LAUNCH: Anne Kellas' 'The White Room Poems'

Walleah Press. Hobart, 16th December, 2015.

It's always a privilege to be asked to launch a book. Having accepted the privilege, the launcher's first task is to decide what to say in his launch speech that will succinctly convey the book's essence to those attending. Not being a poet or a literary critic, I can't claim the sort of expertise that might ring bells with those of you who are. Instead, perhaps I might briefly stand under the same umbrella as William Faulkner, who once told a group of literature students at a university that he wasn't a literary man, just a writer. So it's not as an expert but as a writer, a reader, and a lover of poetry that I'm speaking to you now about The White Room Poems.

It's a serious book, and serious art often isn’t easy. It’s supposed to make us think, to shake us up, and to see familiar things afresh. The White Room Poems is undoubtedly art, and it isn’t easy. It shook me up when I first read it, and, several reads later, it shakes me up still.

After I’d read it in page-proof, I wondered how on earth I could do it justice in a five- or six-minute launch speech. But then, on the cover of a proof copy, I found an encomium from Lisa Jacobson, a Melbourne poet and essayist, that gave me the springboard I needed to introduce this extraordinary work. Lisa wrote: “Here is a poet who knows that poetry speaks the unspeakable, when no other language will do”.

“Poetry speaks the unspeakable …” In The White Room Poems, the unspeakable is Anne Kellas’s inexpressible grief at the sudden death of her and Giles’s son Francois some years ago.

Grief is at once the most public and the most private of emotions. The grief-stricken may exhibit their pain publicly by their tears, their demeanour, and perhaps by a withdrawal, short or long, from joy and the things that engender it. Eventually, public grief wanes and may seem to disappear. But the private pain, though it may diminish with time, never wholly vanishes. Who now doesn't occasionally reflect silently and sadly on the death of a loved grandparent half a century ago?

So these are poems whose seed was a mother’s pain at her loss. Some are elegiac, as the dictionary defines elegy: “A lament for someone who has died”. Others are not so much laments for a lost son as exposure of the bleeding wound that loss caused to a bereft mother’s heart and soul as she works through her grief and tries to come to terms with it.

We’re all familiar with elegiac poems from one writer or another, perhaps A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, his elegy for a vanished time and a lost innocence, or Tennyson’s In Memoriam, his lament for a dear dead friend. (Who could ever forget the anguish in that wonderful line, "But oh for the touch of a vanished hand/And the sound of a voice that is still"?) Closer to home, many of us know Margaret Scott’s moving elegies on the death of her first husband.

More than four centuries ago, another poet lost his son at an early age, and soon after, as he was writing King John, he lamented him in these words:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.

That is an elegy, William Shakespeare remembering his son and conjuring up the boy’s physical form from those memories. Although the poet does not outwardly state his grief, he implies it, and it’s readily inferred by the reader.

The White Room Poems take grief further and deeper. In some of them, Anne bares her soul with a scarifying frankness that is sometimes almost as unbearable to the reader as her grief must be to her. In searching for a word to encapsulate this work, I’ve had to settle on the metaphor of an iceberg, whose mass, as everybody knows, is mostly out of sight. What we see of the iceberg is merely a tiny portion of it, the tip, but that tip tells us that the great bulk of the berg, many times greater than what's visible, is always there, unseen but massive, beneath the surface.

The French composer Debussy once wrote that "Music is the space between the notes", meaning, I think, that what you don't play is as important as what you do. Good literature, especially poetry, is often like that, the words left out carrying great force and meaning.

These poems are like that. Anne’s spare language compresses the pain of loss a thousand times and then transmutes it into words—the tiny tip of a vast emotional iceberg whose extent we can only infer, and wonder at, and either helplessly shrink from or empathically try to embrace. Whichever response we choose, we’re left to marvel at the strength and courage that have enabled her to further transmute her pain into art of such rare honesty.

Some of this work is so spare, so compressed, that it challenges the reader with a Zen or oriental quality of extreme understatement. Let me read you just one such poem.

Tonight’s train goes by,
sounds like a wounded beast.
In the heart of the night,
everything holds its breath.

At last,
so soft
it makes no sound.

Then slowly,
leaves bend,
a gutter

One tell-tale blur of wind.

You'll note that such obvious words as grief and pain and anguish never appear. But the sensation of them is there, deeply felt, in every line, every syllable.

Some very accomplished poets besides Lisa Jacobson have been moved by The White Room Poems. Kevin Brophy has commented, “The White Room Poems will take your breath and your heart away and … might not return them”. Ivy Alvarez, whom many of you will know, writes that “The White Room Poems will devastate and reawaken you”. But I can imagine no more apt a description of what Anne Kellas has done with these remarkable poems than Lisa Jacobson’s observation that they speak the unspeakable.

As I said at the beginning, being asked to launch a book is always a privilege. For me to launch The White Room Poems is also a singular honour, because it’s an extraordinary book, a book for the mind, the heart, and the soul. In declaring it launched, I congratulate Anne on her courage in creating art out of anguish, and I commend the book to you all and wish it a well-deserved success.