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Snow on the Lake reviewed by Patricia Prime

It’s been a little while since I published a review by Patricia Prime, so I was excited to receive this in my inbox today… Discovering a new haiku/haibun collection is always a joy so I hope that this review resonates deeply with many of you.

Snow on the Lake

Snow on the Lake: haibun and haiku by Glenn G. Coats. Virginia. Pineola Publishing. (2013) Pb. 87 pp. ISBN: 978-615-799-117.  The book is available at Amazon books for US$12. Reviewed by Patricia Prime

It is good to find a haibun poet’s efforts in print and Pineola have done a satisfactory piece of work in publishing Glenn G. Coats in this volume.  We are told in the blurb that the book is a “memoir of another time, narratives about being a son, a brother, a friend.” Coats is also the editor of haibun for the online journal Haibun Today.

The book contains four sections. “Baptisms” presents a range of mostly autobiographical poems telling of Coats’ childhood; “Night Brings Peace” deals with personal encounters; “Believers offers reflections on the pleasures of a youthful life spent fishing, swimming and camping, and in “Remains of Myself” the author reflects on life through the eyes and words of his grandsons.  Each section of haibun is divided by three pages of haiku, each containing four haiku and illustrated with a small drawing of a bird. These haiku complement the haibun. I quote one haiku from each section:

distant moon
one shirt holds the scent
of another home

late winter
I shake father’s watch
back to life

end of summer
rain pools
on a flip-flop

ripe strawberries
my grandson wonders
if I am old

Coats is always perceptive and often witty, and he writes with restraint and great care in his use and juxtaposition of prose and haiku in this book. More importantly, he is able to introduce an unusual perspective or unexpected viewpoint that amuses, compels thought, gives new insight, or occasionally startles or disturbs.

From the first haibun, “The House in Lawrence Street”, Coats has us eating out of his hand, wanting to read on, wondering why the child “can’t stand still, climbs up on everything in the house.” We don’t learn why the girl acts the way she does – it could be polio, but he asks why, then, is she able to “fly like a bird or jump like Tarzan.” In the lengthy haibun, “Baptisms”, he is perhaps laughing at himself remembering his cousin Jack as a child:

I see him the night before trout season opens. We are up all night talking; picking through my father’s ashtrays for butts long enough to smoke. In the morning Jack puts on a new fishing hat, and his boots and creel are also new.

But, later we see Jack as a man after he returns from the war in Vietnam:

I see me not much later reading Jack’s one letter from Vietnam, the one where he tells the truth, the horror, and the pain of it, but I am to promise to tell no one. He survives the war only to crash a motorcycle back in the states and for a time he is sucking food through a straw.

We don’t know whom to pity more, author or Jack. The simplicity of the narrative deceives. The spotlight Coats turns on himself and his cousin both amusing and poignant.

The haiku in this section are deceptively simple:

honk of a goose
no answer
to the loneliness

snow bound –
keeping the sock with a hole
one more day

If there is something cool about the descriptions in the first section, those in the second are warmer, yet there is an undercurrent of boldness.  Coats sometimes throws his spotlight on the bizarre or unusual – the “evil eye” of Father Henry in “Beginners”, after he catches Coats and his young friend smoking cigars; or about the poet’s thought processes when he is recovering from a car accident (“Deer in the Headlights”) or the scene where three generations are on a fishing boat in “Harbor Lights”:

My son’s legs begin to wobble. We send him into the cabin for a Coke, but he doesn’t return. An old salt curses through the door, says some kid heaved near the kitchen. We lead him back on deck where he falls like a coat on a bench.

Coats’ imagery is highly visual; we could wish he would engage the other senses more often and directly, but we are glad of his use of dark and cold in the second section’s first haibun “In the Hours Before School”:

We fall down the road like raindrops from a tall tree. It is dark, no lights yet in the houses. Bicycles whir down the hills and fishing poles point like antennas from the handlebars. Canvas creels flap against our sides, Thick hip boots tug at waists. Fingers are numb from the cold.

In this section, there is some concession to other senses, notably in “Night Brings Peace”:

The year that I had wood shop, I made a broom holder out of poplar and a book shelf. The wood was green in color; easy to cut and sand.

It is no coincidence that throughout this section we feel closer to the poet, as he takes us through his youthful pranks, as in “Three Speeds on the Column”:

It is Saturday night and the band at Turntable is warming up. A few of us linger on the sidewalk. Our conversations are muffled and hard to understand as if we are talking underwater.

The haiku here are more considered with the poet’s personal stories:

crunch of gravel –
in one of his last breaths
my name

moonlit cove
my son walks a lure
across water

Description again comes to the fore in the third section. There is clever, controlled writing about his youthful adventures: shooting with bow and arrows or a shotgun, a neighbour’s boy who “never comes out”, a man strumming his guitar, a bullying teacher. In “Believers”, his father attends Mass under duress:

By the end of Mass, he is ready to bolt. Mother and I have to hold him back, make him wait as one aisle after another exits in turn. Outside, in the cool spring air, my father gives Father Henry a big smile and a handshake. “Thanks for a fine sermon,” he says. “How about those Phillies?”

