: Robyn Mathison's
- 'To Be Eaten By Mice'
Hobart Bookshop : 27th
This is the most
fantastic day. Weve waited such a long
time for this day!
I dont know,
Robyn, whether you really know how loved you are by those of us gathered here. And I dont know whether you know how highly
we rate you, too, as a poet. By the time I
climb down from here you will know, because
Im about to channel the thoughts of everyone in the bookshop. But Im also going to speak entirely for
myself and I can tell you I mean each word thats to follow, so no
embarrassed-on-my-behalf sniggering please.
Who is the poet I most
admire? Who would I most like to write like? Neruda, perhaps?
George Mackay Brown? Maxine Kumin? Martin Espada?
Whitman? Schultz? Bishop? Transtromer? Shaw Neilson? Well,
yes, all of these. But the poet I really want
to write like is Robyn Mathison. Robyn writes
the poetry I aspire to write and cannot. She
writes on matters upon which I would write
Ill come back to this and she writes how I would like to write.
To Be Eaten By Mice is a collection of perfect
poetry. Find me a poet with more unvarnished integrity. It
cant be done. Find me a poet who can
endow with such dignify the small and the quiet. It
cant be done. A wager, friends. A beer for the person who can find a poem that more
successfully achieves this than A Gift for Travel, on page 10. Find me a poet who can use simple, accessible
language to such poetic effect as Robyn Mathison. Ill
bet you cant. Were there more poets like
Robyn Mathison or were Robyn to be accorded the place in Australian poetrys
pecking order to which she is entitled then the tarnished democratic credentials of
the greatest and once most popular of the artforms would stand in considerably higher
stead. Listen to this Yellow
Roses, from page 54:
You arrive on my doorstep
with yellow roses.
My ex-lovers, you say,
'are always my friends.
I remember nights of lust
You were my lover.
Soft petals fall.
You were never my friend.
and accessible perfection.
Ill tell you a
story to illustrate my point as dramatically as I can.
Im assuming that Chris and Janets bookshop has the status of the
confessional, and what gets said in here stays in here it is not hereafter even
mentioned to me, right?
Well. As much as I think the times in which we live are
dangerously awry, Im actually perfectly placed in these very times. In this age of the zipper. Because
I have the most bizarre phobia. Im
terrified, beyond reason, of buttons. Evil, malevolent little things. I give thanks to the gods that I was blessed with
the good fortune to be live in the age of the zip!
Now, why am I telling
you this? A very dangerous thing to have done,
because you now hold me completely in your power. Well,
Im telling you this because Robyn has a poem about buttons. Its
one of those poems of quietness; of the valorising of lifes small, rewarding
routines. And its a measure of
Robyns deft poetic touch that I could read this poem about buttons and still say: this is, despite its provocative subject
matter, a beautiful, beautiful poem. I could
even read it twice.
And I want, now, to
make an angry observation. I am, as many of
you know, no great fan of the social infrastructure of Australian poetry. I dislike its self-referentiality. I dislike the
power structures within which poetrys commissars promote other strategically-placed
mates, dispensing palms and accolades within a tight compass. But, there are, away from the spotlight, those who
quietly ply their craft, do wonderful work, and who move through life without receiving
the recognition from the nations cultural gatekeepers that their work duly merits. For such people, it seems to me, Robyn can stand as
But enough of the rant
with apologies to you all, and apologies to Robyn in particular.
Lets talk about
the what of Robyns
poetry. What can you expect when you open the
covers of To Be Eaten By Mice?
Earlier I said
I more or less said that I sometimes felt as if Robyn was writing for me alone,
because so many of her poetic themes are my own. She
bestows agency upon the animal world. In a
moment Robyn will read, and I hereby request, Robyn, that you read either Pondus the
Penguin Dreams of Home or Liberating the Lemur. And Robyn affirms the passage of time, observing
the way it overlays and overlaps, perhaps most explicitly in Running through the
Stars on page 37. She gives us stories
exquisite little nuggets of narrative, beautifully rendered, as in the marvellous
Outsiders on page 45, the magical Amelia on page 46, and
North-East farmer on page 48, a wonderfully evocative little dramatic
monologue (I would have laboured on through six turgid pages had I tried to write it). Theres even a poem about the inspiration of
my brave young days, William Morris, and it was a pleasant surprise indeed to discover
that I had the old romantic socialist in common with Robyn as well!
But it is Robyns
preoccupation with family that struck the most
emphatic chord. This is a theme with which
Im increasingly exercised: the rolling through of the generations, portrayed so
unerringly by Robyn in so many poems in The Matriarchs Relay, in
Mother sits with me
, in therefore ye soft pipes, play on. So To Be
Eaten By Mice came to me at exactly the right time. The
generations come and go but where does memory go?
Robyn asks this. She might be the great poet
of small and quiet moments, but she also asks some mighty big questions.
Im about to sit
down, but first I should note one thread that weaves through Robyns poetry that can
never be one of my own. Many of Robyns poems
are woman-to-woman written for and to women though in their reading I
certainly didnt feel excluded. Indeed, Id suggest to any mere man who wants to better understand the
nuances of femaleness, that the windows that Robyn quietly opens to her life and her world
are a good place to start.
Id like to
congratulate Ginninderra Press on the publication of this wonderful collection, and thank
them, on behalf of the readers and writers of poetry, for the crucial service that they
render Australian poetry. And,
of course, congratulations to Robyn herself. This is
a red-letter day. And I hope that, as I enter that
phase in my life in which I too, Robyn, will walk barefoot a half mile in my jim-jams
every Sunday to buy the milk and papers, that there will be a second and a third volume of
your poetry to mellow and illuminate my days.