recent titles from Recent Work Press
The inspiration behind Canberra’s Recent Work Press is Shane Strange. In a world where print publication opportunities for the collections of first time, or early-career, poets are extremely competitive this Strange exuberance is a most exciting intervention.
This series of books, all impeccably produced, retail for only $12.95 each. The cover designs, the quality of the paper, and the clarity achieved by new printing technologies, all compliment each other to create the most beautiful books. These are books that could be judged by their covers.
Recent Work Press is allied with IPSI (International Poetry Studies Institute) and Canberra University’s dynamic Centre for Creative and Cultural Research. And Shane Strange launched all of these titles at the recent festival, ‘Poetry on the Move: Boundary Crossings’, hosted by IPSI and Canberra University. The press seeks a vibrant place within the Canberra poetry scene, so it is not surprising to find that four of these six poets are based within the ACT: Monica Carroll, Miranda Lello, Moya Pacey and Maggie Shapley. Penny Drysdale is originally from Victoria but now lives in Alice Springs, while Charlotte Guest is a Western Australian. Five of these titles are debut collections; only Moya Pacey has published previously (The Wardrobe with Ginninderra Press in 2010). Recent Work Press does not only publish women writers. They have also published collections by such poets as Owen Bullock, Paul Hetherington and Paul Munden, but the titles collected here for review were launched together as a series and so I choose to review them together.
Monica Carroll’s Isolator is a collection of creative and experimental micro-texts (presented in a variety of fonts that also often incorporate visual text). There is no contents page and no individual poem titles. This book demands to be read in one roller coaster sitting. There are letters, jokes, riddles, aphorisms, lists and prose poems. The book’s tone slips between sly wit and serious social commentary. Carroll’s interrogation of conservative family values and gender politics is startling.
Carroll tells us, near the book’s opening, that she is ‘feeling pretty ballsy’ and in a way that often ‘makes me act up wild’ (2) and that she has ‘burrowed through the arse of this book, looking for you’ (4). This wicked sense of humour and energy runs through much of Isolator. But this is not a book crafted for easy entertainment. In one poem we are told:
If the object is to family oneself with corruption – and I mean this in the moral sense – the choices are infinite. You dress your children in bruises. Or play grown-up games with their child parts. Record your grooming. Confine them. Stuff them. Starve them. Watch them lie for you. Watch them bleed. Use plain old blackmail – the black kind – if you’re a tad weary. Try to wreck them while you have the chance. Family is the polite word for hostage. We all have to do them –
have them done to us.
This is an unsettling piece of writing. The plain, matter-of-fact, language that conveys such emotional carnage brings me undone. And there are many texts that interrogate sexual violence, pedophilia, and the difficulties experienced by those without power to say ‘no’. In one prose poem Carroll describes the gang rape of a young person by a football team. This text concludes with: ‘The captain, ready to shower, stuffed his cock into my mouth. In court they asked me if he had an erection. // At home, Uncle asked me why I didn’t bite. He knows why’ (51). The ending of this text has devastating impact. And the interrogation of this sexualised abuse of power is nuanced and often takes us to unexpected places. In another text Carroll tells us: ‘Come to bed. I need you to suck me off, he said. / I follow to avoid a fight. / While he slept I lay strands of cotton across his throat. // It’s not abuse if you don’t say no’ (70). This is evocative of the manipulations that characterise so many of our personal relationships. It forces us to examine the abuses of power that take place, not only in the violence of rape, but also in our intimate consensual relationships, considering once again the priorities of respect and care for one other.
In Dew and Broken Glass, Penny Drysdale writes texts that we more comfortably identify as poetry. This is not to say that she does not also experiment, with punctuation for example, but her book is more conventional than Carroll’s. Drysdale moved from Victoria to Alice Springs in 2010, when she began work with the Akeyulerre Healing Centre, and her book is a lyrical reflection on what it has been like to cross these boundaries: both physical and cultural. Drysdale writes often of her welcome into Arrernte community and country. Her poem, ‘sunday morning’, begins:
I have just spent the night on this land with this land the sky spinning or is it me spinning
(Dew and Broken Glass 7)
There is an evocative richness in this plain language that works wonderfully to orientate us to Drysdale’s anxieties about cultural sensitivity. This poem is a powerful way of ‘saying thank you’ (8). In another poem, ‘along the river’, Drysdale begins:
come closer | newcomer | and see | dew | broken glass nestled along the river | glistening | steam rising | dew and broken glass | orange peel twisting away from you | like a child afraid of a stranger | a car battery with its teats exposed | an orange price tag lying in the red dirt | as if this land has a price | a spider web as small as a baby’s fist …
(Dew and Broken Glass 11)
This is a delicate evocation of a first walk, a moment of enculturation, along the Todd River. Drysdale sees beauty in the (littered) natural world, juxtaposing the sadness of dispossessed peoples, who now camp in a dry riverbed on the edges of town, with their suppressed knowledge and custodianship of country. The replacement of traditional punctuation markers with those vertical lines serves to fragment the poem, hinting at colonialism’s disruptions. In other poems Drysdale confronts, more head-on, the brutalities located in the ‘gap’ between white and black Australia. In ‘somewhere’ she writes:
she called me by mistake at 10.30 trying to get hold of her daughter this new phone is all messed up we had both had a few drinks I was safely in my bed in my book blinds drawn eyelids almost down she was somewhere out there somewhere – perhaps at home –where anything could happen
(Dew and Broken Glass 38)
The weight of domestic violence is another consequence of colonialism’s devastation. Amidst this damage, however, Drysdale praises the numerous examples of First Australian resiliency and pride. In ‘sing up the sun’ she writes:
old lady sings up the sun then jokes with the sun while we lay in our swags at the end of the veranda she speaks in arrernte and english so we can understand something of this crazy marriage as she coaxes and cajoles him to rise and I grow certain if she doesn’t sing the sun will not rise in this country hush now she might sing you up too
(Dew and Broken Glass 91)
This is such a simple, and deeply felt, love song to the Arrernte, and an expression of gratitude for their welcome and generosity. There is wonder in these lines as they open the constrictions of self to lay bare the many contradictions in Australian relationships. Drysdale crosses boundaries with a postcolonial sensitivity that is both textured and affirming in its vibrant use of language.