The haiku which follow this section are primarily concerned with nature and human nature:

spring pastures
the farmer calls each cow
by name

It is in the final section that Coats comes closest to engaging our emotions. In the first haibun, “Dove Season”, after describing four boys painting a bicycle with cans of spray, he later discovers that the stolen bike belongs to him and the police are called:

The police know the boys and say they are always getting in trouble. Nothing they can do about the bike. Mama doesn’t keep a record of the serial number and the policemen say it is our word against theirs. No proof.

In these poems there are glimpses of childhood, youth and personal growth in which Coats opens the door a little of his own feelings. In “A Safe Distance From Home”, after describing purchasing a dog from the animal shelter, he writes:

A few hours later, after her first bath, her first walk around the yard, Angel slips away while I am talking on the phone. We call into the woods for an hour, a name the dog doesn’t recognize. Angel returns at dusk covered with mud and briars,

The dog has been ill-treated by a previous owner and Coates is speaking not only of his own feelings, but those of his grandson when, after the passage of a few weeks and “Angel has become Millie”, as

Conlyn lays his stick down beside the path. “I don’t need this stick anymore,” he says as he stoops down to pat Millie on the head.

In “The Snap of a Line”, after describing how his grandfather “bends over the bow”, he writes, “My father drifts in an aluminum boat across  man-made lakes”, while his son “waits for the high waters of spring to settle down then crosses islands on the river to where catfish are breaking the surface in the dark.” Coats is speaking of a family event that has moved him greatly. The restraint of expression in this haibun is eloquent of one who knows the limitations of language to tell such things:

summer barbecue
the scent
of singed eyebrows

Coats has developed as an interesting haibun poet. His craftsmanship is impressive: language honed to be the instrument of intellect, wit and observation.  Occasionally he lets us into that closely guarded inner sanctuary, as much by implication as by direct words.

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In A New Garden by John Parsons: Reviewed by Patricia Prime

Keeping up with new releases world wide is a difficult thing to do… thank goodness for reviewers like Patricia Prime! Here’s a review of John Parsons’ new collection, In a New Garden.

New Garden

In a New Garden: haiku by John Parsons. Oxbridge, UK. Alba Publishing. www.albapublishing.com.
(2012) Pb. 96 pp. ISBN 978-0-9572592-6-3. UK12.00 / US$16.00 / €15. Reviewed by Patricia Prime

I was delighted when asked to write a comment for the jacket of John Parsons’ latest collection of haiku In a New Garden and, declaring this; I am equally pleased to review the work since I consider it to be one of the finest collections of haiku I have read. In his Preface to this fifth collection of haiku, Parsons writes, “This book is largely extracted from work over the past year, a time of upheaval and resettlement.” The book is divided into the seasons of the year; each season being prefaced by one of Parsons’ drawings.

The haiku are set out three to a page, in indented lines, with plenty of space around them. If you enjoy haiku, here is a volume full of delights and surprises. The strength, energy and compassion of Parsons’ haiku are impressive, and it is reader-friendly without ever being shallow. He brings a wealth of meticulous observation and personal experiences to his writing, through which we are better able to recognize ourselves and our surroundings. He invites the reader to share his vision and knowledge, and to discover with him, both human nature.

As I read and reflect on Parsons’ haiku, in all four sections of the seasonal year, I realize how the many layers of meaning of those title words – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter – are embedded in this collection, adding to its depth and the way the haiku work on the reader’s imagination.

The book opens with the section Spring. In the first haiku, we are with the poet in his “new garden” watching the unfolding snowdrops:

sense of belonging
snowdrops open
in a new garden

Parsons writes empathetically about new growth, flowers, bird’s eggs, the weather and the song of birds:

somewhere
lost in mist      the robin
finds a song

this neatly sums up his interest in birds and their habitats. Moment after moment is described in meticulous detail, as we see in the following two haiku:

her book of symptoms
tulips writhe
against cut glass

*

in watery light
the whole meadow
webbed

By the closing poem of this section, the poet, fully aware of his own blessings, is able to give a “coin for the busker” and to hear him burst into song.

Parsons is a poet who has studied and practices drawing, printmaking, sculpture, songwriting and illustration and he has an instinctive understanding of line and form, and sensitivity to the music
of words. In the section Summer, for example, he writes

released lacewing
slow slant of glitter
lost in light

*

patch of moonlight
slips from her robe
the midnight room

each haiku having a fine feeling both of the musical and the “painterly” about them. Here we see “the moment under the moment”, the past that’s always there beneath the present.

