Episode 173 39 min 42 sec The Sea, the Selves: Poets on Poetry 2
Dr Jennifer Harrison is a Melbourne writer and child psychiatrist. She has published six poetry collections, the most recent being Colombine New & Selected Poems (Black Pepper 2010), which was shortlisted for the 2011 Western Australia Premier’s Prize. Among other awards, she has won the Anne Elder Poetry Prize, the NSW Women’s Writers Prize and the Martha Richardson Poetry Medal. In 2009 she co-edited Motherlode: Australian Women’s Poetry 1986-2008 (Puncher & Wattmann). She holds an Honorary Fellowship within the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at the University of Melbourne and is a board member for the international journal of creative practice, Axon. Jennifer runs the Neuropsychiatry Clinic and Developmental Assessment Program for youth and children at the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, and in 2012 she will curate poetry for the Dax Centre, the Australian collection of mental health art now housed at the University of Melbourne. Her poetry has featured in The Best Australian Poems 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and in Best Australian Poetry 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011. Recently anthologised work can be found in 60 Classic Australian Poems (2009), The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (2009), The Puncher & Wattmann Anthology of Australian Poetry (2009) and Australian Poetry Since 1788 (2011).
Philip Salom has published twelve books of poetry, including the internationally acclaimed collections Sky Poems, New and Selected Poems, A Cretive Life and Feeding the Ghost. His recent book The Well Mouth, featuring voices from the underworld, was a Sydney Morning Herald Book of the Year and an Adelaide Review Book of the Year. His verse-novel Keepers was published in 2010 by Puncher & Wattmann, and in 2011 they published two follow-up collections: The Keeper of Fish, written through a heteronymic character from Keepers, and Keeping Carter.
His two novels are Toccata and Rain (2005) which was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and the WA Premiers Prize for Fiction; and Playback, (re-printed 2003) which won the WA Premiers Prize for Fiction.
Awards include: twice winning the Commonwealth Poetry Book Prize in London, three WA Premiers Prizes (two for Poetry and one for Fiction), and two wins of the prestigious Newcastle Poetry Prize (in 1996 and again in 2000). Sky Poems was the only poetry collection shortlisted in the 1987 Age Book of the Year. In 2003 he was recognised with the Christopher Brennan Prize, a lifetime award for "poetry of sustained quality and distinction".
Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia.
I’m Jennifer Cook. Thanks for joining us. What is poetic intelligence? Is it as renowned poet, Philip Salom says, normal intelligence in reverse, something that happens as answer before the question is consciously put and may never be put? But, of course, we at Up Close are in the business of putting questions and who better to answer those questions than two skilled practitioners of the art, Melbourne poets Jennifer Harrison and, of course, Philip Salom.
I imagine Philip, who was Honorary Fellow at the School of Culture and Communication here at Melbourne University will take great delight in the difficulty I had in trying to capture the essence of his work for this introduction. It is like trying to nail shadows. He’s an author of 12 poetry collections and two novels and he can best be defined by his ability to defy categorisation. Curious, playful, mischievous, insightful and unafraid - these words go some small way towards encapsulating the power of his work.
He is joined by Jennifer Harrison whose poetry has been described as being deeply attentive to the strangeness they have found in the world. Jennifer was born in Liverpool, Sydney and she runs the Developmental Assessment Program for Children and Adolescents at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. She has also exhibited her photographs and climbed the Himalayas. She has been earning money from poetry since she was seven years old and has won many prizes including the 2003 New South Wales Women Writers National Poetry Prize and the 2004 Martha Richardson Poetry Medal.
Her work has been compared to Gwen Harwood, Judith Wright and Elizabeth Bishop. Her writing is deeply concerned with an exploration of the self while skilfully keeping her own self out of the frame for most of the time.
Philip, Jennifer, thank you so much for joining us.
Well, hello and good morning.
Hello Phil. Hello Jennifer.
Now, Jennifer, I’d like to begin by asking you to share a poem that has inspired you. If you could read it to us now and explain its significance? I’m interested to hear who you’ve chosen.
