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
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.
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:
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Sofia stands at the aquamarine
shore and can’t remember
how many trucks it took
to get from Croc
or how much
bread and water
or how many
people she met
as she passed rasping vehicles
filled with partisans
or prisoners of war.
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!