Parsons seems to enjoy taking leaps to link ideas in unpredictable ways. In this section, for instance, he juxtaposes a dry beech mast to a baby toad, a stoat with a bow wave of rabbits, perennial leeks to random thoughts. Birds are clearly a passionate interest and fertile material for a number of haiku, among them a wren, a buzzard, gulls, pigeons, swallows and a goldfinch. As well as other fine haiku, including the beautiful

scent garden
for the blind     roses feel ways
over the path

then there is his powerful

daughter returns
a goldfinch alights
on wizened marguerites

In section three Autumn, there are Parsons enthralling haiku about making love, All Hallow’s, the death of a friend, a hospital waiting room. The heart-wrenching

moonlight     where she died
a ghost’s weight
on my shadow

Parsons demonstrates an unerring sense of voice in these autumnal poems in which he presents “rust-coloured chrysanths”, “shortening days”, “shriveled fronds”, but in all his work he subtly matches voice to mood and subject matter, as in the following haiku

beating heart
of silence     a goldfinch
amongst cornflowers

where his minute observation is a compelling drive.

In the final section Winter, the haiku range across many subjects, from those about day-to-day things such as “lipstick smudges”, a “smart phone”, “new gloves”, to haiku about  a value store, Christmas, snow and the lovely

tears on a greeting
where does she start
to wrap up a life

His desire to make a detailed study of the seasons seems to find its ultimate expression in the haiku

ice shards spread
in the oxbow’s curve     cracks
of a woodman’s fire

Densely packed with vivid image after image, the moment-by-moment thoughts and minutiae of life
flow elegantly down the pages. There are so many fine haiku to indulge in – the memorable lines of

family heirloom
in the unfinished quilt
her last faltering stitch

and there are other beautiful, sensual and imagistic haiku too; the compassion and empathy of
“joints stiffen / every elbow of twisted hazel / a nodule of ice”, the indelible image of “just enough light / the robin’s breast / gives dead nettles life” and “loneliness / evening sun on the seat / never sat on”.

Whatever he writes about, Parsons always remains connected with the natural world and is sustained by it and even when he probes darker subjects, the sense of wonder it inspires shines through. He uses language powerfully to make us experience the world as he does, to hear birdsong, to feel the sun or the cold, to smell perfume or to sense the pain of stiff joints. His haiku shimmer with light, movement and colour, with sensual images that stay in the mind long after the book is closed.

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Patricia Prime Reviews The Hidden Berkeley by Steven Carter

Again, I am privileged to publish this review by one the world’s keenest haiku minds, Patricia Prime. This time she reviews one of the prolific Steven Carter’s latest collections.

Hidden Berkeley

The Hidden Berkeley by Steven Carter. India: Cyberwit. (2012). Pb, 70 pp. ISBN: 978-81-8253-322-6. RRP: US$15. Reviewed by Patricia Prime

Steven Carter’s work as a haiku and haibun poet has appeared regularly over the past year, and may therefore be familiar to readers both in the USA and elsewhere. The variety of haibun in The Hidden Berkeley is engaging. Over 30 haibun, a Prologue and Epilogue range across Carter’s life from the age of eighteen when he was a college freshman to his departure from Berkeley in 1967.

Carter’s collection of haibun, which vary in length from one to two pages, spans several years. The autobiographical sketches include vivid moments of encounters with the world, life-changing events, his love life and engagement with people that shaped him.

Shared worlds, physical, spiritual and cultural events inhabit this collection. Thus, in “From the Bottom of a Well”, a poem in memory of a “Foggy summer afternoon sitting on the rickety back porch”, the poet remembers the incidents of his Berkeley years and life with his mother and brother:

That Christmas we don’t buy a tree. My mom is too tired, I too     depressed, my teen-age brother too indifferent, to clean up the house.

Reading the poem on the page, the words are transmitted through the imagination and the reader’s own memories into a silent cadence that in turn shape the images. It is very easy to identify with many of Carter’s experiences and his various attempts to come to terms with his feelings as he tries to find his place in the world.

The poet’s work is clearly informed by his physical terrain, a fact that shows itself through not only the subject matter – childhood, youth and love are recurring themes – but frequently in the way the haibun appear on the page, inhabiting space in which the haiku shine through as a kind of coda. The joining of the prose and haiku works well in most of the haibun. Carter’s characteristic style being story followed by one haiku. The following haibun, “Fall ‘63” is quoted in full:

To my impoverished and callow twenty-year old sensibility, Marcia, the     willowy teen-ager next door on Hearst, is like water on a table-top; fun your     finger through it and it leaves no trace of where it was. Every night, at the     agreed-upon time, she flashes her bedroom light twice and, as I look on from     my kitchen window, bares her beautiful breasts to me.

my Plato falls open –
Love
is a beggar

These are haibun which reward concentrated reading, and the cumulative effect is to offer deep insight into the poet’s life. Carter is attentive, his eye and ear are intensely tuned, so that story and haiku are partners. Girlfriends, funerals, and his grandmother: the images are vivid. Elsewhere it is friends, his brother, and a policeman that captures our attention. In “Far Side” he is “Returning to Berkeley from a carefree year in the Young People’s Republic of San Diego.” Alone, he experiences a bout of neurasthenia and rolls around in bed in pain, before taking the bus too his evening’s shift at the library. This poem is like a mark of the young man’s determination and fortitude against all odds. In “Rain” the two brothers are living with their grandmother when the repossession man comes to remove their TV. “’Sorry,’ the repossession man shrugs, turning off Walter Cronkite and unplugging the TV, ‘just doing my job.’”

