this poem only a few weeks ago and immediately shoved it under the eyes of friends just to see if it broke their hearts as well (it did).

The nurses laughed as they put me in a shoe-box
And gave me to my mother: she cried.

I was weighed and measured.
With the Apgar score they rated me
To see if I could survive in this world on my own.


Rapunzel – Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton has always been a curious creature. I find myself drawn to her confessions and fragile but dark wordplay. The way she dominates a line with her famous ‘I’. Her recreation of ‘Rapunzel’ shows her brilliant mastery of taking a beloved fairytale and making it entirely her own. I adore most of Sexton’s work but ‘Rapunzel’ remains a solid favourite (as does the entire collection of ‘Transformations’) since fairytales and folk lore (Baltic) have always entranced me. I grew up with a mother who looked like a witch and read me tale after tale in front of a crackling fireplace so I feel very much at home when I am reading ‘Rapunzel’.

As for Mother Gothel,
Her heart shrank to the size of a pin,
Never again to say: Hold me, my young dear,
Hold me,
And only as she dreamt of the yellow hair
Did moonlight sift into her mouth.


Light breaks where no sun shines – Dylan Thomas

Light breaks where no sun shines;
Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart
Push in their tides;
And, broken ghosts with glow-worms in their heads,
The things of light
File through the flesh where no flesh decks the bones.

This poem describes the body, or the death of the body, in the most extraordinary way – its slow decay with connection to earth “the secret of the soil grows through the eye”. Like all great Thomas poems, there seems to be edge to something other than man, woman, body, sea, animal, bone and light. Like many of the other poems I would select, this one would not suit an island littered with sun tanned shoulders and coconut milk.


You took away all the oceans and all the rooms (307) – Osip Mandelstam

I have carried this poem around with me in a notebook for years. Transferring it when each book became fat and useless. Mandelstam died in the Gulags of Russia but wrote this particular poem while in exile. It is a brave poem, highlighting the human spirit without making one gag.

You took away all the oceans and all the room.
You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.
Where did it get you? Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.


The Nim Poems – Dorothy Hewett

Alice turning eleven
Watching the blood trickle
Between her thighs onto the warm boards
The woodbugs investigated it
For touching myself on the woodheap
I must be going to die she thought

This poem is an epic and is broken up into seventy-two verses under a number of sub-headings. I love the way that Alice’s life (the centre piece of the poem) is slowly rolled out with its mythical undertones and raw language. Hewett writes poetry that is adventurous and the Nim poems are a great example of her wild talent and provocative imagination – she is not shy and this is why I appreciate this set (and her) so much.

She went to the races
Pregnant in a black pill box hat
With a veil
He borrowed his father’s ute
& drove her to the abortionist’s
The unregistered doctor came
In the dark & masturbated her clitoris
Relax  he told her


In a dark time – Theodore Roethke

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The days on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks – is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I  have.

This poem is incredibly rich with imagery and rhythm. It reads like a heartbeat. Poems which generally describe self-discovery can be flowery and are poems which I usually avoid except for this one. ‘In a dark time’ is fat with death-like images but is rich with hope, recording the pain one must go through in search of the I. “A fallen man, I climb out of my fear. The mind enters itself, and God the mind, and one is One, free in the tearing wind”. What an exquisite creature Roethke is.


And you as well must die, beloved dust – Edna St. Vincent Millay

This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel, before the gust
Of Death, or under his autumnal frost
Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead

This poem bleeds and aches. It is truly beautiful and one of my all time favourites with its wonderful ode to lost love and death. This is a poem to sit quietly with as it is flooded with such intense imagery that it demands to be read slowly so as to be truly absorbed. I like the way that nature is used to describe decay of body, love, and life and how the appreciation of beauty is stitched into each line adding to the poems romantic appeal.


Trees – Jordie Albiston

My breasts fall free my torso expands
Hair covers my flesh like a friend   I
Feel my roots burgeon back down the
Years I stretch and stand to leave

‘Trees’ is pure magic. This poem was given to me as a gift when I was eighteen and although the pages have grown a faint yellow around the edges I have never grown bored of it. I like the connection to earth and how this is drawn back into the poet’s (or female) body.

