JUN 09

Famous Reporter # 39







Poems that glow; poems that glitter

Nicolette Stasko : Glass Cathedrals
New and Selected Poems
Salt $34.95
L K Holt : MAN wolf MAN
John Leonard Press $23.95

Glass Cathedrals brings together poems from Nicolette Stasko’s three previous books with a fourth section of new poems so giving readers a chance to absorb and assess her work as a whole. A Single Ascension, from her third book, The Weight of Irises, illuminates some of her recurring themes and the subtleties and complexities to be found in her tight, direct style.

A Single Ascension
Valido per una sola corsa in ascensore L.300
                             (biglietto - Citta d’Urbino)


There are windows
onto every night
some full of starlight
moonlight some
if I throw open these shutters
an ancient town below me sleeps
terracotta rooftops glow
like embers
in the last rays of the sun
the air is cold and clean
across on the green hilltop
an apple tree blossoms white
and lovers embrace
oblivious to their dying
bells ring the hours
and in my pocket
a ticket
for the single ascension
to this place where
Raphael walked
on roads that float off
into cloud all streets meet
beneath the ducal palace terraces
rooms full of grace and light
of paintings
where cathedral steps
are an alabaster bed
of chambered ammonites
curled like ladies’ ears all
women are beautiful here
with long
Botticellian hair dark eyes
here dark cypresses
seam the sky as if
there had never been
a rift between
heaven and earth

A Single Ascension moves quietly, almost randomly, to a big statement. It opens with the trite announcement: There are windows / onto every night You can’t argue with it but it doesn’t really enrich your life to be reminded of it. We are then given a few options – starlight, moonlight or empty Then we are invited to look through a specific window where an ancient town . . . . sleeps (although we only have the last embers of the sun). Perhaps it has been a very hot day and no-one has stirred. Perhaps it has been a while since the town has stirred. Perhaps it is just a quiet and sleepy town. It is ancient after all. We are told the air is cold and clean Perhaps it’s been a wintry day. But as readers and responders to poetry we are already picking up a few things. One of them is the tightness. There is nothing excessive or florid in the language. We can see from the layout of the poem it is likely to continue in a tight style. across on the green hilltop / an apple tree blossoms white So we’re in early Spring. Lovers are embracing. As readers of poetry we are beginning to suspect we are being led somewhere. The lovers / embrace oblivious to their dying It’s getting a bit serious now. Bells are ringing hours. Little echoes of Ode on a Grecian Urn start playing in the mind, bringing themes of immortality, the longevity of art, the brevity of love, etc. It sounds like the scene may be European or South American. Bells don’t ring hours here in Australia except in the big town halls. Hang on, she has a ticket / for the single ascension She’s going to visit an historic - artistic? - religious? - site. Raphael! Artist and archangel as well. Ascension. Heaven. The roads float off into cloud, no less.

The poem reads as a simple description. For devotees of Strunk and White, this tightly controlled, short-word language would tick all the boxes! But each little step has nudged us deeper and deeper into serious thoughts about life and death and loving and now art and heaven. We have come a long way from just looking out a window. Next, all streets meet beneath the ducal palace Yes, it is the adjective from duke. So royalty is introduced. Then we go into rooms full of grace and light We have left the apple tree and the lovers behind. And we’ve ascended from a ducal palace to a cathedral – although the cathedral is in the painting. So we’re still in the duke’s palace but obviously a duke who liked art. Note that, although the poet is using the tight style of short and simple words, when we reach the palace and the art we have three much less common – perhaps even metaphorically exotic – words ( ducal, alabaster and ammonite) to help convey the sense of otherliness.

all / women are beautiful here / . . . / with dark eyes Do you notice that quickening of pace with the repeated sounds of ears, here, hair, dark, here and dark again. Also at the repeated here we find dark cypresses And what do they do? They seam the sky The first metaphor of the poem: the first time a word is used outside the literal. The trees against the skyline are not actually sewing heaven and earth together but it’s easy to pretend they do. And they do it as if there had never been a rift between heaven and earth. Now that’s a big statement. There has been a rift between heaven and earth but the art in the palace suggests there hadn’t been. Did the artists – Botticelli, Raphael - wish there hadn’t been? Or does, somehow or other, artistic creation overshadow the rift, give a hint, a taste, of what life would have been like before the rift? Did the rift occur in linear time as we understand it? Or in some unknown other way hinted at by the art?

