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GINA MERCER

Launch of Liz McQuilkin's poetry collection 'The Nonchalant Garden'

Hobart Bookshop, 5.30 pm, May 29th, 2014

Are you feeling tipsy? Hope so – it’s a lovely word, isn’t it? Tipsy. It’s a lovely feeling too - and if the alcohol hasn’t made you feel tipsy already then I can guarantee this evening’s poetry will. Talking recently to a dear friend who was writing a launch speech for one her dear friends… we were discussing the genre of launch speeches. I suggested (somewhat pompously) that finding an overarching metaphor is the key to getting the whole thing to hang together. It’s not easy to tell all there is to tell about a whole wonderful book in an 8 minute easy entertainment. So that was my advice to my friend, find one overarching metaphor and you’re set. Well, I think she wisely ignored my advice and… now I’m going to ignore my advice too.

Preparing for tonight, I reread this very handsome book. I went looking for that single overarching metaphor I prescribed to my friend but… I found I needed 3 metaphors to do justice to this collection… so tonight I’m going to be like those fancy chefs who do complex desserts, you know “Chocolate Three Ways”, in my effort to tell all there is to tell about this whole wonderful book… 3 metaphors in 8 minutes. Bet you wish you were tipsy, now.

So to the first metaphor: reading this book is like flying on the back of a peregrine falcon. They’re such beautiful birds, aren’t they? [Have you seen the new Australian film, Healing? If you love birds, especially raptors, then do go to see it, it’s showing at the State]. But back to my metaphor. You are flying with the falcon. She swoops low over the earth. Her acute eyes pick up details you’ve never noticed before, even in the most familiar of places. Then the falcon soars, she spirals high, giving you a fresh perspective, insights you’ve never achieved before. The eye in these poems is the eye of the falcon: precise and perspicacious. She swoops across diverse topics. She ranges from considering the purpose of war to the significance of sorting socks. The view from these peregrine poems will make you tipsy and wise and alert to the world in new ways.

On to my second metaphor: there’s an African proverb which I first heard from that wise woman, Terry Whitebeach. It goes like this: “In Africa we say, when an old person dies, it is a library burning to the ground”. Repeat. Now, I know Liz is not an old person. What I want to celebrate tonight is that she has worked hard and, cleverly, she has conjured this book to life well before her library burns to the ground. And as the proverb implies, we are all the richer for Liz’s thoughtful effort and foresight. Reading The Nonchalant Garden is like browsing deliciously in a well-stocked library. This library isn’t dull and fusty and empty. No, no, no. This is a well-loved library.

It has open French doors, it is perfumed by the heritage roses growing in profusion round the doorway. Here is the deep comfort of old books and look, to pique your interest, a pile of new books has just arrived from the Hobart Bookshop. Sunlight lies mellow on the polished wooden floor. There’s a worn velvet armchair where you can relax and revel in this library’s contents. This library invites you in, seduces you to forget all the things on your to-do list, tempts you to stay awhile in this deeply satisfying place. You know it’s pointless to resist this library’s invitation, seduction, temptation… so do be sure to see Chris and Janet (our beloved and indefatigable booksellers), buy a copy of this book of accomplished poetry and well, take home a library.

Onto my third tipsy metaphor. No peregrine falcon, no library, no poetry exists without some degree of struggle. This book is no exception. I first met Liz in 2006 when she enrolled (with her dear friend, Megan) in a year-long poetry course which I was teaching. Liz has spent her life generously introducing school students to the joys of poetry. But under her teacher’s facade lay a wilder, long-hidden desire. The desire to create poetry of her own. I have watched as Liz has struggled to bring that desire to fruition. Now when I say struggle, I don’t mean the kind of struggle you’ll face post-Budget if you’re unemployed and under thirty. No, Liz’s has been a different sort of struggle, more internal and intellectual but a genuine set of conflicts nonetheless. The last poem in her book ‘Writer’s Cramp’ proclaims:

I need my muse to loosen up,
take risks, let go, rebel.

He’s too polite, too much the senior-prefect,
smiling with decorum, chortling when appropriate.

I want to hear full belly laughs, feel him shake
out of control…

Most of all, I want him to…
release my brakes of diffidence and caution [to]
let me feast on wild and wanton words.

Easy to imagine Liz battling with this pompous prefect of a muse, isn’t it? I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing some of Liz’s struggle. She has wrestled with being the good woman vs the woman who sings her truth, the cautious woman vs the wild. She has thrashed against the shackles of iambic pentameter vs the joys of free verse, fought against the stifling safety-blanket of writing safely vs the deep satisfaction of taking risks. And most recently she has survived a more dangerous struggle when threatened by serious illness. A few weeks ago I had afternoon tea with Liz. It was just a few days before she faced major surgery. She knew there was a risk she wouldn’t survive that surgery, in fact, she’d spent the morning polishing up her eulogy (ever-practical and thoughtful of others, our Liz). She did survive that surgery (thankfully) just as she has wrestled her way successfully through the other conflicts.

These are poems wrought out of that wrestling. They are strong, interesting and deeply thoughtful because of her willingness to push through that dynamic process. One of the many pleasures in reading this book is the fascination of seeing how this artist resolves those conflicts and tensions – and she does do so – with grace and energy, wit and honesty. Going to read one of many poems which amply illustrates Liz’s capacity to bring us a fully resolved and beautiful work of art. Read ‘One Last Time’ (p. 26).

One thing which this book never struggles with is love. This is a peregrine falcon whose wings know intimately the uplifting thermals of love. This a library infused with love. This is a book which Liz has wrestled into existence because she loves us enough to gift to us some of the contents of her library before it is too late. It is a stylish gift, one to cherish and relish and appreciate. Please join me in toasting and launching The Nonchalant Garden.