Please do not feed the trees
They do not hunger  They do not seethe
Or writhe   requiring the control of
Nylon silk   twisted   root bound foot

The way Albiston is able to create an almost tree-like envy while wrapping the female into root and bark greatly appeals to me. I grew up in a pine forest and have always carried with me, and throughout my own work, the image of trees and I have always been fascinated by their appearance within the poems of others (The moon and the yew tree by Sylvia Plath).


And there’s no grave – Marina Tsvetaeva

And there’s no grave! No separation, ending!
The tables un-spelled, the house – wakened up.
Like Death – on a gay dinner after wedding,
I’m Life, arrived on the last evening sup!

Marina Tsvetaeva reminds me of my Grandmother by the sharpness of her face and severe fringe. My Grandmother smelt of her garden, beheaded chickens without crying, poured entire bottles of Brandy in her trifles. She always reminded me of a woman from the old world. A Tsvetaeva (although not Russian, but German). I admire Tsvetaeva originality, her spitting lines, and at times, her hardness.


About Jessika:

Jessika Tong grew up in a small pine village on the Northern Island of New Zealand and has spent most of her adult life in Central and South East Queensland. Jessika has appeared within various literary journals including Motherlode: Australian Women’s Poetry 1986 – 2008, Poetry Matters, The Age, The Australian Literature Review, The Westerly, Wet Ink, Tears in the Fence FourWnineteen, Mascara, Pendulum, LinQ, Poetrix, Polestar and Verandah22. Her first collection, The Anatomy of Blue was released in December 2008 by SunLine Press.


by Jessika Tong

I came over the green flanked
Sea of the Arctic hooked pike
With brilliant gristle I came madly
Rocked the crotch bell split the
Artery of its tarred filaments let
The lid off your blood box

A studded stump of a man now
Cleaned of your gorse you achieve
Talent, nerves, the watery earth
Of the eye its black points and
Waxy edge of white humanness,
Pureness, at last, you are one of us

A beggar for ink in your house
I have filleted books of their sternums
Poured alphabets down the throats
Of geese until their livers, fat with dictionaries,
Swelled the emptied nib of a pen we are
Nothing special but hands in suffrage

Finding windows in bodies small curtains
Of meat a kind of light that turns on when
The tongue stamps its ownership
It does not breathe or speak
Its teeth poisoned at the root it
Opens, grisly as a cut throat, blowing red balloons.


Catch Jessika at QPF 2009:

Saturday August 22 – 1:30pm – 2:30pm

Spine of Lost Voices: featuring Jessika Tong, Noelle Janaczewska & Elizabeth Bachinsky


Saturday August 22 – 8:00pm

A Million Bright Things: featuring a short set from every bright thing on the 2009 program plus a feature set from the awesome Neil Murray


All sessions are held at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brunswick St. Fortitude Valley.

For full program details head to www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com


Filed under Desert(ed) Island Poems

Desert(ed) Island Poems #8 – Rosanna Licari

Here is an Easter Long Weekend treat for you all…

Rosanna Licari is one of the four feature poets programmed at this month’s Poetry on the Deck event at Riverbend Books (see details below). Here she lets us in to the world of her Desert(ed) Island, showing us glimpses of the poetry that has guided her journey.




When I was asked what ten poems I would take onto a desert(ed) island after some reflection the task seemed harder than I initially thought. Does a list of ten poems really encompass all my favourites? Do I choose contemporary poems or include some of the “golden oldies”? Do I get patriotic and choose only Australian poems? And all this deliberation before Good Friday!

I’m presenting a list that is by no means exhaustive and is not in any order of preference. I’ve selected the poems, firstly, for their level of writing mastery and, secondly, for their emotional impact. The poems are by Robert Lowell, Les Murray, Seamus Heaney, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Bronwyn Lea, John Forbes, Sarah Holland-Batt, Anthony Lawrence and Gig Ryan.


1. Sailing Home from Rapallo by Robert Lowell

Lowell’s Life Studies was the first collection of poetry that really interested me. I was a working-class migrant girl who knew nothing about literature. The collection was introduced to me in high school and though I could probably say I had an immature comprehension because of my age and inexperience, what did attract me was the personal nature of the poems. Lowell wrote about his father, his mother, his grandparents, people that you could relate to, who were made of flesh and blood. He also wrote about a social class that was totally alien to me and this was intriguing. The title of this poem initially engaged me as one of my maternal aunts had lived in Rapallo. The first stanza stops you in your tracks:

 Your nurse could only speak Italian,
 but after twenty minutes I could imagine your final week,
 and tears ran down my cheeks….