One of Carter’s best haibun is “Mt Everest of kegs”, in which the two brothers fight. Their mother despairs of them and comes to the conclusion that there is no hope for either of them:

Discouraged with the lifestyles of both her sons, but especially of Allan, my mother confided in me shortly before her death that the best my brother could hope for was a career in the army.

In 1989 he was appointed to the Solana County Municipal Court Bench by the governor of California.

what might’ve been
the landlord’s
young Norwegian wife

The sense of the personal voice that rings with an awareness of life’s complexities and sadness, a world of ambiguities and sheer joy is perfectly heard in Carter’s haibun.  His voice sings of individualism in both form and content and it welcomes the reader in a manner that is both traditional in the use of image and form and new in its fresh magnanimity. In “Elevator out of service” the year is 1965, the poet has moved to the Berkeley Hotel in order to bring up his grades –

but also to forget what had happened in August, when Kim, the San Diego girl I wanted to marry, pulled the plug on our relationship. Drowning my sorrows in schoolwork, I figured, would kill two birds with one stone. I was half-right . . .

What is evident from this volume is how often Carter’s haibun concentrate on the big issues of existence: life and death, love and hope. These poems are strongly influenced by the particular timbre of the language, formed by the contours of the landscape and the life-rhythm of modern-day America. That said, they are crowded with impressions of light and darkness, summer and winter months: an existential searching for identity and context. The intensity of many of these haibun grows out of their truth, their reality. Moments are preserved, and the trigger of memory is released. Place, people and events weave a dance through haibun that evoke a beauty and power, treading a path through a life that is full of sadness, joy, wonderment and hope.

The overall attraction in these haibun is Carter’s trust in his reader to make sense of the disparate narrations he embarks on, the little chunks of history and geography in many of his haibun, and after a while one arrives at a familiarity with the man writing and the circumstances which permit him to record important events in his life. As the haibun “Morning Twilight” indicates Carter succeeds more often than not in holding our attention when he shows us into a room a writer’s mind inhabits:

When I was young, like all kids I expected adults to walk the straight and narrow and the world to be a more or less place. Then, one by one, my idols crumbled, as they must: my grandmother’s jolly grocer on the corner of Addison and Grant in Berkeley, who always sat me on the counter and sang a song in Italian, went to jail for tax evasion; the director of one of my foster homes, whom I’d begun to consider a second mother, went to jail for embezzlement; my grandmother herself, it turns out, played the ponies and     financed her gambling habit by stealing from my step-grandfather; and so on. These revelations were shattering once upon a time, but now I accept them, having learned in late middle age that forgiveness at a distance is a privilege, if not a luxury.

moonset &
the terror of
innocence

The Hidden Berkeley is replete with images, ideas and stories of the making of a man – of ordering and disrupting order, of the complex relationships between families, friends, colleagues, as well as with the placement of each within the history of one man. Throughout the book Carter works with a multiplicity of stories and draws the reader into associative ideas, bringing the reader to an ample understanding of the complex historical, cultural and philosophical foundations of his life. What might be poetic sketches from life becomes another field of composition: life as an artwork. The poet’s life compressed into this book unfolds ideas both minute and complex.   The collection contains fine examples of individual haibun and it also forms a cohesive whole as an autobiography. Carter presents an interesting way for haibun to be expanded from travel writing, or journal writing to a diary of awakening maturity.

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Patricia Prime Reviews Wind Through the Wheatfields by Beverley George

It’s always a pleasure to post one of Patricia Prime’s reviews, but tonight, the pleasure is even greater, as the review is of a collection by one of our great ambassadors for Japanese forms, Beverley George. If you are not familiar with Beverley’s work, this is a real treat.

*****

WTTWWind through the Wheatfields, tanka by Beverley George writing with friends.  P O Box 37, Pearl Beach, Australia (2012). www.eucalypt.info. Pb. 56 pp. ISBN: 978-0-9578831-8-5. AUS$18 / NZ, Japan – AUD$22 (US$22) / UK, US, Canada, Europe – AUD$25 (US$25). Reviewed by Patricia Prime

Wind through the Wheatfields is a collection of tanka responses and tan renga featuring the work of Beverley George with many of the poets with whom she says in her Preface, she has “shared workshops; conferences, meetings; readings; a loved book; a point of view.” The poets come from several countries: Australia, New Zealand, U.S.A., France and South Africa. The book is beautifully illustrated by Pim Sarti and has been designed by Matthew George.

