Tag Archives: Marina Tsvetaeva

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

Chains of Flashing Images – an interview with Max Ryan (part II)

Like all good things part II of this interview has been a long time coming, but is well worth the wait…

I have been fortunate enough to see you perform live with Cleis now on several occasions, most recently at Queensland Poetry Festival 2008. That show is still resonating with me four months later. The performance transceded both genres (music and poetry) and drew the audience into the vortex of the moment. Just how much of a show is rehearsed and how much is intuition, interplay, instinct? And how does the live performance differ to the process of recording? 

Thank you for your full-hearted response. The angels were with us up in Brisbane: a finely attuned audience and a great sound engineer didn’t hurt either. There’s sometimes that sense I’m sure any artist gets that it’s all just coming through you and if there’s any reward for your labours, it’s probably this. I’m touched that you had that experience at QPF, I guess that’s what I’m reaching for with Cleis: something that’s more than the two parts. In some uncanny way, I feel that when we’re ‘on’ my voice becomes some sort of musical instrument weaving through Cleis’ strings. So the words transcend their semantic meaning and become more incantatory, mantric. Similarly, Cleis’ music is much more than an accompaniment; in a very dynamic way, she’s listening at a subliminal level, she’s making poetry too. The poet Rob Riel said when he launched our CD at the Australian Poetry Festival that Cleis must also be a poet.


Max Ryan and Cleis Pearce live at QPF 2008

Max Ryan and Cleis Pearce live at QPF 2008


We tend not to rehearse overmuch but there’s a definite musical structure and Cleis will know the poems fairly intimately. Both of us like to leave a lot of space for improvising and not be overly confined to any set pattern. It’s a bit of a game I play with myself; I don’t mull over the poems so that when we perform, I feel like I’m entering the poem for the first time. It’s a somewhat risky exercise but mostly it works I think. In Brisbane I lost my way for a moment in The Blind Singer but made a leap and came back into the poem through the back door.

Another example of how it works: I suddenly got the idea driving to the festival to make four years old more cyclical so instead of trailing off into the grown-up child driving the car round the corner, it comes back to the second stanza: 

The carousel goes up and down
to the strains of a wheezy waltz.           
I’ve learned every song the man plays –       
each second Sunday they’re part of the world    
I’ve made with chocolate ice creams and rides.        
This time around you catch my eye               
and I’m waving, right on time.

It was enough to just mention this to Cleis: I knew she’d turn it all around. In The Blind Singer that night there was a fair bit of improvisation between us, especially when the poem builds into the singer’s deep trance. I tended to repeat phrases or run them together in a different way. The Hexham Flood was more measured with us holding the edge of the child’s fear of an inner drowning.


Max Ryan live at QPF 2008

Max Ryan live at QPF 2008


There are certain patterns we tend to fall into: we’ve somehow made Gypsies our closing piece and by then I know we’re coming home, there’s lots of space with the music surging and drawing back towards the final unravelling. Here, images from the poem swirl together as the child’s imagination is set on a kind of internal combustion with his vision of the gypsies. It tends to go off at this point and I’ll tend to fall into some kind of declamatory mode and then just let Cleis rip. It always feels like everything just opens up and the audience can just go with the sparks climbing into the air from the gypsy fire.

Overall I’d say there’s a strong intuitive interplay within the defined structure of the words and music. Each performance can vary quite radically. I suspect this has a lot to do with the nature of the audience and how in touch it is. In Sanskrit there’s a term called ‘rasa’ which loosely means juice or sap, it’s the very essence of a work of art. The ‘rasakant’ is one who can taste that essence and importantly it is he/she who brings the art to life. Without the ‘taster’ there’s no juice. The QPF audience, I’d say, was a big part of the magic that night.

In recording of course, that’s just the part that’s missing and there can be something quite cold about a recording studio. We made White Cow not that long after we’d started working together; there are things I’d do differently next time but we tried to keep it fairly open and there’s quite a bit of spontaneity on the record. First track we recorded, Eagle, was us on one mike, just one take. The others were mostly recorded in two or three takes at the most, both of us with our own mike standing facing each other so we could bounce off each other as much as possible. For a fairly obsessive person, I’m pretty happy with the result. Overall though I’d say we’re a lot better now. Next time I’d like to capture us live.

