LAUNCH: Paul Summers’ ‘primitive cartography’

@ Articulate: Queensland Regional Arts and Culture Conference

Rockhampton, August 23rd, 2013.

We’re breaking records today. At 9am, this may be the world’s earliest poetry book launch. We are, no matter the hour of the morning, all very privileged to be present at the launch of Paul Summers’ new collection of poetry – primitive cartography. I feel very honoured to have been asked to speak with you this morning.

primitive cartography – is a collection about looking outward, about referencing one’s self in a location. It’s about experiencing ‘place’ and trying it on for size, like discovering a great second hand item of clothing in St Vincent De Paul’s and wearing it, despite the holes and stains you might later discover on its inner sleeve.

Paul Summers’ biography identifies him as a Northumbrian poet, who now lives in Emu Park and many of the poems deal with an apparent sense of dislocation, of the need to make sense of and interpret a new environment or terrain. The collection is characterised by a sense of ‘wonder’. In wonder, we discover there is also a sense of alienation, an encountered strangeness – new landscape, customs and species – and a subsequent desire as a poet to know this strangeness through language. To feel one’s way, however ‘primitively’ and to map the territories.

References to cartography and map-making identify the poet as navigator. The collection’s opening poem ‘Dasein’ (subtitled ‘primitive cartography’), evokes Heidegger’s concept of ‘being in the world’ and questions what it means to be embedded or grounded in the world in the world around us. Summers’ narrator looks over his new world; questioning and with longing. It traces,

                  the things
we own, or think we own

now mapped into an order
of convex arc steadfast

poles; an ocean abstruse,
three continents adrift:

just rapture despair,
between them longing

Queensland is rendered with clear and uncompromising detail. The Keppel Bay islands surface as a series of island vignettes that shift and shape throughout primitive cartography. As they ‘recline’ in ‘bleaching light’ or ‘sprawling blues’, they are also just as capable of violence– inhospitable landscapes that ‘ripen like blisters’, ‘curdle blood’ - or as in the post-flood poem ‘postdiluvial’, deliver a cow carcass from the ‘milky tea’ waves ‘a glowing bruise/ of agitated crows which/ grows in haemorrhage by the boat ramp’. Thus it is that this sense of wonder is always tempered by the vivid extremes of tropical life, the floods, the droughts, the ‘dragged incisions’ of open cut mines, ‘the weight of hatreds’ felt. In the poem ‘mate’ Summers dares suggest that,

                          beneath a brutal sun that bakes my stooping
                          neck as red as yours, we scratch at the surface

                          with blunted spades.

Primitive cartography is also a domestic collection. Often wry and humorous it catalogues small town and intimate family moments, yet encourages readers to ‘beware of these seductions’, to observe the shadows. As we investigate the small tidal pools we are just as likely to be cut by oyster shells – ‘neptune’s scalpels’ – to be lulled by deceptive beauty. Behind what at times feels like celebratory depictions of the local pub, TAB, parklife or historical societies – there is a need to stay alert, to be observant, and to act as witness.

I’ve had the great privilege of working with working closely with Paul on the Trace: poetry, art and the built environment project for almost a year now. It’s a history tour where punters will encounter a fusion of site specific poetry and art installation in some of Rockhampton’s most iconic places. Paul’s poems from this project, commissioned by Creative Capricorn, are included in primitive cartography and further resonate with the concept of map-making – the histories of place re-imagined as a series of poems about an Irish Dr O’Brien who ‘with gentle thumbs, ( ) draws ruffled eyelids shut’, or evoking ballerina Anna Pavlova’s performance at the Rockhampton Wintergarden theatre, she is ‘luminous’, with ‘spectral limbs’.

Sensitive heartfelt poems about home, England, weave a thread through the collection, almost literally. ‘grandpa’s hands’ depicts the act of sewing up a gash with fishing line, while the closing poem, ‘the tailor of coalburn’, beautifully conveys the relationship between a tailoring ancestor ‘poised with chalk and shears’ and the contemporary Summers – a dutiful father tenderly and ‘clumsily’ ‘mending (his) children’s fallen hems’ within the ‘cell of Queensland heat’. 

Paul has lived with his family in Australia for 2 ½ years now and primitive cartography marks his first truly Australian collection. His poems have appeared in print for over two decades and he has a wealth of previously published work. Published by celebrated Tasmanian publisher Walleah Press, we are truly very lucky to have him here in Queensland, and it is my absolute pleasure to welcome primitive cartography into the world of Australian poetry.