In this volume we see the way in which the challenge facing the contemporary poet writing tanka responses and tan renga forms, that date back to the Japanese Nara and Heian Periods, are currently manifesting themselves. How does one write tanka responses that are still recognizable as such without merely repeating what has already been done by others? And how do you write a tanka response that attempts to address wider issues? In these forms, the poets cover many subjects, from science fiction to beach softball.

The achievement and success of these now very well-known forms, written in many languages world-wide, attract a good following.  Many people are drawn to them as literary exercises, a challenge in conciseness, while others may enjoy the companionship of writing in tandem. The humility and the ambitions are finely balanced in the poems collected here.

And the achievements are considerable.  In the first tanka response, between André Surridge and Beverley George, “Refrain”, George summons us all to the circle of friendship with the tanka:

half-circle of old friends
around the mallee-root fire
you reach for something
owned since childhood
read aloud ‘the hums of Pooh’

It is often, as in the responses between Beverley George and David Terelinck, in “Unseen Threads”, a matter of cadences:

synthetic world
of electronic gimmickry –
we tell our tales
by lamplight
our hands touching lightly

BG

a loose thread
on your favourite jumper –
accepting
we will never
nurse a grandchild

DT

Delicate syntax and concern with language are evident in the tanka response “Testing the Strength”. The dying-fall sadness of George’s last verse

how can I leave
a world you still Inhabit
my final breath
will ride the wind
without pause to where you are  

is considerably skillful and finds a precise rhythm for the subtlety of what is being said.

What is being “said” in these poems? Is it that we are alone in our own dreams and dramas, as we see in the tan renga “Converging Worlds” by Beverley George and David Terelinck?

thoughts tangle,
willow fronds in wind . . .
we must dream alone
the constant echo
of lessons not quite learned

Or is it that beauty can be found wherever one lives in the world, as we in this verse by Giselle Maya from “The Other Side of Blue”?

 I see the poet
on the far side of the globe
deep in winter
reaching out with words
I paint her in russet hues

Or maybe it is the poets’ personal concerns about family, as we see in the tan renga between the late Janice M. Bostok and Beverley George, “Mother’s Day”:

 picket fence
a group of grey-heads
stealing cuttings
mother’s honey suckle
follows me on moving day

she tries to beat
a computer game score
before an eye operation
grandma’s stories flicker
in fake log-fire flames

In the way images carry fleeting glimpses of meaning, the poem reveals the poets’ concerns with family. There are the elusive images of “mother’s honey suckle”, ”grandma’s stories”, “her first-born child’s / nervous win” and the “antique chair” which we might imagine once belonged to a loved one.

“Sliding into Silence” a tan renga between Beverley George and Julie Thorndyke focuses on a

winter evening
a rim of lamplight
on worn books
he lays down gold rimmed specs
hums to dispel the quiet

While in “Trade Winds” the two poets are in their homes where the builders are at work:

she barks orders
wants the whole thing
finished by Christmas
the builder clears his throat
stares at the horizon

Kathy Kituai and Beverley George take us on a trip to Scotland in their tanka response “Taking Hold: Letters Home from Scotland”:

narrow on our flag
St Andrew’s Cross
first streets
named Clyde or Ferguson,
thistle in our paddocks

BG

Passing Places
on one vehicle roads
how welcome,
peak after lonely peak,
to pull over and wave

KK

“An Owl in the Olive”, a tan renga between Beverley George and Kirsty Karkow includes references to science fiction, drawings in a Lascaux cave, bush fires, volcanoes and much more:

red-hot lava
sizzles through darkness
to a cold sea
a watch-dog chained
under Pompeii’s cinders

winter ebb-tide
a shapeless bundle
in the dune grass
was baby Moses’ cry
like that of passing gulls?

In “Bathers”, Beverley George and Meredith Ferris recollect motherhood in the 1940s and 1970s:

kitchen table
and a bowl of soapy water
Mum dressing me
for Sunday School
in clothes she’s proud she sewed

BG

holiday house
she bathes my baby brother
in the laundry tub
perched on a stool
I lean into his laughter

MF

The poem successfully mixes memories of the poets’ own childhoods, which are significantly different from those of contemporary children.

Beverley George returns to childhood in the tanka response with M. L. Grace, “Hollyhocks and Smocking”. The poets remember a “back-yard dairy”, “aunts / in cross-stitch aprons”, “crochet patterns” and “three generations / in the valley”.  While Owen Bullock’s easy comedic voice is brought into play in his and Beverley’s “Rosemary Hard-Pruned”, where Bullock’s themes are drawn from life and from Cornwall where he was born:

grandpa’s shed . . .
nuts and bolts in jam jars
sorted for size
bundles of lavender
strung from the rafters

BG

Granfer drew cartoons
when he got sick
with diabetes
& Gran went to Chapel
to listen to the Preacher

OB

Browsing, exploring, appreciating, finding inspiration, or simply enjoying the expression of our common humanity in such a rich variety of writing is a delight. For me, this collection proves most successful when the poets voyage into the past. That these poets are masters of the intellect, of words, of the tanka response and tan renga forms seems indisputable.