A Single Ascension is a deceptively simple poem that weaves its way from a trite opening to a forceful and questioning conclusion one innocent little side step at a time, like a Knight on a chessboard zigzagging to checkmate.

Yet if you listen closely you can also hear very effective uses of sound. Read the lines from terracotta rooftops to for the single ascension and note the play of the hard c, b, p and t sounds. Note also the placement of lovers and oblivious. ‘Oblivious’ could have been ‘unaware’ or ‘unwise’ but as it is you have the double placement of the l and v sounds. When played out with subtlety, these pleasing sound patterns or echoes for want of a better word are the mark of a good poet; one who chooses words not only for their meaning but also the subtle music of their sounds. It is often what happens when revising. A word or phrase that means much the same as another will be used instead because of a more pleasing or counterpointing sound pattern – or maybe it just pleases the ear more in the overall flow of the poem. It is, of course, one of the reasons we like poetry so much.

Nicolette Stasko’s Glass Cathedrals – New and Selected Poems contains many such concentrated, thoughtful poems that will set you thinking about the big issues. Little poems with a big glow! She writes feelingly and with precision about the daily grind and joy of life – being feverish, buying second-hand books, preparing a meal of oysters, taking prescription medicines. The poems addressing issues with her daughter and her mother are especially moving. She has a concentrated style and uses minimal or no punctuation except a capital letter at the start of the poem or a bit of extra spacing between words to slow down your reading. This varies slightly over the four sections from each previous book but is not distracting. The writing is so precise that you pause at the right times when reading.

Punctuation is both a guide and a restriction. Without it, you, the reader, have to focus more and force yourself to derive more from each word and phrase and the way they were placed and the sequence in which they unfold into your awareness.

Poetry works at a different level to explanatory prose. There’s nothing wrong with explanatory prose – it’s very good on paint tins, in non-fiction books and in reviews, but poetry does something different and some poets’ minds, though extremely competent in traditional grammar, work on another level that is hard to define. For instance you won’t find too many uses of ‘because’ or ‘since’ or phrases such as ‘as a result of’ in this book. The links between concepts are more metaphorical than grammatical/logical. More on the level of the . . . poetic.

The cover is brilliant. A book cover should make you want to open the book and this one does that. A photograph of a window (another window!) in a wall where the cement render has dropped away to reveal the bricks; inviting Autumnal colours set off a stark dead tree. The internal contradiction of the warmth of the colours and the starkness of the illustration immediately grabs your attention. The type-setting is forceful and punchy.


. . . and now for something competently different . . .

Whereas Nicolette Stasko’s poetry is tight and sparse, L K Holt’s poetry is more generous, spread out and . . . . punctuated! Her first full collection, MAN wolf MAN, has recently been published by John Leonard Press and is a highly accomplished piece of work. Let’s look at this compelling villanelle and not become too jealous.

                        The Flowers in the Vase Clench
                        into a Gang of Fists in the Night
The flowers in the vase clench into a gang of fists in the night,
which is not long if we are all senses, fox-bright in our sleep.
Your eyelids murmur but hold on to dream stuff until light.
Twitching like a pup, you run from phantom-fright.
In your dreams you are god in a world without belief.
The flowers in the vase clench into a gang of fists in the night,
they watch over our slow borrowing of limbs: under white
sheets the rumoured shapes of our sleep’s secret choreography.
Your eyelids murmur but hold onto dream stuff until light
while you curl up: with boy-scout skill your body’s knot is tied,
measured hearts beating one-less, one-less in sleep’s prophesy.
The flowers in the vase clench into a gang of fists in the night,
they guard our axis backs that roll like sea rocks in the tide.
In our dreams our fears are worked to death or set free.
Your eyelids murmur but hold on to dream stuff until light.
I watch your face, empty until you wake and remember life.
Love is so apparent in the morning, when it is found before you seek.
The flowers in the vase unfurl into a flock of birds in the light.
Your eyelids open and leave behind dream stuff with the night.