Well, I’ve chosen a poem by Henry Lawson and, although I don’t think my poetry particularly has been inspired by this poem. It does represent an important time in my family and childhood when poetry was quite important within the family and particularly to my mother who used to collect poetry into a black linen covered book which - she still has this book and I was talking to her about that just the other day. So my mother used to share the poems from this book with us quite often as - when we were children and this is one of the poems that I remember my mother sharing.
It’s Henry Lawson’s poem Waratah and Wattle. Henry Lawson was an Australian poet, born 1867 and died in 1922.
Waratah and Wattle
Though poor and in trouble I wander alone,
With a rebel cockade in my hat;
Though friends may desert me, and kindred disown,
My country will never do that!
You may sing of the Shamrock, the Thistle, and Rose,
Or the three in a bunch if you will;
But I know of a country that gathered all those,
And I love the great land where the Waratah grows,
And the Wattle bough blooms on the hill.
Australia! Australia! so fair to behold
While the blue sky is arching above;
The stranger should never have need to be told,
That the Wattle-bloom means that her heart is of gold,
And the Waratah’s red with her love.
Australia! Australia! most beautiful name,
Most kindly and bountiful land;
I would die every death that might save her from shame,
If a black cloud should rise on the stand;
But whatever the quarrel, whoever her foes,
Let them come! Let them come when they will!
Though the struggle be grim, ‘tis Australia that knows,
That her children shall fight while the Waratah grows,
And the Wattle blooms out on the hill.
Jennifer, hearing that poem, it really does speak to another time and another place, doesn’t it? I mean, to our modern ears it seems very nationalistic, which it is - sentimental.
Absolutely. It’s a poem that I normally wouldn’t think of reading on a radio program except that I do feel some connection with the experience of listening to that poem as a child. It had its place back there although contemporary poetry and the poetry that I’m interested in today has very little connection with that type of poem of Henry Lawson’s.
So do you think that that moment when those words, spoken by your mother, made you feel something was that a moment of connection for you to realising the power of poems?
Absolutely, the power to be transported, taken somewhere else by the melody and the imagery of poetry. I particularly remember Octavio Paz talking in his Nobel address in 1990 about his idea that poetry falls very much into that sense of separation that a child experiences, the sort of knowing that a child comes into when they realise that the world’s a much bigger place and that one is alone in the world. Paz describes that as quite a deep place where everything that we experience, dream, strive for perhaps is directed towards trying to connect with the world again and I feel very much that that was my experience in childhood of feeling that this was a way of connecting the self with the world.
That’s so interesting because it’s this distillation of the language, the power of the language and the strength, would you say, within those images that can make sense to not only a child but, Philip, for that need of us to make those connections and belonging would you say?
Very much. I think that poetry is about heightened imagination and a word that I like a lot and is sometimes used in poetry is reach. Poetry has reach. It can go, if you like, and touch and reveal things which seem to some degree intrinsic to us but beyond us in the normal prosaic life and many art forms do it and music does it clearly in its own particular way but poetry has combinations of, if you like, sensation, sense, intellect, emotion - what I call feeling as distinct from emotion - and imagination. All these things combine to make a kind of composite which is very, very flexible and extraordinarily able to go into places and come back and deliver the goods and it’s unpredictable.
You can read a poem that may begin in the prosaic and you find that it has taken you quite beyond your expectations and that may have been the poet’s experience as well and this is the point about me talking about the intelligence working backwards. The fact is you may actually be finding something that you hadn’t gone seeking quite and you don’t know the nature of the form of it or you haven’t asked a specific question to get to a point but you have got to the point. Well, when I say point I mean multiple point. It’s a multiplicity and the language actually of poetry does not confine it to the literal.
I was going to ask you, Jennifer and also you Philip, do you write then towards understanding something rather than coming to an understanding and then writing, Jennifer?
I think I write very much towards questions and those questions will encompass the whole book quite often. So one of the questions might be, what is the sea and I’ll write a book trying to explore the sea in its many aspects but also including memories of childhood again but also ideas, scientific ideas, of the sea.
I think this would be a wonderful moment to ask you to read us one of your poems, Jennifer.