Lowell is travelling with his mother’s coffin from the Gulf of Genoa, Italy back to America by ship and uses “spumante-bubbling” to describe the track of waves, “Risorgimento black and gold” to describe his mother’s casket. I’d never read anything like it. Then he changes scene to sub-zero weather conditions at the family cemetery in Dunbarton, New Hampshire:

 The graveyard’s soil was changing to stone –
 so many of its deaths had been midwinter.
 Dour and dark against the blinding snowdrifts,
 its black brook and fir trunks were as smooth as masts.
 A fence of iron spear-hafts
 black-bordered its mostly Colonial grave-slates.
 The only “unhistoric” soul to come here
 was Father, now buried beneath his recent
 unweathered pink-veined slice of marble.
His use of language, subject matter, and free verse was a revelation to me and probably was responsible for my partiality for confessional poetry.

Read the poem here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=177954


2. The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle by Les Murray

There is no doubt that Murray is a master. Not only is he prolific, he knows how to put the right word in the right place. This is a long, richly descriptive poem depicts people, their activities, their histories as well as the flora and fauna that surrounds them. It deals with the ordinary rituals of the holidays:

 Fresh sheets have been spread and tucked tight, childhood room have
  been seen to,

 For this is the season when children return with their children
 to the place of Bingham’s Ghost, of the Old Timber wharf. Of the
  Big Flood That time,
 The country of the rationalised farms. Of the day-and-night farms,
  and the Pitt street farms,
 of the Shire Engineer and many other rumours, of the tractor crankcase
  furred with chaff,
 the places of sitting down near ferns, the snake-fear places, the
  cattle-crossing-long-ago places.

There is considerable difficulty associated with writing a long poem in terms of sustaining interest and avoiding the repetition of an idea that does not contribute to the work as a whole. Murray manages this effortlessly in a very accessible and truly creative writing style. No wonder he has broad appeal.

Read the poem here: http://www.clivejames.com/poetry/murray/buladelah-taree


3. The Early Purges by Seamus Heaney

This poem is from Death of a Naturalist and is not recommended for vegetarians or RSPCA members. It is quite a confronting poem in which Heaney maintains a simple descriptive style. Heaney depicts the times he saw “pests” dealt with and highlights the contrast between city and country attitudes. At six, he first witnesses the drowning of kittens:

 Soft paws scraping like mad. But their tiny din
 Was soon soused. They were slung on the snout
 Of the pump and the water pumped in.

Heaney is a poet of high calibre who as a toddler must have uttered a limerick as his first verbal construction!

Read the poem here: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-early-purges/


4. For My Lover, Returning to His Wife by Anne Sexton

Sexton’s Love Poems deals with the theme of adultery and female sexuality and this was something a female American poet just did not write about in the sixties. It was revolutionary for its time and I suggest that it is still very impressive several decades on. The title is self-explanatory and follows the telling-it-as-it-is style of Sexton. The female speaker unflinchingly compares herself to her lover’s steadfast wife:

 She has always been there, my darling.
 She is in fact, exquisite.
 Fireworks in the dull middle of February
 and as real as a cast-iron pot.

 Let’s face it, I have been momentary.
 A luxury…

Then the rejected woman farewells the married man she has had an affair with:

 I give you back your heart.
 I give you permission –

 for the fuse inside her, throbbing
 angrily in the dirt, for the bitch in her
 and the burying of her wound –
 for the burying of her small red wound alive – …

Every time I read this poem, it still stings.

Read the poem here: http://www.fort.org/sexton_for_my_lover.html

5. First by Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds is another American poet that has the knack of writing about taboo subjects in an intelligent manner. “First” is from her collection, The Wellspring. This is a poem about a new sexual experience she had had when she was a young woman. She proceeds to tell the reader in a very matter-of-fact manner about an incident at the sulphur baths with a writer on whom she performs fellatio:

  … I was a sophomore
 at college, in the baths with a naked man,
 a writer, married, a father, widowed,
 remarried, separated, unreadable, and when I
 said No, I was sorry, I couldn’t,
 he invented this, rising and dripping
 in the heavy sodium water, giving me
 his body to suck…

And then she agrees to participate:

 I gave over to flesh like church music
 until he drew himself out and held himself and
 something flew past me like a fresh ghost.

