Your fierce face


BabyFaceBlueYour fierce face

on the pillow—
brows spearing down towards
wide bisected koala nose
succulent lips
acute resilient chin.

Tonight you are troubled
by concerns beyond your scope:
baffling sorrows
pervading childhood’s lair…

Felt inside the strident pitch
of your father on the telephone;
the tremulous tone
of your mother’s lullabies.

Felt in the streak of the cat,
the slink of the dog;
felt in the dangerous pulse

of our home.

A review of Robbie Coburn’s chapbook, Before Bone and Viscera.





Before Bone and Viscera, the third of Robbie Coburn’s publications is, like its predecessors, an unsettling read. This slim but intense volume is comprised of a ‘Prologue’ plus ten poems, and explores the dual territory—previously traversed in his chapbook Human Batteries (Picaro Press, 2012), and first full-length collection Rain Season (Picaro Press, 2013)—of the tortured rural landscape of Victoria, and the similarly tortured mental and bodily landscape of the poet.

The title of the chapbook introduces decomposition and regeneration as thematic concerns of the collection, begging the question—what is it that comes Before Bone and Viscera? The answer (given in the epigraph) is “decay”, a decay which “becomes being.” The poems begin, then, at the end, with images of physical and environmental disintegration, such as these, from ‘Prologue’:


the dry end of the trees unearth

here, in a brittle manifestation


of husk and bone

endless ruin of dirt


hand stone and the distortion inside lingers,

the backbone of consciousness


bends into the distance

vagrant colourless grasses


and the stench of compost

motion lays beyond the body


the roots are plumed, open and featherless

drying out the blood of any water.


(‘Prologue’ 1-12)


It is unclear if Coburn speaks here of the body or the land (indeed he speaks of both), and this superimposition of the human subject onto the environment is a distinctive and striking quality of Coburn’s poetry in general, and of Before Bone and Viscera in particular. This almost metaphysical intertwining of the internal and external landscapes further deepens throughout the poem—and the collection—as the human subject merges with his environment:


the broad ground against the dead

weight of the body


widening pulses of light radiating beneath

the other veins, absolving a bromine fog


interpreting this new proximity, sundried vertebrae

rust divides on rotting skin, a carcass without teeth,


hair, carrion

a limitless game littered with debris.


(‘Prologue’ 15-22)


This decomposition of a body which is both tree and flesh arises alongside “the wish to have never lived” and serves to drive “the heart out into the fire. so it begins.” The concept of a new self arising from the debris of the old is then explored in the disturbing second poem, ‘Rebirth’, where the speaker imagines skinning himself before reassembling the “old body” into a new skin which fits “better and wore itself in around / my glad eyes and abraded insides.” Here, the spectre of self-harm in the form of cutting begins to emerge: it’s a theme which runs discomfortingly just under the surface of much of Coburn’s poetry, although in this collection it is presented not merely as a means towards a (potentially fatal) end, but, once again, as a kind of rebirth: “This was the beginning, the new became / normal before darkness could be heightened, / loosened into the clear shot of morning” (‘Rebirth’ 23-25).

Similarly, in ‘Death Games’, the self-harm which has been implied in previous poems is now dealt with directly:


I drive the blade into the plumed vein of my left wrist:

through the edge of a balance ache I emerge

prodding at the trail of blood,

painting with my index finger.


(‘Death Games’ 1-4)


It’s a confronting image, although not necessarily for the speaker, who observes that in the rest of his life, “I won’t feel anything as clear as this red stream”. Ultimately, however, cutting is presented as a dangerous choice: at this emotional low-point the speaker discovers that “poetry has become meaningless” and that he is “ready to commit to losing this long game”. Yet even here death and (self)destruction precede renewal. Just as the natural landscape may be wounded but still harbour potential for regeneration, so too does the body and mind: the “suicidal impulses” which “precede / the day, hidden in an unseen act, / escaping consequence”, morph as the “disturbance” of daylight’s “eye” is cast upon them, culminating in an image of the speaker:


… walking across the charred

plank again

quickly into the inferno,

cheating death and towards life.


(‘Death Games 21-24)


Fire, which has long been used as a tool for both destruction and regeneration in the Australian bush, is utilised here as a metaphor to express the phoenix-like rising of the speaker from repeated episodes of self-harm. The image of “walking… into the inferno” and emerging renewed on the other side is an affirmation of both the human and natural world’s ability to withstand and transform hardship—and is particularly pertinent when considering the horrific 2009 Black Saturday bushfires which swept through rural areas of Victoria, close to where Coburn writes and lives.

However, the chapbook is by no means solely concerned with the poet’s own internal and external landscapes, or experiences. In ‘She is Starving’, Coburn explores a different kind of bodily abuse and slow suicide:


face hollowed, balanced on weak pipe-cleaner limbs,

her skeleton breaks then aims to crumble

inside the dark’s window. the floorboards snap her shrunken

legs. I carry the decaying white bones breathing in the unfurling

winds to the tomb her lifeless hands managed to prepare as

she starved, suiciding for years.