So this is a poem called A Good Catch from my first book Michelangelo’s Prisoners and it was the beginning of What is the Sea?, a question - an investigation that I carried over into the following book, Cabramatta/Cudmirrah.
A Good Catch
Fishermen race back from sea, they hedge
their boats at the Entrance, then gun hard for a quick
silver-thrust across shallow sand-beds
into sheltered water, engines puttering the lick
of river to the jetties, to the wives and children
who are waving. Ashton rides home the biggest boat.
Salt glistens on his caps peaked brim
as the slime-fresh catch twitches in the freight
and we drift over to see his fish — a hammer shark
half as long as the boat, brought home for the pub.
We measure the mouth-span, the teeth cracked, slack
and bloody from the hook, we touch the Maori Chief
its coat of rainbow, the wings of flying gurnard…
you’ve done well today, we say. Our bountiful reef.
from Michelangelo's Prisoners (Black Pepper 1994)
Jennifer, thank you. Tell us about the inspiration for that poem? We know it’s about the sea. Where does it come from and what are you exploring there?
This poem references a place on the south coast of New South Wales, South West Rocks, where my grandparents had a house and we spent all our childhood summers in its environment. In some ways the poem is quite reminiscent and recalls quite clearly the details of some of those experiences. We used to fish out to sea and we’d often wait for the men to come back with the boats and the catch and we’d join them at the jetty to see what they’d brought back. I suppose on an emotional level there is something of the nostalgic in the poem as well but also a sense of the bounty, the bountiful reef.
To me it has also a sense of perhaps that bounty being depleted.
Philip, what’s your response to that poem?
I was thinking of the exactness. I think one of the interesting things about poetry, and perhaps one of the interesting things for me that first attracted me to it, was sensation. Even though I’m actually quite a conceptual poet I love the way language catches, in this case, the sounds of water and the touch, the tactile qualities of fishing - of work.
I actually came from a farming background which is I suppose similar to a fishing background except it’s much drier and the idea is that work is an essential element for me. I love work and I like the physical qualities of work but poetry often has that kind of quality of detail, sensation detail while in fact, of course, it’s always on about some other conceptual or abstract or emotional quality quite different. That is what I was talking about before when I talked about multiplicities because one thing can, on the surface, look to be a description of a process but, in fact, it’s about a very different process and poetry does this all the time and that’s its quality. That’s its richness.
That’s something that you’ve said you love, Jennifer, the complexity and coming back, almost like it’s a buried treasure that you uncover different layers.
I absolutely agree with that and I particularly like the idea that poetry has porous boundaries and thinking of that both in each poem and each book’s relationship to past poems and past poetries but also quite a porous depth that one can travel down through the poem through images as well.
I’m Jennifer Cook and on Up Close this episode, we’re speaking with poets, Jennifer Harrison and Philip Salom about the wonder landscape and countries we find in poems.
Jennifer, you talking about porous boundaries makes me think of, I know your love of photography, and when have spoken to you about photography and what is it you love about it, you said what’s outside of the frame. Speak to me about that.
Well, I’m fascinated by photographs and their point of stillness, how they capture time but I’m also always curious about what’s outside the frame so it’s perhaps a restless curiosity, never satisfied with what I can see and feel and touch. So I suppose that’s the imagination that’s bringing the possibilities of what’s outside the frame.
I think it’s interesting, I know some poets to them not forgetting is terribly important and I’m thinking of poets like Celan for example, Paul Celan. But I also think that what is forgotten is a field of interest and exploration as well.
Do you think that’s somewhere that the poem can take you?
Absolutely. Absolutely, I think the poem can take you any place and any space. I think space is quite fluid and dynamic as time is as well although the poem is not a real self. There’s the self in the poem that can explore those territories.
Now, Jennifer, thank you for giving us a wonderful segue into a discussion of self and souls in poetry. Philip, explain yourself?
Ourselves. Well, the problem I seem to present to my readers, whoever they are, is that I’m not the one poet and I mean that in the sense that all of my books have been sufficiently different, stylistically to some degree but conceptually in a very big way. So what has happened is over the years I have decided that the particular restlessness that I have about who I might be as a poet is, in fact, what I am as a poet.