In Soap Charlotte Guest writes a beautifully lyrical and imagist poetry that is finely tuned to the concerns of a contemporary young woman: sex, body image, gender politics, family relationships and the loss of friends. And, like Drysdale, she is attentive to praising the role of the matriarch in certain non-western societies, in a way that is aware of romanticised ideas, but also keenly knowledgeable of the place of older women as singers of community and country. So Guest begins her poem ‘Harvest’:
The strongest women on earth farm the cassava. They sing the root from the ground against empty bellies and the prospect of rot.
This poem echoes back beautifully to Drysdale’s ‘sing up the sun’ and is a fine celebration of female strength and creative agency. ‘Harvest’ concludes with a clever humour that juxtaposes western consumerism with these women who ‘sing up their lives’. In ‘Networking Drinks’ Guest continues with this tone as she writes a clever satire on a conversation between an empowered young woman and a ‘confidant boy with flushed / capillaries’ whose ‘eyes bulge’ as she begins to challenge his sexist values. The poem brilliantly ends:
Have the last fifty years meant nothing? I open my mouth and push bubbles out. We are talking underwater, sacks over our heads, like dipped witches.
The unexpected image of ‘dipped witches’ is such a shocking way to conclude this examination of the frustrations felt by so many women. The logical progression of the argument that shows how violence against women always begins with the disrespect of women is startling. In an age of Trump, where blatant sexism is again under the spotlight, such poetry takes on a dreadful urgency. In ‘Egg Tempera’ Guest continues this subtle interrogation of the politics of gender when she concludes:
We girls, we bleeding, breathless girls, taking dumb solace in the fact our bodies have a long history, are politically charged, and would’ve been considered beautiful in the late 1400s.
When it’s overyou roll onto your stomach, inspect yourself with a period eye, and look to the site marked by tepid blots.
This narrative is evocative of the long battle lines that have been drawn over the control and representation of women’s bodies, and that bolting post-coitus image which abandons a young woman to ‘inspecting’ herself ‘with a period eye’ and to looking at the ‘site / marked by tepid blots’ has an unforgettable pathos. It subtly, yet powerfully, returns us to Carroll’s directness in confronting the misuses of power that sometimes even occur within our consensual sexual relationships. If Guest is more compliant, than Carroll and Drysdale, in conforming to traditional expectations around what a lyric should look like, she is certainly just as able to unsettle, challenge and disrupt any young man who might want to ‘take a swig from / his Old Fashioned, looking / down his straight nose’ (2). Soap is a stellar debut collection.
In A Song, The World to Come Miranda Lello writes a narrative verse that is often tuned to the comic turn of events. At her Canberra launch Lello read from her collection with the skillful bravado of an experienced performance poet. Her poetry has a fine sense for recounting dramatic moments spent in world travel, cycling around Canberra and in parties. But, as with Carroll and Guest, she is also concerned with examining sexual politics. In one poem, ‘To Mr Charles Bukowski, after Swingers’, Lello writes the following conclusion:
You said women who sleep with too many men have no treasures to give: good fortune for us all there are so many spaces between Madonna and Whore, filled with lovers who have not yet realised the bed is a battleground which measures only losses: all the lovers who never learnt to count.
(A Song 3)
As with Carroll, Drysdale and Guest, the language here is plain and direct but also very successful in juxtaposing sly humour with an uncompromising feminist stand on a woman’s bodily autonomy and right to define how her body is seen. Another joyfully characteristic Lello poem is ‘All the men I have ever loved ride bicycles’. Here Lello comically alludes to an ‘A to Z’ list of past love affairs, not for any salacious melodramatic purpose, but as a simple tribute to one woman’s personal loves. The third stanza reads:
B, with you I would ride slowly along the footpaths of Canberra Or weave drunkenly down Northbourne at three am. I smoked so many cigarettes while thinking of you that When I opened my mouth to speak All that came out were butts and ashes Which you wiped from your lap with a certain tenderness. With our bike gang we would roam the streets – You with your long man legs and me with my smoker’s lungs.
