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Poetry Picks of 2010 – Ashley Capes

Red Leaves /紅葉 – Issue 1, 2010

It’s hard to write about anthologies and mention only some of the artists within, as I often feel guilty, even though I know it’s impossible to mention everything in a single review. Having said that, there are plenty of luminaries alongside the newer voices inside issue one of Red Leaves/紅葉 (the first English/Japanese bi-lingual literary journal).

Instead I want to talk about the anthology itself, as I really found it exciting, and because it’s just a beautiful collection of work. Editors Kirk Marshall and Yasuhiro Horiuchi certainly do justice to the concept of a bi-lingual journal. The writing has been beautifully translated by Sunny Suh, Asami Nishimura and Joo Whan Suh so anyone able to understand both kanji and English, is given the pleasure of reading the work in both languages, and seeing what subtle differences exist. But if, like me, you can only read English, then Red Leaves/紅葉will not disappoint, as the Japanese contributions have been translated into English. So too, if you read kanji but not English, the English text has been translated. And it is the massive work of the translations that represents a true gift, not just to the reader, but the writers within, who now have their work accessible to two cultures.

The book is a triumph from a design standpoint too. Starting from the ‘front’ it reads in English from left to right. The content is then mirrored from the ‘back’ reading right to left in kanji, and having contributor bios meet in the middle. Liberty Browne has also graced the anthology with a clean and balanced presentation so important in a larger-format anthology, which is not quite A4, and runs to over 160 pages per language.
For me, there’s a clear parallel between this anthology (and other modern anthologies like GDS for example) and truly dynamic albums – the ones that cover multiple genres and styles, where across just twelve or so songs, you get a glimpse of everything. Red Leaves/紅葉 is like that. Inside Issue 1, there is poetry, short fiction, manga and artwork, spread across wide-ranging styles and themes, from the highly experimental to more traditional pieces.

Red Leaves is available at Polyester Books (Melbourne), Brunswick St Books (Melbourne), Readings (St Kilda) & Avid Reader (Brisbane).


Ashley Capes teaches Media and English in Victoria. He moderates online renku site ‘Issa’s Snail’ and simple poetry site ‘kipple’. His second poetry collection, Stepping Over Seasons, was released by IP in 2009 and a new haiku chapbook Orion Tips the Saucepan was released by Picaro Press in 2010. He occasionally dabbles in film, is very slowly learning piano and loves Studio Ghibli films. Most recently, he led the ‘Zombie’ renga at Cordite Poetry Review.


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Lorraine McGuigan: Wings of the Same Bird (review by Patricia Prime)

Wings of the Same Bird, Lorraine McGuigan.  Interactive Press, Queensland, Australia.  2009.  76 pp.  ISBN: 978-1-921479-35-9.  AUS$25. 

Reviewed by Patricia Prime

This collection by Lorraine McGuigan was the winner of IP Picks 2009 Best Poetry Award.  The collection is divided into two sections: Part 1: ‘Wings’ and Part 2: ‘Of the Same Bird.’

You are in a safe pair of hands with Lorraine McGuigan.   She provides civilized, thoughtful, well-formed poems without perplexities – poems that do not take risks, yet deliver a balanced criticism of life.  Many of the poems have been previously published a d they confirm her ability as a sound poet who will never let you down, although they may astonish with moments of recognition.  Her poems have the virtues of good prose – clarity and imagery that support a clear line of argument.  She puts into accessible words what many people feel.

Consider the first poem, “Golden Lily,” which is based on “To The Edge Of The Sky,” a memoir by Anhua Gao.  The poem is about looking at a showcase full of “wide-sleeved robes heavy / with gold and silver thread” but what catches the poet’s eye is a small satin shoe.  The poet recalls what she knows about the ceremony of foot-binding which took place in China.  The imagery begins with the robes but then talks about the child with “perfumed feet,” “folded toes,” “the crack of fine bones,” “foul seepage” and “pleated flesh.”  While these are searing images, you could say, poetic, the language never soars.  Yet the message is clear and exceptional and will resonate with many people.