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Another Lost Shark Publications is proud to release Private Conversations by Cameron Hindrum

It’s been an incredibly busy year here at ALS headquarters… first off we launched Brisbane New Voices III featuring the work of Vanessa Page and Carmen Leigh Keates; then it was home{sic} by Julie Beveridge and now we have Private Conversations by Cameron Hindrum, the debut release in our First Words series (oh, and of course there is The First 30 and other poems, but that will be launched later in the year).

The First Words series will debut Australian writers in elegant, limited edition chapbooks and I am incredibly excited to have Cameron’s work feature in volume 1. Apart from being a fine poet, Cameron has been tireless in his support of the Tasmanian poetry community, directing the Tasmanian Poetry Festival since 2003. Your first chance to get a copy of Private Conversations will be next weekend at QPF 2012 (in fact you will be able to pick up all of the above ALS Publications). For now… here’s a preview:

Morning Burial

I am dressed for work.
She keeps him inside where
cartoons bathe him in noise
while I open a grave in cold
morning earth
and do not tell him.

The spade slices into dirt
and heaps it neatly to one side
near the fish pond.  I don’t know
how deep I should go.
I should be in the car.
Instead I have to lie.

A small plastic bag, a small
fragile body. Soft fur.
I carefully arrange the deceased
in this shallow grave.
The plastic bag sits bright
like an insult.

Cold earth peppers the plastic;
the hole is quickly hidden.
I smooth it over, replace bark chips.
No one will ever know
except his mother and I, and we
will keep our burden.

Cartoons will keep him safe.

**********

Cameron Hindrum lives, writes and works in Launceston, Tasmania. This is his first published collection of poetry. Since 2003 he has coordinated the annual Tasmanian Poetry Festival, and he has performed at the Queensland Poetry Festival, WordStorm in Darwin, the Byron Bay Writers Festival, the Australian Poetry Slam National Final and at readings around Tasmania.  His novel The Blue Cathedral (Forty South Books) was published in November 2011, and will be launched at the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival.  His second poetry chapbook, the second volume of Private Conversations, is published by Walleah Press.

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Patricia Prime reviews ‘waves whisper the shoreline to life’ by Agnieszka Niemira

waves whisper the shoreline to life, Agnieszka Niemira. 
Post Pressed, 38 Suncroft St., Mt. Gravatt, Queensland 4122, Australia.  www.postpressed.com.au.  2010.  98 pp.  ISBN 978-1921214-63-9.  AUSS$19.95 + p&p

Reviewed by Patricia Prime

waves whisper the shoreline to life is Agnieszka Niemira’s second book of poetry.  This is a more substantial volume than Niemira’s first collection, Making the Invisible Transparent.  Here again, we have a beautiful volume published by Post Pressed, with front cover photo by the poet, back cover photo by Elleni Toumpas and additional photos by Barrie Frost.

A very different presentation characterizes many of the poems in this collection.  Many of the poems are longer than in the previous book, although it also contains haiku and short poems.

The first lines of the very first poem, “the story begins” reads very simply:

 it is quiet

 the house is asleep
 i am enveloped
 in its imperceptible breathing

This process of discovery, from inside to outside, the search to establish some sense of possible relationship between the inner self and the exterior world, is central to this collection.  The same initial poem concludes thus:

 i will love
 i will question
 what love actually means

 should i be trusting you with myself like that

 and would you trust me      to be taken where I go

waves whisper the shoreline to life is characterized by Niemira’s alertness to incidents that took place in wartime.  “visitors” and “survivors 1945” are concerned with the horrors of war.  From “visitors”:

 a gun pointed at my brothers and me
 my father     watching

and from “survivors 1945”:
 a single woman
 her house destroyed

 they give her
 one of their rooms

The ideas in these two poems are fully felt, unsentimentally realized and emotionally felt.  The precariousness of human individuality, the difficulty of sustaining family values in the face of war, functions in Niemira’s work not just as an intellectual conceit but as emotional reality.  In the poem “echoes,” for example, the poet lives with “grandma and grandpa / in a post-german house.”  But, though they are surrounded by “wetlands / meadows    gardens” animals, friends, and relatives, all is not well in this idyllic setting:

 grandpa drinks
 i dread seeing him
 leaving the house with his mates

but by the end of the poem, we discover the reason for grandpa’s drinking and anger:

 he survives a german forced labour camp
 i listen
 i hear screams

 grandfather talks
 war echoes

Niemira’s poetic persona has a confident, but not over-confident, sense of its own identity.  Niemira is able to write of others with a degree of empathy.  There is an impressive meticulousness of emotional observation and a lack of sentimentality which isn’t flaunted, as we see in the love poem “summer loving”:

you come with delicate breeze

you take me into the sapphire-blue snowstorm

we experience the omnipotence
of misty sanctification

the mysterious kiss ripens
in the freedom of the night

The registering of human emotions is one of Niemira’s strengths, and it is in her treatment of those people in her immediate circle that her work is at its most quietly moving.  One has no doubt in believing in the truth of what Niemira says in a fine poem “the world has no sharp edges”:

 so the world is round, no sharp edges,
 she tends to relax into various colours:
 sea green, purple, blue . . . rainbow . . .
 could be falling out of the sky too,
 perhaps being flexible and bouncy
 with an honestly smiling face.