I am restless in my imagination. I’m restless aesthetically and artistically but I’m also indifferent to the idea of having a single identity or self that is to be established and, to some degree, even made a fetish of in poems. Some poets do this. They seem to rather like themselves and they like the sound of their own voices. I’m not saying they shouldn’t but sometimes it’s more than one wants and, without being too unfair to the poets and therefore I won’t name the ones I put in the category of sinners of that kind. Other poets, of course, use that as an extraordinary strength and it is precisely that quality of strong single identity that gives them their power so it is by no means one thing or the other.
For me, I prefer the power of the language and I prefer the power of the particular imaginations that I bring to that and when I write and collect those poems into books. I’ve published now 12 books of poetry and eight or nine of them would be whole worlds in themselves.
You have two of those books here with us today and you are going to read to us, aren’t you Philip?
Yes but I’m not quite sure how I should do this and how I should go about it.
I’m not quite sure how you’re going to do this but I’m looking forward…
Not that I care. What I should do I suppose is read something from the book that seems to be by Philip Salom. It has my name on the front of it and it is one of my sort of stylistic selves and then I could read from two other books written through heteronyms and the heteronyms are personalities or identities which I have established because they actually allow a different poetry. These two poets, one Alan Fish and the other poet, M.A. Carter, are not me in the sense that I wouldn’t have written those poems - never have written those poems but, taking on the task for them I have been a amanuensis, so I have actually done, if you like, the hard work of taking down the words and doing a bit of editorial work with them.
So I actually have these books which very happily arrived this morning in time for the interview, from my publisher who’s Puncher and Wattmann in New South Wales and Puncher and Wattmann have played along very happily with my idea of multiplicities in this case and they have published these three books of mine in a row. So Keepers by Philip Salom, The Keeper of Fish by Alan Fish and Keeping Carter by M.A. Carter and The Keeper of Fish is, of course, a hint at The Keeper of Sheep which is a reference backwards to Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet who was famous for his heteronymic writing, writing through in his case, four different names - Fernando Pessoa, Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis I think it is - I can’t say the Portuguese - and many other heteronyms as well. But those are the three plus himself, four argumentative and different poets.
He actually used the term heteronym for the first time to mean quite literally a different personality, not simply a different name.
That is fascinating. Now, Philip, stop keeping us in suspense. Are we going to get Alan or are we going to get Carter or are we going to get you?
Well, I should begin with me and then read them and then I’ll shut up for a while perhaps.
The first poem I’d like to read is from Keepers. It is a dedication really in honour of another Australian poet, Francis Webb. Francis Webb was one of the poets that did influence me so while I’m not going to read one of his poems on a program like this I would certainly like to read a poem dedicated to him. There is a reference to Orange.
Webb spent many years in various psychiatric institutions and Orange was one of those so this is the kind of place that he was well used to but most of us would find very strange. There’s a reference to Beaver in the poem which is Bruce Beaver the New South Wales poet who was also a poet who had certain mental incapacities, if you like - uncertainties. I’m not quite sure what label was placed on him but they were both brilliant poets and had very compromised lives.
Reading Francis Webb
Tiled rooves in Orange miraging around you, the nerving
home above the park, the mad and ordinary moments
washed by the common soap. From this battered linoleum
ordinary you founded intensity and God. The poems
rhymed into the past with grace and violence, your pure impure
directions, your long wires, your inner Spinning Jenny.
Inside the pyjamas, the drugs, the chance, a teleology
was rolling through the 50s television screen, its vertical hold
there and nowhere as you sat around chomping apples,
the ones you didn't drop, alone in that rising gravity
you heard equally in Jussi Bjorling or in the mad-for-God
supplicants you saw wandering your imagination, or eating
from refectory plates on Sunday evenings, or smudging
through letters to the godofnoaddress by the poor unfamilied
schizophrenics. The after-life for itinerants.
The fruit-pickers have come to pick and the garden's
full of secateurs, like sanity, so sharp you shrink back into poetry,
or should those clarities be reversed?