It is not sleazy or disgusting even though the naked writer she tells us about may well have been.


6. Born Again by Bronwyn Lea

The poem reflects the confessional style of some of my favourite American women poets and is not something that is often seen in Lea’s work. Lea is adept at interweaving religious references throughout the poem about her meeting with her former husband who has become a born-again Christian. He had gone to the desert to die but:

 Instead of dying, god spoke to him.
 God forgave all his trespasses. But I
 didn’t forgive his trespasses against me.
 My heart was a long ledger….

He goes to her house to collect their daughter and Lea makes him wait. When she returns he is gone but then she finds him:

    …I saw
 a figure kneeling by a large granite
 boulder. The ponderosa above him
 was weighted with snow. The knees
 of his jeans were wet. Snow drifts
 on his shoulders & back of his shoes.
 Snow collected on his upturned palms.

This poem is in your face, the cold hard facts.


7. Four Heads and How to do Them by John Forbes

A classic. A suite of four poems that deals with perception. Forbes describes the Classical Head as follows:

 Nature in her wisdom has formed the human head
 so it stands at the very top of the body.

 The head – or let us say the face – divides into 3,
 the seats of wisdom, beauty & goodness respectively.

Of course, there’s more. Then discover the Romantic Head, the Symbolist Head and the Conceptual Head. A very interesting read.

Read the poem here: http://australia.poetryinternationalweb.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=12456&x=1


8. Shore Acres by Sarah Holland-Batt

From her recent collection, Aria, the poem is about the ending of a relationship and begins with an engaging description:

 August, driving from North Bend
 from Empire, we saw how the waves gut
 the bluffs until they are pocked, whole
 scoops of rock being pawed out by water.

However, things have changed:

 But this year nothing moves at Shore Acres;
 the water is static as land, and stripes
 of foam bone its slate like a corset.
 We are here for the end of movement.

It is easy to be impressed by Holland-Batt’s use of language and imagery.


9. Grim Periphery by Anthony Lawrence

Lawrence’s poem of chronic insomnia begins with:

 The narrative extends, seamless, from a cutting
 you brought back from some great divide in a coal
 town’s grim periphery, and you do nothing to stop it,
 you’re exhausted….

Exhausted from another night of sleeplessness, facing a morning that it “too bright and thick with domestic urgency”, showering and self-gratification doesn’t help. It continues. The birds are up and it’s 6 am, thoughts race and there’s no relief. Fitful sleep eventually comes –  but there is no peace.

This is not a nice, well-mannered poem. Lawrence takes you by the hand to a disturbed, visceral world. But don’t be fooled by the chaotic imagery, this is a well-crafted, well thought out poem.


10. If I Had a Gun by Gig Ryan

A woman’s view about what is wrong with men. Effective use of repetition and blunt descriptions. Try this on for size:

 I’d shoot the man who can’t look me in the eye
 who stares at my boobs when we’re talking
 who rips me off in the milk-bar and smiles his wet purple smile
 who comments on my clothes. I’m not a fucking painting
 that needs to be told what it looks like.


 I’d shoot the man last night who said Smile honey
 don’t look so glum with money swearing from his jacket
 and a 3-course meal he prods lazily
 who tells me his problems: his girlfriend, his mother,
 his wife, his daughter, his sister, his lover
 because women will listen to that sort of rubbish.


Guys, this is a poem women poets talk about when you aren’t around and perhaps, even a poem they wanted to write themselves. A definite insight into female perception of the opposite sex.

Read the poem here: http://www.austlit.com/a/ryan-gig/doa.html




Finally, I include a poem of mine which I’ve been asked to share with you. “The last weeks of the war, Italy 1945” is published in Hecate, Vol. 34 No 2, 2008 and comes from the unpublished collection, An Absence of Saints. It is about my mother, Sofia, and depicts a period of time during WWII when she was taken by the Germans. It is set in Istria, Italy.