The opening line has sixteen syllables and probably six stressed ones. The third last line has eighteen syllables and probably seven stresses. I say ‘probably’ because in such long lines you and I could argue for a very long time about the number of stresses. As we read on we quickly realise this will not be a common pentameter based villanelle but one with a much more riotous music and though it may only have distant memory traces of metre it has rhythm and natural music in abundance. The rhymes are relaxed. The first group being night, light, phantom-fright, tied, tide, life; the second group are much looser – sleep, belief, choreography, prophecy, free, and seek. The poem is replete with sparkling images – all senses, fox-bright; twitching like a pup; the slow borrowing of limbs (with its hint of burrowing); the rumoured shapes of sleep’s secret choreography; and the list goes on. Fecund with imagery and thought, it glitters.

And then just when we hear a comparatively weaker line – In our dreams our fears are worked to death or set free. – we are dragged back to villanelle form with the Your eyelids murmur line. This is the deep drink of the villanelle: the beautiful sense of pattern, of inevitability, of the form re-assuring us of the poet’s control and, in this case, the poet making gift to us of phrasing that is both beautiful in what it says and the way it says it – Love is so apparent in the morning ... and the second last line - the flowers in the vase unfurl into a flock of birds in the light ... with its change from its previous form.

It is interesting to make the comparison with Kenneth Slessor’s poem Sleep and the different tone of the endings: this one being so warm and positive and Slessor’s remorseless forceps being quite the opposite. This is a love poem after all, whereas Slessor’s was a poem about the process of sleeping.

Note also that the opening line begins an extended sentence each time it is used until the last time with the sunnier variation. Not only do the flowers clench into a gang of fists (converting themselves to a nice image) but they also DO something on their two re-appearances – they watch over and guard us while we sleep. They are protective fists, not abusive ones. It is the caring between the two sleepers that ends up making this such a sunny poem despite the phantom-frights and the one-less, one-less wearing out of the heart in its beating.

However, glitter and bright images and the odd ‘good line’ are only part of the backbone of good poetry. For me, poetry should be interesting, have meaning (just a personal quirk of mine) and a quality some may call music or rhythm or fluency. Have I left out form and structure? The best poems in this book display all the vertebrae and many ‘good lines’ as well: from Violence – I came upon a bird nearly through with dying; from The Children and the World – The children go to school and they come back / they walk as a procession of little monarchies; from Unfinished Confession – I sat at a bar once beside an old darling post-op.

The long sequence Unfinished Confession ticks all the above boxes. It concerns operations called orchidectomies but the fact that the word ‘orchidectomist’ can be used in such a casual, everyday manner in a poem that floats on its fluency is a testament to something like a good ear and a capacity up there with C K Williams for the vigorous use of multi-syllabic words – incriminating ineptitude, ungratefulness, melancholia, orchidectomist, and sentimentalist are flung together in a short space at the end of this long poem in a fluent and easy manner.

Many of the poems are structured around a loosening or extending of traditional formality. The rhymes are often just flirting suggestions and the rhythm of the lines more meat than metre. Some poems sound like they aspire to be villanelles or pantoums, giving off teasing repetitions and partial repetitions.

For my taste, as well as the above-examined villanelle, excellent poems in this book include Pompeii, The Head, The Botanist, The Children and the World and a delightful and heart-warming little poem called A Problem of Filing.

Sadly I did not enjoy the (almost) title poem. I thought it a long way from the best in the book and perhaps a little over-intellectualised. Just my response, of course. Others obviously thought more of it. The other less than good thing about the book is the cover. We, the two or three thousand people who read poetry in this country, do appreciate anyone who invests time and money and spirit into publishing poetry, welcome the John Leonard list of new and established poets with open arms and send him buckets of encouragement. But the covers don’t actively draw you in. They don’t have a quality of : quick! open me now and look inside! The cover on the Stasko book has that quality abundantly, whereas the John Leonard covers, sadly including the L K Holt one, seem to me a just a bit flat.

Anyway I can assure you that both these books, in their distinctly different ways, will enrich your poetic life. If you cannot find Nicolette Stasko’s impressive, tight and glowing Glass Cathedrals or L K Holt’s accomplished, riotous and glittering MAN wolf MAN in the Poetry Requisites section of your local supermarket ring Kris Hemensley at Collected Works on 03 9654 8873 and he’ll mail them out to you within a day or two.

DAVID KELLY’S poems have appeared widely in literary magazines. He won the 2008 Shoalhaven FAW poetry prize. He published OzMuze in the early 90s and worked for several years at the Sydney-based Poets Union where he initiated the magazine Five Bells.