God's the trick. Not the skin, the blight, the dapple and myrrh,
the impure pure and cortex-firing ecstasies we might call God
but the dogma of God. Like Beaver, the under-terror. All.
The black hole. The rifling of chalices, Eucharists, the closed
text pretending it is open. Your own, thankfully, the open
text hoping it was closed. You let God in. You let us in.
Thank you Philip
I should read the next poem in the trilogy which is The Keeper of Fish book and so I’ll just read the first poem from that.
Now, fish is a character who appears for the first time in Keepers. He’s the voice in prose underneath each page of poetry so he’s moved from his position as a nobody in the basement of the institution that Keepers is about which is an art institution in the university to being a poet. So all along he’s been a closet poet. So this is the first poem from his own book of poems.
When I Was
It was early. It was before love shifted back
its powers of separation. It was a late party.
After the talking that leaves memory upright
as fingers, in me ringing like a wine-drinker’s
long glass stem, in a kind of alcoholic music,
I must have been more than one bottle over:
I tripped and fell downstairs. I fell onto our
tiny lawn. I didn’t break! I lay there shocked
below the terrace. I shouted the stars were frost
on a black bonnet, how I was in love with you
and still in love with all our friends, the young,
sexually abundant shapes of them. My brain
registered the skin, the shoulders of imagined
lust, the summery legs of female arguments.
You, it was one of you, stood on the terrace
telling me to please shut up. It wasn't possible.
I was shouting, I was drunk. You had a bucket.
When I looked up I saw a woman of water
fall onto me. She was clean and cold and naked.
I lay under her, I was sodden and content.
Oh Philip, that is so not you, is it? Alan’s voice. Can I just read the blurb on the back of this book, just a little part of it? It says ‘His work is seriously beautiful or beautifully serious in its imagery and shadows. He is in some ways lost but he is no pushover. He is to one side of the optimists. He is addicted to free verse couplets. As the cliché says, a compelling new voice, listen.
And I do, Jennifer, again I want to hear more. It’s such a difference voice. So not Philip. What do you think?
It’s a more immediate voice. It’s a more, almost jargonistic voice of Aussie lingo but also the clarity of the images. Somehow there is a startling brutality to the images as well so that it’s much more an immediate engagement, almost with the character as opposed to perhaps more the ideas and a gentler introduction in the previous poem.
Yeah, Alan Fish is a lyric poet, that’s the difference. I’m not a lyric poet and Alan Fish is unashamedly lyric. Now, he writes about himself. He writes about his own experiences. He writes very emotionally. He writes very directly and he is very sincere except, of course, he is fictitious. That’s my play on it; he doesn’t exist. So I perhaps should read a contrast which is a very big contrast in many ways.
This person is also a lyric poet in some ways but he’s more mordent and this is my friend M.A. Carter. Now, M.A. Carter lives with his sister Mary who’s a kind of Dorothy Wordsworth figure. This is a bit longer but you’ll see why it works the way it does.
Dawn and Mary
I wanted dawn to come so fast
I jabbed adrenaline into its buttocks
to make it gallop. I lay there
awake, alone, and crazy. I was not
myself, craziness was. Now I am
myself and I am, awake, alone,
I don’t want dawn to come.
Not another day to dislike, wanting
this and that of me, the obligations...
Awake means what? That air is light
again, clothes on the wooden chair
are clothes on the wooden chair again,
that day has gone far enough or too far
to get sad about. I can hear downstairs
Glenn Gould playing, at finger-snapping
through the Goldberg variations,
his steely counter-point in needle-point,
the rush of voices he adds his Baching
drone to. Air in splintered variations.
My old friend Glenn Gould, who said
that Bach was the best because Bach
was out of date in the 17th Century.
Downstairs my sister has the CD on,
she knows how ruined I will be from
another night of silence and dreams
forever gone. That’s me. She is Dorothy
W, and I a poet who doesn’t like to walk.
If asked about my family I always say:
no family. She is not and I am not, we just
do not make that contribution. Clothes,
wooden chair. And the cat in the sun
purring the pedal part of the passacaglia
and fur. I must rise up, push this naked,
oddly-long body of mine with its odder
me within, into whatever this day is for.
