Launch speech: Stuart Solman's In advance of our broken wings
3rd March 2011, Hobart Bookshop
(Pardalote Press 2010, ISBN 9780980329742)
I’d like to begin with a saying of Liz Winfield’s: “When you come to a poetry reading, you never come alone, because you come with everyone who has brought you this far.” Stuart has told me he came to poetry as many of us do, by just writing it. I read long ago that 95% of all Australians have at some time or other in their lives written poetry. But these poems are not Stuart’s juvenillia; he already has two chapbooks to his credit and he’s been published in Australian and UK journals. However this is his first full-length book. He spent time years ago in the Melbourne performance poetry arena, and shares with me a fondness for the poetry of eric beach and Grant Caldwell. And Dylan Thomas, of whom he writes in ‘The Boathouse’ on page 10:
I drive between the green thighs of giants
pay this visit on the Thomases
In the parlour, an image of tension
in Caitlin’s eyes.
Along the mudflats, a trail of footprints
takes me back to Llareggub/buggerall
in your pockets.
Yours was an illness
that no amount of money would cure
another pint glass emptied
before the bell clanged
Time Gentlemen, please.
It was going away that toppled you —
the American binge.
You would have stayed your fall
strolling home from Brown’s
lazing in the sun-coloured
like a plump fish-filled Puss-without-Boots
your fortune here by the sea.
Now your giant’s bones
are picked clean
under the simple ribs of a white cross
Caitlin newly buried with you
though she was sick of the legend —
a beer-breathing dragon.
The earth is disturbed.
Though born in Coventry Stuart says it is Wales he has in his bones, thanks to his Welsh grandparents. He has an academic background, having studied in the School of Art here at the University of Tasmania, his area of study being writing in art theory. And let’s not forget that Stuart is also a quantity surveyor, with his own business in Melbourne. But we can immediately forget that as I can see no quantity surveying here. Seriously let’s get down to the poems in this book - in which I can also detect no dylanesque droning.
These are poems that energise.
Here’s ‘Portrait of mother with Lion’s Head’ (p.36)
Portrait of Mother with Lion’s Head
Although not dressed for going out
she’s tidily presented
has the latest perm
is framed by the serving hatch
of her brand new kitchen
tea towel in hand
its busy design mauled by use.
The apron is very à la mode
its copper threads glinting
as evening sun strikes
the dinner gong.
In this light one could swear
her head were wreathed
by a mane of fire
its flames spearing
the all-electric air.
There are poems here that make me want to get up and dance around because I have discovered something I never knew before, or if I did, had lost faith in: that poetry can make things new. These are poems that energise in the sense that I want to reach out and read another book, write another poem and fall in love with poetry again. I have been reading or re-reading ‘Young rain’ by Kevin Hart, who writes, says John Koethe in the cover notes, with “an ease and lucidity” – and these are qualities I feel very strongly are in Stuart’s writing too – in fact Stuart reminds me very much of Kevin Hart.
These are poems written with an exactitude that satisfies in the way that a work of art can make you feel satisfied. Not sated, but satisfied. Happy even. Because the work is well done. These are poems that stun me with their exactitude.
Energy. Exactitude. And precision.
Think camera. Think camera in terms of Leica. Quality lens. Not the glossy Kodac colour print – these are not poems that are the mere iteration or description of things, but rather, these are poems that evoke the decisive moment itself.
As He Drove Me to the Station
Told me couldn’t remember
if he’d put it in the letter
but had wanted to.
about it that morning
was over thirty years.
Didn’t know about
post-natal depression back then.
She’d said I feed him all day
you feed him at night.
Didn’t mind doing it.
Only took twenty minutes.
Kept a bottle in a woollen sleeve
next to the boiler.
Just needed to check
the milk wasn’t too hot.
Took me back to bed
while she slept
and had to admit
quite enjoyed it.
