berni m. janssen, between wind and water (in a vulnerable place). Mission Beach, QLD: Spinifex Press, 2018. ISBN: 9781925581591
Frances Presley, Ada Unseen. Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2019. ISBN: 9781848616639
Norma Cole, Fate News. Oakland, CA: Omnidawn, 2018. ISBN: 9781632430588
between wind and water (in a vulnerable place) is approximately eighty pages of activism in poetic form. The emotional intensity is high throughout and its underpinnings fairly naked. After or while reading this book you can’t help wanting to march vigorously in a demonstration or organise a protest. An afterword by Catherine Schieve summarises some of the dangers to humans of industrial windmills, pictured on the book’s cover, emanating from the sounds they emit. janssen weaves together gender and her love of life/the land as well as what threatens this and more, often engaging in wordplay and with intense focus on the sounds of language as well as the windmills and visual/spatial effects too: ‘more than hills mammary memories this love sung strong strung mama/mewling child the milk breast warm’ (4) or ‘exquisite intersection of sunlight soft as in autumn evenings/and blues skies blue as the calls of choughs like children lost a blue/to fall somersaulting as feathers light and quixotic we die in this peace’ (8) but also ‘the skin of farmers furrowed burnt their eyes ablaze/with hunger stuck the revolutionary spin/they are saved cash will flow if the creeks will not’ (13). ‘Spin’ and ‘wind’ are recurring motifs.
In a poem titled ‘Dan’s notes: early spring’ we find among numerous verses all in tercets:
still night snaps cold clear
awake quick heart mind racing
turbines gearbox grinds
Later in ‘Dan’s notes: mid spring’:
another property bought
throbbing pulse skull chest
and another in this series ‘Dan’s notes: very late summer’ includes:
hot, rain later, plough
phoned in complaint
constant hum in ears
This book includes variety in form and tone and incorporates prose occasionally. It’s an interesting book with important messages. I’d like to hear it read out loud by the poet.
Mathematics, gender and the environment sumptuously collide/intermingle in Frances Presley’s Ada Unseen; the title references mathematician Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron. As in other of Presley’s books we find an astute listener/observer and masterpieces of visual/aural/tactile poetics. The book opens with:
in the tree tables
shut out the light
whereas a poem titled ‘elements of the design’ begins
a close walk
is kept close
are kept close
‘picturesque’ opens with:
I want the birch I want the fir
white bark feathering
white lichen melancholy yew
Presley’s interest in experimentation is everywhere to be found, such as in the poem ‘irregular hexagon’ (19) which includes the line ‘meet and divide a lost lifeline three children marked in our skin’ or in ‘Typography of terra infirma’ which ends with the line ‘aprons of debris’ (25). ‘force field’ concludes:
you map invisibly (x) on my vulva
Ada Unseen is a book I’d like to obsessively revisit for its insights and beauty. You don’t need to know much about Ada or math to enjoy it. As in other of her books, Presley’s keen, spiritual appreciation of the natural world (and its complex relation to modern human life) becomes infectious here.
Fate News by Norma Cole is a stunning collection including many elegies such as for poets Bill Berkson and Leslie Scalapino, David Bowie, American police shooting victim Jeffrey Clyde Wilkes and others. Mortality, impermanence, grace, and the natural world are recurring themes that Cole highlights in an innovative and meditative way, always with a delicate touch.
The heavens (and / including angels) are a frequent motif and open the book:
Jupiter high & bright in
Western night, signs &
Scars become shapes busy
Creating & destroying silent
Variables approaching the zero
Of dust and debris
‘Among Things’ contains both hope and fragility:
a feeling of expectation
‘connecting fetish and compulsivity’
sounds of sanding, making, working
framing a set-up, just some
angels revealing a crack
In ‘The Painter’s Measure’, hope, nature and the heavens are conflated:
Hope is encountered, variously
remembered, granted the patterns
of heaven–countless tiny
stars, oxalis hearts,
forget-me-nots, test sheets
Distant mountain ridgelines
flatten to paper in daylight
and in the final line of the poem, ‘A meteor shower—constellation/as memory of perfection’, nature and perfection are fused.
Cole’s elegy for poet Leslie Scalapino titled ‘When Push Comes to Shove’ begins:
Nevermore is just a word
The crease of life
Rain’s sweet scent or
The erasure of rain
emphasising the impermanence of human life, the perpetual change we find in the non-human world and interactions between both.
Her elegy for poet Bill Berkson, titled ‘Still Today’ which begins:
It’s still today
Is it far where you are?
Beyond the furthermores and the afterwards
depicts a childlike (or innocent/fresh) wonder (awe) about life and death with a bit of subtle irony.
In the middle of a poem titled ‘#3’, we find these lines:
a record of events
overhauling nostalgic to long ago
pushing a flood of tears in its
slightly elliptical orbit
evidently referring to what I must have
ceased to be in order to be who I am
and the iron moon of Jupiter
Cole’s light touch, inventiveness and facility with language and form throughout keep these poems from ever being stilted or sentimental. The recurring motifs seem to bind the collection of diverse poems into a whole very effectively.
A poem on page 49 has one of the best endings ever, delicate and sublime:
[ . . . ] walking
the land, summer grass and spadesful
of earth, a rectangle, sun on it
and the poem may serve as an example of Cole’s sometimes painterly approach to verse in this collection.
Towards the end of the book a poem titled ‘Contingent Tangent’ begins:
The table was glass like the sea, things
Floated, shocked, frozen, little
Warships and such
An hour later his heart gave way
Fate News may be an antidote to the ‘fake news’ that characterises modern life too often. What a wonderful gift this book is!
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa’s most recent books of poetry are <<terrain grammar>> (theenk Books, 2018) and Poems: New and Selected (Isobar, 2018). Her collection Plan B Audio is forthcoming with Isobar in 2020. Born in the USA, she has spent the latter half of her life in Japan. Email is welcome at janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.