(A Song 5)
I might wish that the language here were a little more layered, for more of Drysdale or Guest’s rich lyrical imagism, but Lello’s ear for the dramatic turn of events which is underscored by a search for intimacy and animated humour is well achieved. And this poem concludes so memorably:
All the men I have ever loved ride bicycles. But in the end, a bicycle humming between your legs Guarantees more happiness than a man.
(A Song 6)
This tongue-in-cheek humour is designed for dramatic effect, to engage with an audience, and is a good example of Lello’s successful utilisation of the techniques of performance poetry.
Of the six poets considered in this review, the two who have the most in common, are Moya Pacey and Maggie Shapley. They write finely crafted free verses, tuned to the conventional disciplines of grammar and stanza, where lineation is defined by the grammatical unit (and, as a consequence, many lines end with punctuation marks). And while they do not write with the drama or animated humour of Lello, nor with the searching social commentary of Carroll, they are very successful in writing personal lyrics that examine and respond to their experiences of relationships, world travel, bereavement, medical conditions and nature.
In, ‘After looking through Carver’s window’, Pacey writes:
Spotted gums prod the sky like diviner’s rods exploring out there. Two crimson rosellas scatter sunflower seed spilling a sapphire throated bowl of sound. When will the rains come? Your face turns away. Things stand as they stood before.
(Black Tulips 30)
This is a marvelous imagist lyric, responding to drought, and attuned to its psychological resonances. There is no ambition to be an eco-poem, with an explicit interrogation of the consequences of climate change for example, but the poem is mindful with its naming of those trees and birds. The poem carefully positions its human observer as part of the natural world, and if the poem is about emotional threat and decline, it is also hopeful of renewal. Shapley echoes these concerns in her poem ‘July’:
Frost sharpens every blade of grass so there’s no mistaking the truth of things. Each serrated edge and feathered vein reveals what is mapped in the master plan. Further off, the early promise of wattle hovers in eucalyptus blue haze, but now a dead rosella, crimson still green, foretells the death of love before it blooms.
This poem is so evocative of Canberra winter hardships, yet with that early promise of spring, come too late for a juvenile crimson rosella. Shapley’s attentiveness to the details of the natural world, to the knowledge of colour in adult and juvenile birds, is wonderfully done. Like Pacey's, Shapley's careful approach to describing the natural world, is keenly sensitive to the psychology of the human observer. She continues locating in the natural world the imagery she needs to explore the ending of human relationships in ‘Blackberry’ (9). Here we find a bullied wife who is pruning blackberry at her husband’s insistence, while thinking that with ‘each cut’ there will be fewer ‘birds returning to feast’ and of ‘how what you expect doesn’t always deliver’. She imagines her husband harshly countering this reticence with ‘consequences, you should think of before / not after’. This poems concludes memorably with:
She’d already gathered the fruit and made the jam, lined up jars on the sink like ammunition, labeled with the date that would become the anniversary of leaving him. It was blackberry thorn, that fastened pain, sharp in her finger, as she tensed the wheel and heedless headed out on the highway.
The acceptance of pain, but the confident assertion of a woman’s right to autonomy, and the knowledge that she is happier alone than in a second rate relationship, is strongly evoked. There is so much resolve in that ‘heedless’ response to a prick that ‘fastened pain / sharp’. This poem has us cheering for the female protagonist, expectant of bright change.
Pacey also celebrates this female agency in her poem ‘Knitting for insomniacs’. Here Pacey uses pun and a subtle humour to celebrate the work of women, all the time contrasting this creativity, with a male propensity for war:
On nights when sleep eludes women across the world pick up needles – gather dropped stiches of spite and old hatreds – untangle the skeins of war. They knit soft bombs. Cover a tank with pink wool, hang a strawberry tassel from its turret. Swathe a submarine yellow with acrylic and cotton warm as a baby’s bootee. Fat pom-poms conceal
the dark hull.
(Black Tulips 24)
‘Blackberry’ and ‘Knitting for insomniacs’ are characteristic of the confidence and skill with which Shapley and Pacey approach their poetry. Within conventional forms, and a straightforward approach to language, they are able to balance great emotional weight and a keenly observed love for the natural world. Their poetry may not disrupt or challenge the abuses of power in the shocking way of Carroll; but as celebration of suburban, educated, independent lives, Pacey and Shapley create technically adroit, memorable and sophisticated poetry.
I would like to join these six poets in expressing my gratitude to Shane Strange and Recent Work Press for producing such beautiful books brimful of engaging, diverse and valuable work. This is a democratic press spotlighting excellence.
Monica Carroll, Isolator. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2017. ISBN:9780648087830
Penny Drysdale, Dew and Broken Glass. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2017. ISBN:9780995353831
Charlotte Guest, Soap. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2017. ISBN:9780648087816
Miranda Lello, A Song, The World to Come. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2017. ISBN:9780648087830
Moya Pacey, Black Tulips. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2017. ISBN:9780648087823
Maggie Shapley, Proof. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2017. ISBN:9780995353879