The winter reading of Hobart's Seasonal Poets brought together three exceptional poets, introduced by Anne Collins shouldering MC duties. ‘It’s absolutely wonderful to see you’ve come out in the cold to be warmed by poetry from Kristen Lang, Pete Hay and Louise Oxley – I’m sure you’re going to enjoy each of these readers, their very unique contributions and the way they meld together... '
Kristen, who'd driven several hours from Sheffield for the event, read first. Her bio recounted the life she lives in north-west Tasmania to where her parents had moved from Melbourne when she was a child. Her early memories revolved around the bitter cold, ('in those days, the family lit a fire under an old copper boiler in a chilly external laundry, heating bath water for myself and my sister'), growing her own food, swimming in the river and being surrounded by trees. What she'd learned, she said, was 'not to love that place' – though she does – but 'to love the connections and interconnections we have with all kinds of places, with the world as a whole, and the light – human and other – we encounter in our time here'.
Attending university, Kristen had assumed she might move into the areas of science or perhaps music, but her path led her to literature and she was fortunate enough to study poetry at Deakin University under an Australian post-graduate scholarship where she was 'paid a steady wage to write poems for three and a half years ...… a state I’ve never managed to replicate!’
She's appreciated the chance to read this evening, she says, because 'it always feels like completing the circle'. She begins with her poem, ‘Breathing’. ‘The poems I’ll read tonight are really of two kinds, poems about the meanings we make for ourselves, and poems about the places we feel connected to. The next poem I’d like to read is entitled "With Such Edge", which was published in an anthology wherein the poem was placed, without consultation with myself, in a section of the anthology entitled "Monsters". Now, the poem’s about myself – it’s also about the place I frequently walk to near my home ... I had no idea either of these things were quite that frightening.'
Kristen followed this with her poem 'The horse'.
Kristen Lang: 'The horse'
‘We become many things through our desires,' she continues. 'I once met a man whose desire is probably not that uncommon – to leave earth for the stars; and not necessarily as an astronaut. It was to step out, to become something other, to connect with another place altogether. Needless to say, I found this urge contagious, resulting in my next poem, "The star"'.
'I knew the man that poem was written for only briefly, but I want to stay with him for a moment because he gave me one of the kindest gifts I’ve ever received. I was ill at the age of eleven, and I remember telling him about this illness in an email. It wasn’t a happy memory, and what he did was to take it as a gift and offer his own memory in return. His memory – from when he was nine – was of a bush growing at his grandmother’s house. He remembers cresting the hill where she lives and seeing his bush full of yellow blooms. And the effect of this gift, this simple image, is that now when I think of my childhood illness, it’s coloured yellow. And there’s a poem about that and it’s called, "For Syga ..." ’
'I said I'd be reading tonight about the meanings we make and the places we connect to,' Kristen continues, 'and this next poem is about both. In a fundamental sense they are always inseparable and I think it’s one of the great sadnesses of our time that we seem to often forget how inextricably we are bound to – not apart from, and not immune to – what it is we call the natural world.' She reads ‘A Sea of Green’, followed by 'Five justifications for environmentalism'.
Twig legs and hollow bones –
borrow them. Borrow the wings,
glance at the wide sky. On your arms,
the drape and curve of feathers, the quills
quivering. Your mouth,
also your fork. You desire
a nest for the new season. You devise
a song. You sing, “This is the world. Oh,
this is the world.”
Kristen closes with a love poem. 'It's written for two voices – and most often when I can talk him into it, I read it with my husband. He can’t be here tonight ... I do however have a stand-in, and I’d like to thank deeply Jan Colville for agreeing to take the part.'
There are stones the colour of love Do we know what love is?
in the river of my body....
Next to the microphone is Pete Hay. He's reading from his collection Physick, a book divided into thirds with the second part – 'Physis' – being a section of nature poems. 'I like to call them ambiguous nature poems because they're all attempts to reach a mergence with the natural world, to be one with it'. A harsh critic of his own material, he laments that with the exception of the first of the poems he reads, 'Fragrance of the morning', all fail in the reaching including his next, 'A Cockle, its Hinge, the Flame within the Hinge', a poem in praise of nature's perfection – of a sea cockle, in this instance, with its hinge exposing 'the purest hue the world has seen'.
It is the apricot's first ripened blush
the pink ellipse of the bush robin's breast.
It fires my soul with longing
casts me aloft to realms of dream
it is the warm unsettled purple deep
of a long-cellared cask, blood dark ...
Hay's musings on the sublime extend only so far, before he retreats –
This portal to a wondrous, terrible world
is not for me; others go,
and I must lockstep with the real, the reasoned, the living.
– (retreats) from abstraction to the concrete, lockstepping with 'the real, the reasoned, the living' within the walls (in all likelihood) of 'the drinkeries of Hobart' where 'we fire up / spray our helpless grief about' ... the illuminated grief at the heart of his book.
Despite its gravity, Physick avoids slipping into despair.1 Hay's deeply pessimistic 'Pub Rant with Activist' (another from the book though not one he reads this evening) ends –
That's my counsel and my chant.
Now buy a beer and ignore it all.
You should believe just one thing, this:
that the supreme certainty of failure
is never a reason to not give your all
to not fire off your very best shot.
– belying doggedness, providing simple confirmation, that as cranky, shaken, depressed or depleted as the mood may take him, Hay is never beaten. 'He's the epitome of the human spirit of endurance and survival' observes a friend and supporter, 'and it's wonderful to behold.... It's what delivers him so much support.'