These are poems made of that innate poem-stuff that comes from an imagination working with precision. These are poems born out of a truth – not out of an excess of imagery and description, nor out of the effort of invention.
I Knew Someone
who lived round here
in a top floor flat over a grocer.
The hall was full of bicycles and music
always smelled of damp.
There was a blue bathroom
grew under a leaky cistern
and a winter so cold
the pipes froze.
I knew someone
who lived round here
don’t know exactly where now
time has blurred these streets.
But I remember that flat
with cheap woodchip
sink piled high with greasy plates
steep stair to that room at the top
which only had a single bed
where I knew someone.
They are poems that take us through to the other side of the lens without snaring us on the words themselves.
Having used all this photographic terminology I will just interject at this point to say that after I had written this launch speech I thought I had better ‘google’ Stuart, and found he had written a paper on Alternative perspectives on the photography of Peter Dombrovskis – so there we are.
These too are poems that travel with us in memory long after we have read the book or heard the poem. Poems we can return to and still find pleasure in. Like all good art, they still work after rereading.
Precision. There are no moments here where you can detect the shutter going snap, or when, in the silence of the poem, some background noise of poem-clutter or verbiage intervenes. Instead there is something knife-sharp. As Professor Philip Mead – now in WA – says on the back cover: “every poem (is) pared back, necessary, convincing”. I’d read if I had time, the poems on Venice round about p.46, 47.
The result (of this pared-backness) is a spareness born not of thriftiness with words but a bountiful trust in them. The poet knows what details are important, what to focus on. He has learnt to say a lot with less; he takes his time, and with a photographer’s eye the poet makes his choices and frames things with of the knowledge that in poetry there is always a dangerous bountifulness to steer clear of. He navigates this well.
I’d like to read you a segment from a poem called ‘Melancholia – Postcards from Greece’
How long to Arcadia?
the stationmaster is evasive.
I clutch a hard brown ticket
ride through the Peloponnese at sunset.
The train overheats.
In the mountainous heart
dusk envelops silent farms.
I am here.
Coming down from Kalamata
the driver negotiates hairpins
with one hand
I stand on the edge
of what I know
commit my body to the sea
feel a part of myself
The bus squeezes through
tendrils scratch at the windows.
they have painted everything white
against the sun.
I have no idea how Stuart works, how his poems arise, how long he takes to write them, but are those interesting questions anyway? All I know is, I can swallow these poems whole. I can believe them. Because, most of all there is an honouring in these poems.
Honouring. An honouring of life, of love, of family, of people and places in world – all this without a hint of sentimentality, but with Stuart’s own whimsical humour, grace and insight. If you know Stuart, this quality of honouring will not surprise you. He strikes me as a person of very deep integrity, and it shines through in these poems.
When Pardalote’s editor/manager Lyn Reeves told me Stuart’s book was out, I picked it up and opened it at the poem, ‘Artillery and grandmothers’, on page 34 – Stuart is going to read it later for us – and on the basis of that one poem, instinctively, I knew I’d like this book - and bought a copy even though I could not really afford it. And offered to launch it.
Stuart is someone who has supported individuals as well as organisations, such as the Melbourne Poets Union (who recently acknowledged him for helping to revitalise them in the ‘90s) and Island, helping them with the Gwen Harwood prize for some years – as he did for The Write Stuff poetry and short story competitions, working with our late son François – another person of deep integrity – so that we could handle the poems and judge them completely anonymously and fairly.
Stuart and I have had a few intense – but friendly – poetry conversations. One I recall was outside here in the square, when we were both going through a period of writer’s block, and I recall that conversation with Stuart being very energising.
There it is again, that word energising.
Stuart deserves to have an attractive book like this. A fine production it is. Pardalote Press have a reputation for excellence and high standards – and this book is no exception.
These are beautiful, satisfying poems. I know there are more. It’s been my very great pleasure to launch this book! I am looking forward to reading a lot more Stuart Solman. I encourage you to do so too!