Mary. She knows me better than anyone.
She saves my life putting a CD on.
Bach and Glenn Gould my utterest
undertaking, their utter love of making.
Now I love them again, this morning.
By the eighteenth variation, in
clothes from the wooden chair, I step
a chromatic scale downwards. And appear.
It takes that long. I am simply not
the sentimental one.
I’m Jennifer Cook and on Up Close, this episode, we’re speaking with poets Jennifer Harrison and Philip Salom about the wonderful treasures that we find in poems.
Philip, you read that and I want to clap my hands. I get so filled with glee and the sense of play that’s with it. She is not. I am not. No he’s not. You made him up but because of that he is and he’s on the page.
Jennifer, does it have that effect on you?
Well, with this particular heteronym I sort of feel like I want to shake him up a bit and get him out the door and experience it a bit more outside his own bubble in a way.
Philip’s nodding, I should say - nodding furiously.
Yes, that’s what he’s like.
That’s what he’s like. That’s the personality created but I agree, Jennifer, the poetry is just wonderful. It’s exhilarating.
The idea is that I as a poet behind the scenes can enjoy the pleasure of the other personalities. I mean, for me Carter is a mordent, mad, mischievous person who is also quite capable of offence. I mean, there will be people who will very much dislike these poems. It’s amazing how poetry - another aspect of it that no one ever told us about - how it stirs up difficult feelings in people and I don’t mean good ones. I mean argumentative ones and excited as I am at having the books in front of me today and forever more there will be times when I regret it.
You’ve encountered that when you’ve met these people? They’ve brought these opinions to you? What has your work stirred up?
Yes. Now, we can have a part of a discussion that doesn’t normally take place in interviews. Yes, well, I’ve had people say very rude things to me because they felt that I was saying very rude things to them in the poems personally.
I once wrote a poem which was based around a friend’s work. He was a carpenter so I wrote a poem about rooms being built and I dedicated the poem to him but I wrote it in the second person so I kept on saying you. He said he felt utterly compromised by the poem because it seemed to be my poem to him but it was in print when, of course, he knew very well that it was a device - a literary and a grammatic device simply to play with.
But then I found out that a lot of people had read various of my poems written in the second person as if they were directed almost personally but intimately to them. Now, that can be both good and bad. It might be that they think these are rather seductive. They might also think they were rather abusive. So poetry is that powerful it goes straight in.
That is so interesting because as the poet you could take some pride in, I got that close; I got right through everything, but how confronting as well. Jennifer, have you had that experience?
I haven’t had exactly that experience but I wondered if I might talk a little bit about Colombine at this point?
If that’s okay because, as Philip was talking and reading from his heteronyms I was thinking that a lot of other poets do write in other identities or explore their ideas through other identities and perhaps not quite so clearly as Pessoa or Philip in the heteronyms and it kind of reminded me of the poem - major sequence in Colombine in my New and Selected Poems which is published by Black Pepper Press. In that poem which is an extensive formal poem where in 27 poems I explore the identity of the character Colombine from the Commedia dellArte and Colombine, as in Colombina in the Italian meaning dove, is the only female character of the Commedia dellArte. I thought, in my reading about her, I noted how much of a stereotype she was and the particular kind of object of the male gaze and also male desire.
So in this particular poem I wanted to give her a story and an identity of her own. So I was thinking that not just in a heteronym but perhaps Colombine or Colombina is somewhat of another identity shift for me to explore a number of issues that have been important to me including the birth of children. So I wondered if this might be appropriate to read a couple of poems from the Colombine sequence?
So these are two poems number 18 and 19 about the birth of her child. I should say that the last line of each poem becomes the title of the next through this linked sequence.
XVIII ... the rim copper-bound
I’ve not forgotten how the child slid from my body.
The child breathed and survived all song.
I’ve not forgotten the shit and vomit, the difficult milk,
the bruise of a mouth on my nipple. I’ve not forgotten
nights of sleepless hunger, the swell of despair
and the breaking spray of milk rising to her cry
—her body pale as a morning moon against mine
and, in her breath, the imagined, scattered noises of the sea.
