Walleah Press

Famous Reporter 42 : December 2010



Famous Reporter 42




  Launch : Robyn Mathison's
'To Be Eaten By Mice'

Hobart Bookshop : 27th August, 2009

This is the most fantastic day.  We’ve waited such a long time for this day!

I don’t know, Robyn, whether you really know how loved you are by those of us gathered here.  And I don’t 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 I’m about to channel the thoughts of everyone in the bookshop.   But I’m also going to speak entirely for myself – and I can tell you I mean each word that’s 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 – I’ll 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 can’t be done.  Find me a poet who can endow with such dignify the small and the quiet.  It can’t 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.  I’ll bet you can’t.  Were there more poets like Robyn Mathison – or were Robyn to be accorded the place in Australian poetry’s 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
            years later
            with yellow roses.
            ‘My ex-lovers’, you say,
            'are always my friends.’
            I remember nights of lust
            and silence.
            You were my lover.
            Soft petals fall.
            You were never my friend.

That’s perfection – and accessible perfection.

I’ll tell you a story to illustrate my point as dramatically as I can.   I’m assuming that Chris and Janet’s 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, I’m actually perfectly placed in these very times.  In this age of the zipper.  Because I have the most bizarre phobia.  I’m 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, I’m telling you this because Robyn has a poem about – buttons.  It’s one of those poems of quietness; of the valorising of life’s small, rewarding routines.  And it’s a measure of Robyn’s 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 poetry’s 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 nation’s cultural gatekeepers that their work duly merits.  For such people, it seems to me, Robyn can stand as paradigm.

But enough of the rant – with apologies to you all, and apologies to Robyn in particular.

Let’s talk about the what of Robyn’s 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).  There’s 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 Robyn’s preoccupation with family that struck the most emphatic chord.  This is a theme with which I’m increasingly exercised: the rolling through of the generations, portrayed so unerringly by Robyn in so many poems – in ‘The Matriarch’s 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.

I’m about to sit down, but first I should note one thread that weaves through Robyn’s poetry that can never be one of my own. Many of Robyn’s poems are woman-to-woman – written for and to women – though in their reading I certainly didn’t feel excluded. Indeed, I’d 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.

I’d 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.