(‘She is Starving’ 17-22)


The interior habitats of Coburn’s poems—the houses and sheds—are, like the one in this poem, often haunted places: they shelter and harbour private and familial secrets and sufferings. The lines of this, and many of the poems in the collection, are long and lyric, and the poet eschews capitalisation: his verse, rather than announcing its arrival, glides like a ghost into the reader’s mind, and lingers there: “Sleep now inside your skin of silent ghosts. / your voice will still trace my throat, your absence will starve me / like a famine of memory” (‘She is Starving’ 23-25).

As in this example (“your voice will still trace my throat”) Coburn’s poems often employ synaesthetic imagery, and his work in this regard is reminiscent of the French Symbolists. In Before Bone and Viscera, Coburn’s use of symbolism is particularly powerful in poems which deal with family and relationships. In these poems, romantic or familial separation is conveyed through images of geographical distance and obstruction: the landscape is a map of internal memory and time, not simply of place. In ‘Loneliness’:


at this distance memory exists only in my head,

miles and years from you

as I foot the clustered pathway back where

all is unchanged and everything vanishes

but the jagged crown of rock parting the heightening mist.


(‘Loneliness’ 19-23)


Here the vast, unforgiving spaces of rural Australia function as symbols for the emotional and temporal distance Coburn wishes to express. Similarly, In ‘Sororen’ (Latin for sister), we find the speaker walking in search of his long-lost half-sister, a figure who haunts several of the poems in the collection:


I woke from months of searching

at a distance that is unimportant.

my still dreaming mind walked a flat

and uninhabited stretch of road

past the hollowed gum trees lining her



(‘Sororen’ 1-6)


However, the distances which thwart the speaker’s desire for reconciliation are closed somewhat in ‘The Invisible Sister’, a poem where he and his sister “grow aware of each other”, and bridges, rather than “burning”, are now “lengthened”—the revelation dawning that it is possible (impossible not to?) “love blood from   such distance”.

This fractured family history is further explored in the poignant poem ‘Father, Daughter’, where, once again, synaesthetic imagery blurs the division between the wounded inner world and the natural landscape:


Father, listen to the years

ploughing the grass at your feet encircling

creases in your skin melded by long winds,

a gathering of drought and memory that knots

in the horizon, a kink in the land you worked.


(‘Father, Daughter’ 1-5)


In this hypnagogic poem, “the gallery” of the father’s “raw mind / shapes the sinking backyard” and “the merciless past floods through” his “interrupted veins”, which harbour the “unnamed wound” of a “nameless half-sister”. For the sister, the father is similarly abstracted, existing as “… a stranger / whose skeleton passes through memory”. As they did for Rimbaud and Baudelaire, objects in Coburn’s outer world function as recurring and deeply personal symbols to express the poet’s mental preoccupations and emotional states. A potent, almost totemic and sometimes paradoxical system of language emerges to describe internal states in relation to the body and the land: blood and sap are memory; bone, roots and trees are family; the skeleton is foundation as well as closeted experience; the skin is both potential union and separation; fire is birth and death; breath is life, and so on. These images are used so often and so reverently that they extend beyond metaphor and fall into the realm of metonymy, simultaneously deepening the hidden meanings of the poems and, in the case of ‘Father, Daughter’, lifting them into the realm of the archetypal:


the longing belongs in the foregathered illusions,

shadows I will watch sweep back into your suspended skin

the distressed close up of a father’s lips stitched into his

daughter’s hair, which the eyes have sacrificed in order

to live. we all dance for less—

it’s nothing you hadn’t foreseen.


(‘Father, Daughter’ 40-45)


Just as the poems in this short collection begin at the end—with “decay”—now the final poem of the collection, ‘The Blood is only Memory’, ends at the beginning—with “breath”. While the speaker’s “… pain / does not fade”, he finds that “this blood / is only memory” when set “against the warm pressure of breath”. In the language of symbols, breath is life, and it is both comforting and uplifting that a poetry collection so concerned with death and suffering should end on this more hopeful note. Pain is still present—of course it is—but something stronger than it exists, and just as our natural environment has the capacity to endure and regenerate after trauma, so, Coburn affirms in these poems, do we.


Robbie Coburn’s Before Bone and Viscera can be purchased from Rochford Street Press.

This review was first published in the excellent Australian journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics, Plumwood Moutain. Please pay them a visit to read more reviews and fine poetry. My thanks to editor Anne Elvey.




Mourning Morning





My mother’s house surrounds
me in a shroud: the tinkling
of the teaspoon as my father stirs
his tea, his tea; the chug of the washing machine
that never dies. The tubular wind chimes casting
their cool auric spell around us; the complaint
of the floorboards bearing up our lives.
And the busyness, of the birds in bush nearby… I

lie with eyes shucked open, not turning
to what waits to be let in.
I hear the phone shriek—and again—
then footsteps up the hall; the sound
of hesitation at the door—
as I elongate this moment,
try to dwell inside before.