I’ve not forgotten that her name, Genevieve,
‘white wave’ swims in her throat’s notched scallop
and sucks me into an ocean of salt and dominical weed
where I swim like an imperfect fish in her greater shadow.
XIX . . . her shadow
Swing me higher mother. Swing me higher than you.
I swing her in the garden, I swing her in the barn.
I swing her between the shadow-fountains of the park.
I swing her to music and I swing her to words.
I swing her to the breeze I cannot regain. I swing her
from me and to me like a tiny trapeze.
And the audience loves her—they swing her
from shoulder to shoulder, from cheek to cheek.
They are cupping her chin and marvelling at the mermaid
I’ve made with her wagon-bright eyes, tough as China jade.
Swing me mother. Swing me higher than you. And I swing
her to sleep. In the candlelight, her face my own.
from ‘Colombine’, Colombine, New & Selected Poems, (Black Pepper 2010)
Jennifer, beautiful, powerful and as a mother it just speaks so clearly and we share a name and Genevieve, Jennifer, white wave, and your questions about the sea, so you’re in there.
I’m in there in a new disguise or a new way so I’m exploring some of my treasured things I suppose but in a different context.
Wonderful. Who’s swinging you?
Who’s swinging me in this poem?
I think the research I did on that particular poem is swinging me because I read quite a lot about the Commedia dellArte and I also photographed street performers over several years as a result of a grant I had from the Australia Literature Council. So I was very much involved in the whole tradition of street theatre and how it relates to the Commedia dellArte tradition.
I feel that there’s a folk ballad approach coming through that particular sequence of poems.
I’m very much struck by that image of the swing me higher, higher than you. So interesting and I’m wondering if we can look at the poem - as a reader of the poem you want to be swung higher than the poem. It’s a way of lifting you up and out. What do you think Philip?
I was just thinking yes, it’s a levitation device or it’s a booster rocket, you know. I mean, I think it’s intrinsic to language used this way that a poem - not all poems, of course, but poetry that uses language very richly and with many levels to it actually takes you beyond various literal levels. It might operate within the poem or in any easy reading of it and they can be somatic. They can be bodily changes. There will be bodily changes - emotional shifts. These things happen quickly. These things happen involuntarily. They’re happening to us immediately we’re listening to or reading a poem but other things happen much more slowly but they’re still happening and they take time to reveal themselves and they may actually only reveal themselves when some other experience calls them back up and you think ah that’s what was happening. Then you think of the poem and sometimes they leave the poem behind so, in fact, you can be changed by any experience in this way but poetry is a kind of brilliant and beautiful device that does it and I’m not saying for doing it but that does it because no one writes with that in mind.
When we’re writing a poem we’re just writing. I mean, we’re trusting all that we have learned so far about writing poetry so each poem is being written almost like the first poem in one way. However, what we bring to it is the experience of all the poems that we’ve written before and have read before.
On that point I would say that swing me mother, swing me higher has a very specific reference point to a poem by Philip Larkin where he described watching women in the park with their children and describing the women as pushed to the side of their own lives which I felt was inaccurate and didn’t represent necessarily how women relate to children when they’re in the park and that this image of a mother swinging and pushing her child higher than her is almost a counteractive image to that one of Philip Larkam.
And a brilliant response to it because his outsiderness both as a man and as a misanthrope clearly misunderstood the experience entirely but would insist on the image in his poems. What a great answer.
Thank you so much for answering these questions that we have put to you today and for swinging us higher both of you, Jennifer, Philip.
Thank you Jenny and Jennifer.
Thank you Philip. Thank you Jennifer.
That was Australian poets, Jennifer Harrison and Philip Salom and they were sharing with us their insights into their wonderful art. Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.uni.melb.edu.au. Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia.
This episode was recorded on Friday, 25 November 2011 and our producers were Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer. Up Close is created by Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel. I’m Jennifer Cook. Until next time, good-bye.
You’ve been listening to Up Close. We’re also on Twitter and Facebook. For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2011, the University of Melbourne.
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