I was talking to Richard Wastell the other day – Richard is one of the most creatively and intellectually interesting of the island’s visual art talents, in my view – and I was extolling the generosity and large-heartedness that characterises Tasmania’s writing community. And I contrasted this with the situation in the visual arts, wherein I discerned a dismayingly entrenched tendency to petty envy and mean-spiritedness. Richard fired back. The situation in the visual arts, he said, is actually much the healthier. What I was labelling a lack of generosity and fellow-feeling was actually a critical culture that spurs the artistic restlessness essential to ever greater achievement, whereas what I was describing as a supportive and large-hearted culture within literature was actually a self-serving mutual boosterism – saccharine, mindlessly congratulatory, smug, and complacent.
Now, counting today, this will be the fifth book I’ve launched in this calendar year, and three of these have been books of poetry. So, in the wash-up of this robust interchange with my good friend Richie, I was moved to review my position, and in particular, the fulsome praise I had earlier accorded Henry Sheerwater and the four authors of Seasoned with Honey. And it’s true that when you agree to launch a book you do so sight unseen, and you are taking a punt on the basis of what you already know of the author as both a person and a writer. And if you get it wrong – too bad: you’re stuck. My re-valuation of recent Tasmanian poetry was forced and urgent, and I have been appropriately tough minded, let me assure you. But it has confirmed in me the essential validity of my broken-record laudation of recent Tasmanian poetry, a theme most of you will have heard me bang on about before today, sometimes more than once. A dog with a bone I might well be on this subject, but I am just telling it as it is – there really is an extraordinary poetic corpus emerging from this island. I’m prepared to concede that Richie’s right and I’m wrong about the visual arts. But he’s wrong and I’m right on the matter of the island’s poets. So I would not want to revise anything that I’ve had to say about Tasmanian poetry generally, or about those marvellous individual volumes that I was privileged to launch earlier in the year. And I am going to strike a very similar chord today, for my assessment of Karen’s book is that here is literary achievement of the very highest. I’m going to tell you why you should – indeed, need – to read this book.
It is a privilege to celebrate the birth of Karen Knight’s Postcards from the Asylum. This is a book with its street cred firmly established. It has been many years in the making, and individual poems have found a wide variety of placements, some of them overseas. Some have won prizes. The collection itself won the 2007 ACT Poetry Prize for an unpublished manuscript. A couple of poems have been set to music by a New York-based Korean composer. Some poems are already in process of translation.
Now. You’d have thought the incarceration of political troublemakers to be a hallmark of brutal totalitarian repression, wouldn’t you. That such a thing could never happen in an enlightened democratic state founded on the liberal virtues. You’d be wrong. These poems are based on a period spent by Karen in what, way back when, we called the Looney Bin – for the simple ‘pathology’ of youthful rebelliousness that she shared with an entire generation. And there, in the Looney Bin, she copped the full treatment. It must have needed quite some reservoir of courage to write about it. In these pages we meet an array of characters. The omnipresent, faceless, remote and vaguely threatening ‘Nightingales’. David, the catatonic doctor’s son. The SAD one (‘SAD’ standing for ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’). Helen and Emily. Valium Val. Psycho-Paul. But most of all we meet a young woman at once vulnerable and resilient; and we meet an institution, and a ‘system’. We meet madness. We meet madness, but where do we locate madness? What is the institutional contribution to the mad world of these poems? Who, or what, is really mad? For starters, the very ambience is mad. Karen brings this mad life of pathos and casual brutality vividly to life. Menace lurks constantly and everywhere. There’s an extraordinary poem called ‘Doing the Rounds’ – it’s on page 50 – where the medication trolley becomes the embodiment of the menace that lodges in the very fabric of the ‘facility’. ‘It shadows the walls’, Karen tells us, ‘a balding stalker pedalling the ward’. It will not surprise you to learn, then, that some poems are utterly harrowing. ‘The Deep Maternal’ on page 18. ‘Insanity’ on page 24. ‘My First ECG’ on page 27. ‘I Have Seen’ on page 88. These poems provide the collection with its power; with the emotional challenge with which the reader is presented.
We are also given insights into the social construction of madness, and the consequences of this for the individual. ‘Insanity’ again and, on page 22, ‘Yellow Pages’. And the come-hither pull of selfobliteration – often by ‘jumping’ – is ever-present, and sometimes, as we read in ‘Paul Hanged Himself Today’ on page 75, it is a promise consummated.
I think, though, that the most breathtaking thing about this collection is the complexity of tone that it achieves. Beauty is never extinguished. A beauty of colour – a horrifying beauty – is present in a virtuoso deployment of ECT imagery in the brilliant poem, ‘Shock’, on page 42. Sound also makes a telling contribution to the complex and ambivalent overarching effect. Much of the beauty is of an utmost delicacy, all the more exquisite for the context in which it appears. Look at the beautiful little poem, ‘Willow Tree’, on page 90. Birds are a recurring motif. And there is humour. Sometimes grim, savage, as in ‘Postcard Therapy’ on page 15 and ‘Pharmacopieia’ on page 84, and sometimes wry and whimsical, as in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ on page 48, ‘Beyond the Pale Clichės’ on page 58, and ‘Finding Utopia in the New Recreation Complex’ on p. 91.
That’s the poetry. I should also talk about the poet. For me, the signature quality of Karen’s verse is its power. It is – I hope Karen won’t find this offensive – it is muscular. She is not writing to titillate, nor to prettily entertain, still less to amuse. She is an ambitious poet – she would change us – change how we see the world. She demands of us a courage to match her own, both as a person who could endure these harrowing experiences and as a poet with the emotional strength to put them to artistic account. She has seen such things – and from the most grimly prosaic of experiences she extracts poetry, with a hint of the surreal that effectively counterpoints this most anti-poetic of experiences.
Much of the power in Karen’s poetry comes from the attention she gives to ensuring each poem’s closure is thoroughly memorable. I’ve always thought of Dylan Thomas as the master of the opening line, and Mary Oliver as the dabbest hand at the ending. Which is more important? It is the ending, I think – for that is what stays with you; what sums the mood and feel and impact of the poem. So it is that many of the individual poems from Postcards from the Asylum haunt your sensibilities long after the reading of them. And she is just so deft, so commanding, in her assured deployment of language. Most poems are linguistic and emotional distillations, and all the more powerful on that account. I am myself a poet given to rambling, needlessly discursive verbal shapelessness – and I envy Karen’s capacity for poetry that is stiletto-sharp. May it continue to flow.
Here, then, is a poet at the height of her powers – and the poetry featured in this volume deserves to be widely read, and to endure through the estimations of time.
And just finally, I’d like to talk about this book as a production. A month or so ago, in the Mercury, Chris Bantick was extremely critical of much Tasmanian literature, arguing in essence that Tasmanian production is too democratic; too deficient in quality control. I think Chris missed the mark in some important respects, but one of his criticisms with which I do agree is that much Tasmanian publishing is too careless with – or, at least, insufficiently valuing of – the importance of design. Such a criticism could never be levelled at Pardalote Press. This book is beautifully made, right down to the hand-made poem titles, and the slightly unsettling off-true title page, a rendering that subtly underscores the theme of the collection.
So. Postcards from the Asylum is a triumph. Important, wonderfully wrought poems in which the parts coalesce within a gestalt that is a single extraordinary achievement. I congratulate Pardalote Press, and I pay homage to a brilliant Tasmanian poet.