In an admirable poem about a visit to Beijing, “Taste of Beijing: Sweet and Sour,” the theme is linked with memories and reflections about street people, food and the contrast between poverty and the beautiful dancer at an evening concert.  She concludes,

 in every limb she’s quickly upside

 down, doing the splits, her body
 a perfect T.  Unbidden,

 a skateboard comes to mind,
 its eternal passenger, limbs fixed.

In “A Taste of Sudan,” she tells of a man called David and his escape from a place of captivity through a sewer pipe, where he was “Baptized in the waste / of fellow prisoners.”  In another poem, “Bird-Bath,” about her mother collecting bird feathers, she evokes the budgies kept in the sunroom.  The images are conventional though pleasing, “Seventy years on, this feather: a Pardolote perhaps, / hovering in frigid air, leaving just / a little of itself, for me.”  This is bravely honest in that it touches on the way someone else’s love of birds can sharpen one’s own senses.

McGuigan is at her best when she approaches experience obliquely, for example, projecting herself into the experience of the beekeeper in “Summer’s End,” or into her Uncle Mac’s experience of losing his leg during the war in the poem “Uncle Mac’s Leg:

 Cursing the tangle of leather straps, the shoulder
 harness keeping the brute in place, he throws
 the leg down one Anzac Day.  Beats it till his stick
 snaps.  And weeps.

A fine poem about a man cradling a child killed in an air strike, “Struck,” avoids the tendency to tell rather than show in a tightly composed poem with its control of a sensitive subject:

 Screams hang on desert air, float
 in through windows of sleep

 Nothing can quiet the air.
 Land sinks under the weight.

This final reference to children screaming leaves the reader startled and pondering the futile loss of innocent life during times of war.

The second section opens with the poem “Rainbow (2003),” perhaps suggesting the poet’s love of birds.  Here nature is raw: it’s below zero, the grass is frosted, there’s ice on the bird bath.  The first stanza is about taking the ice from the bird bath so that birds can drink and bathe, and the second is about a “passing lorikeet” dipping its plumes in the water.  The camera is found, but it’s too tale for the bird has flown.  The poet’s attempt to capture the wild is frustrated.  “Coffee for one on the terrace” focuses on a loved one who has spent weeks in intensive care and she wishes to help him,

  Your eyes closed
 against the struggle of it all.

 I’d furnish you with fabulous
 wings, fly you away, and flesh

 warmed by a benevolent sun
 we’d take coffee on the terrace.

Though her work is consistently well-crafted and true to experience, the final lines quoted here show how it can also be illuminated by flashes of inspiration that get to the heart of the situation and character she is describing.  Throughout this section one is presented with family, friends and acquaintances, all of whom are portrayed by the poet with an eye for telling detail.  Consider the small granddaughter who “wants to know yet again about dying.”  (“Signs”).  In another poem she sees herself comforted by her husband where “Our daughters lift / your arms curving them / gently around me” (Coupling”).  The poet is prompted to say in “The Tasting” “Receiving the ashes, I am unprepared.  How could they be so heavy.”  The persona McGuigan projects is that of someone who has led a wonderful and interesting life, surrounded by love and affection.

However, McGuigan can also deal convincingly with difficult issues.  In “Turning back the clock” she writes about someone who has lost a loved one:


 the punctual one, he kept time
 as though life depended on it.
 Clocks never slow or fast.

 On a whim their bedroom clock
 remains untouched: a challenge
 for him, wherever he now is.

Many of the poems in this section deal with memories and other domestic themes.  In “Remembering,” for instance,

 A business card arriving in our box:
 white, black-edged, blank.  And now
 you are (whisper the word) dead I
 wonder was it Death’s calling card?

And in “Time,” the persona discovers that

 On his bedside table he has left
 The Dictionary of Time, final chapter
 unread.  It waits for the bookmark
 to be slipped aside, then a smoothing
 of the page as was his practice.

McGuigan ensures that by and large the reader’s interest is held, as in the final poem “Traveller” where she talks about the “smooth travelling / as you row the spaces between us.”  An unpretentious and honest writer, McGuigan’s overriding concern is to write about what she has felt and understands.  At her best, she achieves an impressive universality.