'I'm going to read from the last section of Physick', Hay continues, 'a section of poems which are quasi-metaphysical ruminations, it's my attempt to see if you can write front-of-brain poetry.... Still don't know whether you can, it's not for me to say. I'm going to read a poem called "Presence"; and if you go to sleep – because it's a long poem – you can blame Anne because she's asked me to read it'. Again, it's a poem of loss (personal, evolutionary) and life's inevitabilities, ending –
Comes a day when I will join them in non-presence.
I will enter the oblivion of absence,
lose insistence, force,
my renewing 'is' stopped in its tracks.
Just so, the slow cooking of the earth
will shatter the white-gum's tree-dreaming,
the quick of its presence will pass from planetary knowing
and the 40-Spot will flutter with it
A new presence, new presences, will rise,
I will not know them.
'Wish you hadn't ask me to read that one Anne....' Hay adds dolefully, before resuming with a poem tracing the life of James Kelly – adventurer, whaler, farmer, entrepreneur and perhaps the first Australian-born master mariner. 'John Merrison, in whose voice this poem is imagined, was a man from Norfolk, transported to Van Dieman's Land in 1820. He was assigned to Kelly, and stayed with him on Kelly's Bruny Island farm until his death when Kelly paid for a headstone with a salutation that is in the poem's title, "Nineteen thousand miles". Then there's a quotation, and the words "A faithful servant, and a good man in Van Dieman's Land" '.
I will keep a quiet place
and I will not push against it....
'I've a few minutes up my sleeve,' Hay continues, 'but I think I might finish with a poem called "Incident at the Castle Inn". When the remnants of the Oyster Bay and the Big River Tribe gave themselves up to Robinson in the Central Highlands – they did give themselves up, there was no way that they were captured by Robinson, because they faced a winter with no possibility of access back to their traditional winter grounds on the coast, they were already reduced to old people and children and only a couple of warriers: they were going to die.... They gave themselves up, and in Robinson's bringing of them back to Hobart Town they stopped outside the Castle Inn in Bothwell – which still exists – and there the sorry remnants of the Big River and Oyster Bay tribes attempted to stage a corroboree.'
Winding down the valley
comes the great man Robinson
and his party....
'That'll do me!' he says, stepping back from the microphone.
'Thank you Pete. I feel very privileged that you rearranged your reading, "Presence" is my favourite poem in your book.'
'Next to read is Louise Oxley,' Anne continues. 'In recent years, Louise has enjoyed working with visual artists or in response to their work, and with assistance of an Australia Council grant she has been working on poems in response to paintings by Brett Whiteley.'
Church bells collude with the audience in providing a chorus of welcome. Louise opens with 'Self Portrait with Oars', ('It's good to go backwards... '), 'Waiting with birds' ('I'm going to read 'Heron'), and 'Bolero'. 'In my early twenties I lived in London, and one of my great pleasures was to go to Portobello Road Market and buy very fanciful clothes, including a bolero jacket which I kept for years and years and years. "Bolero" '...
'Of the next few poems,' Louise continues, 'some are responses I've written to works of art, or in collaboration with visual artists. This is attracting me more and more, possibly because of the freedom of imagining someone else's view of the world, a way of looking at something – or trying to look – through someone else's eyes. This poem is written in response to a watercolour by a local botanist, Fred Duncan, who's not only a well-known botanist but a very talented botanical artist. And in this painting he lined up bluegum leaves in order from youngest to oldest. This is "E globulus brushwork" '.
'The next poem is from a suite of poems about solitude, isolation,' Louise continues, 'featuring three philosophers – Rousseau, Nietzshe and Emerson. I'm going to read Emerson's. It's also a response to a watercolour by a local artist, Ian Parry.'
She ends her set with 'Woman in Bath' (after Brett Whiteley's 'Woman in Bath', 1964) –
There was fog on the windows,
inside and out.
She wound her hair into a bun
and eased into the shallow water.
I stood in the doorway, squinting.
I wanted her
curled into that ceramic curve
like an embryo in the shell....
Anne Collins spoke earlier of the evening's programme as, hopefully, offering space for words and ideas to overlap and meld - and so it's transpired, appreciation of the natural world providing a common thread. Kristen Lang is an impeccable performer of her own material, the weight and inflection of her words, for the most part, following the natural perambulations of the poem. Only when arguing the environment does the projection of her voice rise a register, take on a discordant edge. The great quality in Louise Oxley’s poetry "is continually to find ways of respecting the natural world" (Martin Duwell, Australian Poetry Review), with absence, (he further notes), being "the more powerful generative state in Oxley’s poetry". Absence, albeit of a different hue, is similarly central to Pete Hay's poetry ("I go into the wild country and I don't experience a lyrical joy. What I experience is grief because I identify the absences, the once-wases that aren't there now") along with unshakeable respect for Mother Nature. (For the author of Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought, Indiana University Press, how could it not?) 'As you can see, we've experienced a real trend with our reading,' notes Anne in conclusion. 'As organisers we thought this might happen, but it's quite remarkable that it seems so strong!'
Classy venue, great supper, convivial company, poetry at its best....
A note - qualifier? - on 'despair'.
'Most Green activists live lives of quiet, or even not so quiet despair because they see such a short period of time in which to change things. And such a vast gulf that needs to be crossed before things are going to be changed.' Pete Hay, April 2003.