A longer poem “dimensions” is full of Niemira’s experiences, full of her sense  of love, warmth and peace and in both the apprehension and comprehension of what is implied in the recognition of herself in a photo:

 what is this     she points to the screen

 marcus looks at the photo

 his tearful eyes find me
 is that you

But Niemira is not simply a poet of emotional lives.  She also writes poems in which the search for an axis of living is conducted in natural settings.  In the poem “dawn,” for example, she hears the birds and goes outside to listen to them:

hearing the birds singing their greetings
i go outside to unite with the world of awakening

i breathe in the freshness

the place is alive
though people are nowhere to be seen

In such poems the precision of Niemira’s writing is a recurrent delight.  Niemira’s real but unaffected attentiveness to nature is registered in a language which, very naturally, makes such attentiveness evidence both of a stilled self-consciousness and of a process of self-discovery.  There is a breathtaking responsiveness to simple beauty in her work.  In “the intimately known mystery” she observes that “my baby is out of my womb / out of my body // quiet for a moment / then crying / i stroke my son’s cheek     featherily.”  Another poem “motherhood” also recalls the poet’s experience of being a mother, “before i was just myself / now i am a mother / to eternity.”  The long poem “perfection” shows us the child’s humming and laughter:

 the music is perfected
 by my son’s humming and laughter
 i want to delight in the moment
 but the longing to see him
 overwhelms me
 i open the door to my bedroom
 he runs towards me
 and gives his mother
   the morning hug

“laughter” is a poem at ease with itself, conveying with skilful brevity the love between poet and grandmother:

 i come in quietly
 the house breathes to its own rhythm
 hello granny dearest     i say softly
 she does not recognize me
 but I know what to do
 . . . i laugh
 oh agnieszka     she smiles
 and dozes off in her armchair

In these poems we pick up on the poet’s relationships as subject, with a smile towards her feelings, shown in simple language.  Niemira pays minute attention to language, managing to achieve warmth and humour with concision and pointedness; and invention, either in the form and layout or use of space. 

In “silencescream” the effect of dreadfulness is conveyed by subtle and varying line length, reflecting the state of mind of the personae, in which everything is disjointed.  This is hysteria with a strange inevitability:

 in silence
 you tell me your story
 i see the scars
 looking into your young eyes
 i notice
 there is beauty but no youth in them

 the bloodstained images
 you’ve brought to life
 stay with us

 we fall asleep regardless

After this there is a group of tough, short poems which reveal the terrors of war.  In “terror triptych” “girls for sale / girls for the taking,” while in “honour” we see a “gang-raped woman // stoned to death.”  “staying alive” describes the persona of a young woman in an unpleasant situation.  A feat this, to picture such ugliness in an excellent poem.  Finally “this is my home” tells us that the poet would invite us in “but I had a bad experience.”

Although many of the poems make one look at hard subjects, reading this collection with its terse but vibrant images, tense voices and lives, the poems gather momentum each time you read them.

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Patricia Prime reviews Shadow Play by Gavin Austin

Patricia Prime is a powerhouse of a reviewer… it never ceases to amaze me, the number of books she so lovingly critiques. Here is a recent review of Gavin Austin’s collection, Shadow Play.

 

Shadow Play, Gavin Austin.  Chrysalis, PO Box 613, Potts Point, NSW 1335, Australia.  2010.  76 pp.  ISBN: 978-0-9807612-3-8 (pbk.)  $AU20.00 + p.&h. ($25 posted).

Reviewed by Patricia Prime

In his collection, Shadow Play, Gavin Austin’s poems carry weight, the weight of humanity that is sadly missing from two many practitioners of the art today.  His poems of urban and rural life in Australia speak of love and suffering, often in a domestic setting; comprehensively modulated and adjusted to the situation.

Central to the collection is the urban content.  I can identify with Austin’s description of city life, of, for example, his focus on lovers, sneaking a precious hour from their daily lives:

 You rise from the bed,
 reach for the dress
 discarded to the floor,
 run hesitant fingers
 through tangled hair,
 and hurry back
 to the life you left
 earlier.

  (“Shadowland”)

Austin’s poems reflect the tensions and dangers of city life, as well as the equally vivid pleasures.  There is a constant sense of activity, of relationships and of clandestine meetings, as we see in the poem “Duet for One”:

 I didn’t mean to meet you –
 not then – not now.
 Surely an accident,
 a collision of probability and timing.