The last weeks of the war, Italy 1945      


1. Ičiči

The Germans tell her to get
into the jeep.
Holding on to its cold, dusty sides,
Sofia looks back at the steel-grey
Adriatic and her brother,
as it lurches onto the road.
Against his chest, he holds
the lunch she’s brought him
wrapped in a worn, cotton napkin.
Standing next to him, his girlfriend,
who has accompanied her there.
Sofia tightens her grip.
The Germans are taking
her to Fiume.


2. Fiume

The gaol door slams shut
as she looks at the toilet
in the corner and the old stone wall
facing her and the others,
all women. She is the youngest
in this group of forty. She fingers
the crucifix round her neck.

The cell smells
of human sweat and waste
but swallows swoop
into the courtyard
when the prisoners walk round
inside its walls once a day.

At midday after they soak
their bread with the remnants
of their watery soup,
the others stare at the serving
of pasta she gets in addition
because of her age.

For more food she lines up
with the adults to unpick rough,
burlap sacks in a musty room.
She’d hoped for meat, she gets
bread and jam.


3. Portorose

The guard takes her by the arm,
out of the cell, and onto a truck
to sit among German soldiers
with tortoise-like helmets and rifles.
Non parlano italiano and
she doesn’t speak German.

They arrive at a hotel that
smells of lilacs and roses.
Flanked by two soldiers she pauses
in the lobby  when she sees
the French windows and the honey-
coloured, parquet floor.

Sofia shares a velvet-draped room
with three other girls, and sees
the jade Adriatic from a small,
narrow balcony. No one talks.
Anyone could be a spy.
She dreams of her mother’s garden
in Valsantamarina.

She’s become a mula del FlaK
wears a blue uniform, goes to daily
lessons to learn German – Ich habe Angst
morse code –  dit dit dit dah dah dah dit dit dit
and to study the highways
of the air.


4. Pirano

She gets off the tram and something
makes her keep walking to the water’s edge.
This time she isn’t getting the tram
back to Portorose.

A shoemaker with a limp asks her
where she is going, she tells him
she wants to get back to Fiume.

He points to his house in the lane.
She walks in that direction after he leaves
but then she hides and waits.

Hai visito la mula del FlaK? 
He asks his wife when he returns.
There are no Germans.
Sofia comes out from her spot
under some stairs.

They’ll get her to a safe house.


5. Croc

Part of the letter to her mother reads
non sono coi tedeschi, sono in una casa and
the woman slips it into her shirt pocket
and promises to deliver it.

A few days later, some dirty, young men rush
past her and into the cottage with news −
the Americans have liberated Trieste.


6. Abbazia

Sofia stands at the aquamarine
shore and can’t remember
how many trucks it took
to get from Croc
to Buje
to Trieste
to Fiume
to Abbazia,

or how much
bread and water
she had,

or how many
people she met
as she passed rasping vehicles
filled with partisans
or prisoners of war.

She knows
if she’s lucky
she only needs
one more ride.



The last weeks of the war, Italy 1945
1. Non parlano italiano  – They don’t speak Italian.
2.Ich habe Angst (German) – I am afraid.
3. La mula del FlaK (Italian dialect) – A girl of the German anti-aircraft unit.
4. dit dit dit dah dah dah dit dit dit – morse code for SOS.
5. Hai visito la mula del FlaK?   Have you seen the girl of the German anti-aircraft unit.
6. Non sono coi tedeschi sono in una casa (Italian) – I’m not with the Germans, I’m in a house.
7. Croc – a place in Istria, Italy. My mother isn’t clear where it was but remembers the name as such. It may even have been code for the location.


Queensland Poetry Festival, QLD Writers Centre & Riverbend Books are proud to present the second Poetry on the Deck event for 2009. Join Rosanna Licari on the Riverbend deck alongside Longreach poet, Helen Avery (Seduced by Sky), Philip Neilsen (Without an Alibi) and emerging poet, Sophia Nugent-Siegal (Oracle).
Date: Tuesday 28 April
Location: Riverbend Books, 193 Oxford St. Bulimba
Time: Doors open for the event at 6pm for a 6:30pm start
Tickets: $10 available through Riverbend Books and include sushi and complimentary wine. To purchase tickets, call Riverbend Books on (07) 3899 8555 or book online at http://www.riverbendbooks.com.au/Events/EventDetails.aspx?ID=2199
The first event for the year was a huge success, with tickets selling out quickly, so book early to avoid disappointment!

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Filed under Desert(ed) Island Poems