More Reviews for Engraft

1engraft_cropped_cover_02-12-15-2I’ve been lucky to receive a number of very positive and thoughtful reviews of my poetry collection, Engraft: one by Mary Cresswell in Plumwood Mountain; another by Magdalena Ball in The Compulsive Reader; and a third, by Alyson Miller, in Cordite Poetry Review. My sincere thanks to the reviewers and to the editors of these excellent journals — Anne Elvey, Magdalena Ball and Kent MacCarter, respectively. Below is an extract from the Cordite review:

In ‘Sky Burial’, a poem about ‘the secrets inside / that we shamefully hide’, Seminara offers a provocation: ‘So listen / why don’t we share them? / Cut our guts open / and air them?’ It is an invitation to confession, but the visceral imagery is also a confrontation, an insistence on exposure which characterises much of Engraft, Seminara’s debut collection of poetry. Indeed, Engraft is often focussed on conflict and opposition, on a brutal pulling away of surfaces to reveal – and at times, even revel in – pain, loss, and confusion. The consequence of such fierceness is a series of uncomfortable realities: the cruelty of love and birth; the violence of frustration; and the disappointing failures of self. In cutting open that which is hidden, and allowing ‘birds of carrion’ to feed on what is found there, Seminara constructs a hopeful, albeit macabre vision, in which ‘dark feelings’ might ‘transmute […] to food’. This suggestion of transformation and consumption (and even of transubstantiation) is gothic in nature, yet an apt metaphor for creativity; a kind of vampiric leeching. Certainly, in explicitly drawing on poets such as Shakespeare, Dickinson, Plath, Hughes, Bishop, and Lowell, as well as Kafka, Duras, Solzhenitsyn, and Joyce, Engraft is both polyphonic and parodic, including letters, prayers, homages, re-mixes, erasures, ekphrases, and found poems. The combination of so many modes and voices ought to be jarring, yet a synthesis is achieved in a repetition with difference that is as concerned with tradition as it is renewal.

You can read the rest of the Cordite review here, and buy a print or ebook copy of Engraft here.

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I Review The Special, by David Stavanger, for Mascara

the-special-674x1024Reviewing is a labour of love, and in this case the labour was a long one — elephantine in fact — nearly two years gestation! Thank heavens this review popped out in the end, of David Stavanger’s intriguing poetry collection, The Special:

 

This book is dedicated to the dead
who are bravely living
(and to those who wake wild-eyed in the dark)

 

So begins David Stavanger’s first full length collection, The Special, published by UQP as wining manuscript of the 2013 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. As the dedication suggests, this book is an unsettling read; one feels, intentionally so. The poems deal with what is dark and broken in the human psyche, informed, presumably, by the poet’s own personal and professional experiences with mental illness. This is Stavanger’s first serious foray into the world of ‘page’ as opposed to ‘performance’ poetry (a distinction he eschews), the leap between these two hotly fought over territories no doubt entailing a certain risk of the poems falling flat on the page. Yet while the book may, on first reading, appear somewhat stylistically and tonally ‘flat’, upon deeper reading it becomes clear that this has less to do with Stavanger’s poetry not transitioning well onto the page, and more to do with the nature of what the poet is trying to achieve. When exploring states of mind such as depression or psychosis, an emotionally disconnected, disjointed, or even dissociated style of poetry may indeed be the perfect mode of expression…

 

If this tickles your fancy, please read the rest over at the wonderful Mascara Literary Review, where you can also enjoy their latest issue comprising some of the finest writing in the land. A huge thanks to editor Michelle Cahill, who works hard to support the publication of a diverse range of Australian Literature.

 

Engraft Reviewed in Mascara Literary Review!

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I’m thrilled that Engraft has received its first review, and that it didn’t say anything terrible, and that it was published in such an esteemed journal. My thanks to Michelle Cahill, editor of Mascara, Anna Couani (for not saying anything terrible!) and, of course, to Island Press (Phil Hamial, Les Wicks and Martin Langford) for publishing the book in the first place.

Island were fantastic to work with and I feel honoured to be among the long list of incredible poet’s they’ve published.  Founded in 1970, they’ve made a significant contribution to independent Australian publishing, and I dearly hope that their recently cut Australia Council for the Arts grant will be reinstated so the press can continue.

If you’d like to learn more about the colorful history of Island, take a look at the first and second installment of this article published in Rochford Street Review. It’s a fascinating window into the world of poetry and publishing in Australia over the last 45 years.

And please click over to Mascara to read Engraft’s first review!

 

My review of Hook and Eye, by Judith Beveridge, published on Mascara Literary Review

HookandEye.jpgJudith Beveridge’s Hook and Eye is a collection of previously published poems selected to showcase the highly regarded Australian poet’s work to an American readership. The poems are for the most part imaginatively — rather than autobiographically — conceived, lyrical while still remaining largely outward looking, and full of the sensual imagery and sound-play for which Beveridge’s work is prized. Yet what is most striking about the book, comprised of work written over a twenty-five year span, are the enduring and distinctive spiritual concerns of the poet, and how these inform her praxis.

As Maria Takolander points out in a recent review[i], the book’s first poem, ‘Girl Swinging’, seems deliberately placed to give the reader insight into (perhaps even guidance for entering) the poet’s creative practise.

I often think about
the long process that loves
the sound we make.
It swings us until
we’ve got it by heart;
the music we are.

(‘Girl Swinging’)

The process of creation rather than the creation itself is paramount, a process which (like Beveridge) ‘loves’ playing with ‘the sound we make’ and which ‘swings us’ until we come to understand, at a heart level, ‘the music we are’. There is a profound desire for personal transformation: the speaker, longing ‘to be a symphony / levitated by grace-notes’, turns quietly within, ‘listening to myself’ until ‘that feeling comes / of being lifted into the air’. Takolander has convincingly argued that lyric poetry is fundamentally a poetry of embodiment and senses a paradox here in the way the remembered sensations of the girl’s body ‘swinging’ generate the adult speaker’s spiritual disembodiment. Yet it is not merely sensory experience which leads to this state – it is the poet’s attentive focus upon the girl’s sensory experience which foreground a form of mindfulness and lead the narrator of ‘Girl Swinging’ to her own kind of lyric elevation. Beveridge’s poetry could perhaps be called a poetry of conscious embodiment; here, physicality acts as tool for deepening the narrator’s awareness until she rises into a space of ‘…clear singing / …above / the common rattle / of chains’.

 

You can read the rest of the review over at Mascara. My thanks to editor Michelle Cahill. 

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

 

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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

property…

 

(‘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.

 

 

 

Two reviews published in Mascara Literary Review

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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.)

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Distance
, 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.)

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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.)