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Ashley Capes: Stepping Over Seasons (a review by Patricia Prime)

Stepping Over Seasons, Ashley CapesInteractive Press, Queensland, Australia.  2009.  64 pp. ISBN: 978-1-921479-32-8.  AUS$25.  

Reviewed by Patricia Prime

In his latest collection of poetry Ashley Capes mines the quotidian.  The seasons play an important part in the life of the poet as he moves from “no whispers to quicken fruit” (“dawn”) through the “sagging tent ropes” of “slow moon” to “these / people and their autumn-house hold together” in “autumn-house.”  Detailing the typical emotional routines of life today – marriage, home, a bus ride, a farm, the small town, the intersections and intrusions of the issues of the day, and the occasional time for thoughts about nature, death and God, Capes explores the links between nature and human nature.  He typically writes simple one- or two-page poems with little or no punctuation.  His introspective moments are triggered by rain, the moon, mushrooms, night, sunrise, butterflies, an echidna, autumn, grass seeds, and particularly small town life. 

His style, not surprisingly, is lean, employing one-paragraph poems, or poems with short stanzas.  Within these parameters Capes is good at what he does, while a few poems step outside his normal range: the surreal longer poem “leaking,” for example, or the clever poem “on the road,” contrasting the narrative of driving with the thoughts of what would happen “if they found your body.”  And Capes’ issue poems, few in number but well-constructed, include the poem about the act of writing “take five,” and “black comedy” where the focus is on death:

 or will I, in fact, be able
 to laugh at my body as it’s lowered into a hole,
 for some reason
 in a suit in a box with
 a pillow and my teeth probably
 very clean and maybe
 whitened too,
 in case wherever I’m going
 I’d need a great smile?

Much more representative is “overlook,” regarding great poets, who “romanticize their towns” contrasted with Capes’ home,

 with street corners and marigolds
 painted in vomit

 industrial strength
 cigars, puffing second-hand
 smoke into the sky

 three inland surf shops
 dozens of bars, six fast-food chains
 and one theatre

Capes lives in the world: “from the river / the echo of our fishing trips / and dark lines / polishing the shore.” (“tar and white paint”).

Capes’ language with all its sensuousness is the language of spontaneous overflow.  Factuality goes along with the feelings and the emotions and there is an evident sobriety present in the poems.  He builds his verses, several with headlong continuity and fitting compactly phrase to phrase and line to line, so that his poems present an overall visual impression of clarity.  This solidarity is an aspect of sensibility.  Capes is perfectly aware of the fleeting nature of experience, yet equally aware of its reality.  So he takes things as they come: savours them, ponders them, feels them and fixes them in durable verse, as we see in “bitches brew”:

 once, at the gate,
 bragging about loneliness
 he made a bow out of blue ribbon
 and hung it above her headstone
 murmuring to the wind.

In this particular passage the final effect is aesthetic prompted by stylization of the persona and the image of the headstone in the final line.  Characteristically Capes exemplifies an acceptance of the whole of life, of his own humility – toughly, zestfully, serenely.  In the first part of the two-part poem “botanic,” he writes about the park “full of photographers”  and also full of readers, ibis, people and a “Chinese couple / posing for wedding photos.”  But beyond this tranquil scene lies the city with its sirens, streets humming with threats and the casino.  His equity is in simply being alive to the sights and sounds that surround him.

Capes’ poetry is, in fact, as eminently social as it is personal.  It registers with a touch of irony the people at a hotel pool: “a man opens a window / grunt riding / beads of sweat down his chin” (“royal on the park”).  The poem “by the curve” records with humour the man waiting for a loved one to return:

 a teacup sits on the sink
 inside, imagined marks
 where you held it,
 not by the handle
 but by the curve, to fit a palm
 aching from winter

The final poem “the jacket” offers an arresting image of “a filthy spring jacket” left lying on a chair which the reader feels must be of importance to the poet for

 in the jacket
 you linger in traces
 and I rake them with my hands
 collect every scent.

Here is a poet who writes with immense clarity and real verbal music on the main themes of life – love, loss and death – with humour and sensitivity.


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