I’m inspired by working with musicians but at the heart of it all I guess I’m still searching for the finished poem on the page. In Melbourne I’ve performed with the band Kid Sam; one piece we’ve done consists of loose phrases we weave together and build on but since then I’ve shaped it into a much more formal structure, a villanelle in fact. The performing and the writing run into each other and sometimes, in a musical context, I’m able to hear my own words in a much more charged way, hear just where they  work and where they don’t.

I hope to be able to keep working with musicians. One thing’s for sure: it’s lovely to have someone up there with you, writing poems is lonesome business enough.



Max Ryan live QPF 2008

Max Ryan live QPF 2008

Searching for the finished poem on the page is a life’s journey, so where are the footsteps of Max Ryan currently heading?

Ha! I could try talking about poetry…
Perhaps above all, I love reading poetry and I can envisage myself doing that till I drop. In a fairly direct way, the poems I write are nourished by the poetry I’m touched by. Not that there’s any stylistic resemblance necessarily but there’s some kind of direct energetic force that inspires my own attempts. There are some poems I read over and again, never tire of: Coleridge’s Frost At Midnight, Dejection: An Ode, Yeats’ Adam’s Curse, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, When You Are Old, Whitman’s Song Of Myself, Out Of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking, many of Emily Dickinson’s, Marina Tsvetaeva’s. In a great poem there’s always that sense of magic, some narrative leap or unforgettable turn of phrase that makes the heart beat a little stronger…

Harold Bloom called Coleridge the great poet of night. I still delight in those first few clear notes of Frost At Midnight as the poet summons us to his midnight vision:

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud— and hark, again! loud as before.

Coleridge then draws us into a mystical vision of the ‘stranger’, the still beating embers of the fire that presaged the arrival of some absent friend, which becomes a metaphor for the poet’s ‘abstruser musings’. The poem finishes with this wishful prophecy for his son Hartley, the infant sleeping by his side:

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Definitely poetry from another age (the  capitalizing of Frost and Moon and the ornate diction for example) but there’s such a sustained lyrical vision of the harmony between man and nature. I love the way ‘fall’ just falls onto the line. The last lines have the power of great haiku.

There was a period where I felt quite deflated after Rainswayed came out… what now? I realised I’d pretty well written some sort of story-of-my-life, at least my life so far, and I didn’t want to go on just writing more of the same. What I’ve been discovering are poetic forms such as the pantoum, the villanelle etc which have allowed me to enter the poem in a less linear way, such styles seem to fit with the way I feel right now…

Of course these forms can have a highly defined structure and a deep inherent logic and perhaps by this token they provide a great vehicle for bringing what can seem fairly random images into a whole new dynamic. At a certain point, they start to work for you and certain phrases will be reiterated in sometimes surprising new ways. The pantoum form, for example, fits nicely into the fairly imagist style I tend to write in:

half-way home, the drifter turns around
still, even in the rain, we look for signs
before the storm, swallows skim the river
an ocean roar , a face in the crowd

Reading poetry has always been a huge source in my life. I’ve spent a fair bit of time travelling, often alone, and also spent periods of my life fairly laid-up with physical problems. So poetry, a book of poems, has never been far from my side. I left Australia for India in the late 70s with a hard copy of Yeats’ The Collected Poems in my haversack. Yeats has been a real companion to me, sometimes I feel I know him better than I do many of my friends.

Just now I’m enjoying Bronwyn Lea’s The Other Way Out; there’s such a fine sensibility (the only word I can conjure) in these poems and I’ve been delighting in many readings. This one, Ars Poetica, says it nicely:

I used to want
to say one thing

& have it turn

out to be another.
Now I only want

to say one thing.
As if the pleasure

now is in the voicing
not the trickery

but the soul making
itself heard

above the traffic.

As for plans: tanka and haiku, especially the latter, provide a real grounding and keep me rooted in the senses and the everyday occurrences around me and I trust they still will. Working with musicians is always there and I’d like to record with different players on separate pieces.

So I have no major ambitions for my poetry, just to keep on keeping on I guess and above all to enjoy it. I’ll take it wherever it leads me: I feel greatly privileged to be able to practice such an art and hopefully to share it with an audience. We’re all walking in the footsteps of many great bards. Dorothy Porter once said she’d be happy to leave a half dozen of Coleridge’s poems behind her. Well, it was a lovely way of honouring the masters. Mind you, as for the Coleridge poems, I’d be happy with one!


Filed under interviews/artist profiles