*first published in Bluepepper



Beyond the Father’s Shadow, a film by Saba Vasefi


saba posterBeyond the Father’s Shadow to be launched at NSW Parliament House August 26

Beyond The Father’s Shadow is a short film by Iranian-Australian feminist documentary filmmaker (and my good friend!) Saba Vasefi. It’s the story of Australia’s first female parliamentarian Edith Cowan. The film portrays the struggles behind Cowan’s ascent to power, revealing how her traumatic childhood experiences motivated her to become a social worker and, ultimately, the first female member of the Australian parliament.

The film will be launched by author, patron of the Full Stop Foundation and UNICEF Ambassador Tara Moss; hosted by Greens Member of the NSW Legislative Council Dr Mehreen Faruqi; and MC’d by ABC’s commissioning editor, Andrea Ulbrick.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion on misogyny and politics.

Panelists for the evening will be:

♀ Dr Mehreen Faruqi: Member of the NSW Legislative Council

♀ Tara Moss: Author, Full Stop Patron and UNICEF Ambassador.

♀ Saba Vasefi: Filmmaker, Poet, Refugee Council of Australia Ambassador for Refugee Week.

♀ Lee Rhiannon: Senator for NSW

♀ Sarah Hanson-Young: Senator for SA

♀ Hon Linda Burney: Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Shadow Minister for Education & Aboriginal Affairs

♀ Van Badham: Guardian Columnist, Writer & Social Commentator

♀ Dr Wendy Michaels: Historian, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Newcastle; Director, The Women’s Club; Convenor, Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival.


So basically, a stellar line-up!

If you’re in Sydney, please come along. I’ll be there, proudly supporting Saba, who is both a very talented filmmaker and a tireless supporter of others.


Location: NSW Parliament House, Sydney

Date: August 26,2015

Time: 6-9pm

Tickets: $10 Bookings:



Two reviews published in Mascara Literary Review


IMG_4048 (1)
I recently had the pleasure of reviewing two new Australian poetry collections: Distance, by Nathanael O’Reilly, and Fixing the Broken Nightingale by Richard James Allen. Here’s a little taste of each review; please follow the link to read the full versions at the wonderful Mascara Literary Review. (And a big thanks to managing editor Michelle Cahill.)


, Nathanael O’Reilly’s first full-length poetry collection, is separated into three sections – ‘Australia’, ‘Europe’ and ‘America’ – the first and most substantial section (which deals with the experience of growing up in Australia) functioning as the emotional cornerstone of the collection. The title and section headings immediately alert us to the major themes of the book – distance, separation, identity, expatriation, connection and disconnection – but the distances and proximities explored here are not simply geographical or physical; they are also temporal, cultural and emotional. (Link to the rest of the review here.)


Fixing the Broken Nightingale
, Richard James Allen’s tenth poetry collection, is a small treasure of a book – one you might pop into your bag and dip into at idle moments for bursts of inspiration, contemplation or solace. Indeed, the physical design of the book (it’s part of Flying Island’s petite Australian Pocket Poets Series) recalls a more romantic time when poetry was indeed carried and savoured in this way; while the title – evoking Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ – suggests that similar themes of mortality, bliss, suffering and the power of words to save us will be explored. (Link to the rest of the review here.)









Gurgling sounds woke me — (perhaps I needed to pee?) —
the sink had filled with water abundant enough to spill
out onto the floor and flow
in a sacred stream under the bathroom door.
In this lucid dream
within a dream I rose
from your father’s bed and followed the trail
to you, my son, a lotus blooming
improbably from a golden yoke on the belly of my ocean —
and I knew, like queen Maya upon receiving
a visitation by the sublime white elephant
that soon you would appear.

And now here you are — yes, here you all are! —
little lotuses mired in my mud.
Tying your nooses around your necks each morning
strangling yourselves a little more each day:
obediently becoming (for me)
what I never wanted
you to be.

*First published in Bluepepper

My interview on The Australian Poetry Podcast



The Australian Poetry Podcast is a new initiatave started up by poets Nathan Hondros and Robbie Coburn. When ABC’s Poetica series was closed down late last year due to lack of funding, these brave poets decided, Hey, why not fill the gap and start up our own thing!

Armed with some rudimentary equipment, a wealth of poetic knowledge, passion and a go-get-’em attitude, they set about chatting to poets — and the resulting interviews are relaxed, informative and, I believe, an important contribution to the Australian literary scene.

To date they’ve interviewed well respected poets such as Andy Burke, Jill Jones, Mark Roberts, Beth Spencer, MTC Cronin and um, me! How I got onto that list, I don’t know, but I’m very proud to be there, and the interview process (while initially a cause for terror) tuned out to be hugely enjoyable. At the outset I do talk a little too much about my kids and my cat (who doesn’t?) — but hang in there, we do eventually get to poetry!

So please have a listen to episode 5 of the podcast, and while you’re there, subscribe to the Podcast feed so you can do what I do — listen while cleaning the bathroom; it makes a dreary job almost a pleasure.