“Friday’s Colours” is held together by the description of a meeting with a young woman of the streets:

 A pinpoint stare slow and solicitous
 as a painted talon raking punters’ flesh.
 She probed the coldsore in frayed corners
 of her mouth with a pale tongue,
 licked like a stray cat in a doorway;
 legs splayed in lewd promise.

 Austin is intensely aware of what it means to be this kind of woman, and especially one who is a drug addict, and his descriptions of her are vivid, serious and imbued with foreboding, for there is “Only a wailing siren to cry for Friday.”

Simplicity of language and imagery impact and freshness is resonant throughout.  In “My Window Box,” the poet “four storeys up, / framed in my bedroom window” watches as a lover dresses to leave:

 I say nothing,
 my thoughts scattered
 like clothes across the floor,
 hope
 kicked into dark corners
 to brood with lost socks.

The bleakness of this statement emphasized by the word “hope” isolated on one line indicates the situation in which the persona feels so hopeless.

Even a poem which begins “On these perfect days” (“Summer”), ends with the words “just you, me / and a diagnosis / wedged between us.”

Death also pervades Austin’s Shadow Play.  Although it’s the joyful time of Christmas celebrations in the poem “In the Garden,” Austin explores the relationship between himself and a dying friend.  The sentiment – “You told me you loved me – that I had been a wonderful friend” – is interposed with fundamental questions regarding the questioning of one’s motives, pretence, and resolution.  Austin’s quest for honesty remains paramount.  Nevertheless, he doesn’t offer slick answers to the questions he posits.  Rather, he is an unsentimental observer of what happens:

 Yet I question if I did all there was to be done,
 or if you saw my carefully veiled tears
 as I pretended not to know what you meant
 when you said: ‘the dark vehicle is waiting.’

Loss pervades this section of the book: loss of personal worth, loss of innocence, loss of one’s friends, loss of relationships, such as we see in the poem “Baggage”:

 It is time for me to move on
 the glass in the frame holding
 your picture is cracked but I have packed
 the memories inside my heart

Inevitably his characters may be seen, somewhat, as simply a vehicle for Austin to explore inherent dilemmas, dilemmas fused with urgency now that the poet is able to look back and asses his life so far, for, “Like myself, / you have no answers / only questions.”  (“Scrutiny”)

In the second section, “Rural,” each minute being is necessary to and connected with the earth.  It is this connection with, and empathy for the whole of life that imbues the poetry with instantaneous joy.  Each moment of life, each small every day occasion is embedded within the spiritual:

 Blunt green fingers,
 born of earthen womb,
 reach blindly
 for the nurturing
 hand of sunshine.
 Nearby, the bole
 of an ancient fallen tree
 is shrouded by lichen and fungus:
 the king being returned
 to his kingdom.

  (“Eternal Forest”)

Austin takes the objects and the creatures of the Australian landscape, focuses on them, and draws out significance.  The language is informal, the imagery exquisite: “Hazy blue hills like brushed-on cobalt  / blend into the canvas of distant sky” (“Grandad’s Farm”); “Last night’s diamond frost / becomes damp glassy beads.”  (“Winter”); “Pearl clouds scalloped with pink / jostle as they range overhead;” (“The Barringtons”).  In these poems Austin is particularly interested in birds, and writes engagingly of magpies, wagtails, kestrals and the kookaburra.  The everyday is focused on, illuminated, and given meaning, in calm conversational words.  For example, in “Scotch Thistle,” one reads the way in which Austin compares the common thistle to a king fighting slaughter by the hoe.

 He stands tall
 beneath a purple crown;
 weapons drawn
 against the enemy.
 His swords slash and stab,
 draw plumes of scarlet
 from callused hands
 at the assailing hoe.

“March Afternoon” allows Austin to evoke the starkness of the Australian landscape, desperate for water, and the unexpected and unearned beauty of the natural world:

 Beyond the post-and-rail fence,
 by the creek that barely flows,
 the willow trails
 long verdant tresses
 into dark pools
 where dragonflies hover
 above the brown surface . . .

“Night’s Hunger,” on the other hand, is a beautiful love poem in which the lovers “embrace cautiously.”  “The Willow” is a detailed examination and meditation on a particular tree:

 Tall and slender
 she stands by the river,
 a graceful nymph
 swaying her gown of green

Sprinkled throughout the book are some of Austin’s haiku and tanka, several of which have been published in various journals.  Two of my favourite haiku are

 old books
 with his scrawled messages
 mine now

 rock shelf
 afternoon light spills over
 the barnacles

Of the tanka, two I enjoyed are

  after the squalls
 of driving rain
 the sky clears –
 a long puddle
 holds the full moon

 the sun
 beyond distant hills
 slips away
 your voice whispers
 through the gums

The collection is beautifully produced with a front cover photograph by Roger Fitzhardinge and back cover photograph by Grant Fraser.  The book is representative of a kind of strong poetry that is both contemporary and traditional, a personal lyric that can light up the material and emotional world, and give it a powerful resonance.

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