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Tuesday Poem: “Container” by Fiona Apple

I’m the editor at the Tuesday Poetry blog this week. Join us in the comments and discussion. You can read this same post — and many other poems and commentary — over there.

Fiona Apple - Container

“Container” by Fiona Apple

I was screaming into the canyon
At the moment of my death.
The echo I created
Outlasted my last breath.

My voice it made an avalanche
And buried a man I never knew.
And when he died his widowed bride
Met your daddy and they made you.

I have only one thing to do and that’s
To be the wave that I am and then
Sink back into the ocean.

Sink back into the o-
Sink back into the ocean.
Sink back into the o-
Sink back into the ocean.

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
“Speak, speak, I charge thee, speak” — this is Horatio, in Hamlet, imploring the ghost of Hamlet’s father not just to make some noise, to simply howl or to growl say (which would be astonishing enough), but rather to speak, to say something intelligible. More than any apparition, it’s words that bring a ghost to life.

And yet, Hamlet’s father aside, they rarely make good orators, these clumsy, techno-challenged spectres and their speech impediments; rapping on tables, sending codes through flashlights and will-‘o-the-wisps, playing alphabet games on ouija boards, making reverse recordings of their glossolalia on old LPs. But how else should it be? Speaking in tongues, or through mediums, offers a solution for those without tongues or bodies of their own. Divested of form, of density, what larynx can produce a voice? What brain suggests a syntax to the whims of the dead?

With her song “Container,” Fiona Apple produces the voice of a ghost — brilliantly, beautifully, but most importantly, poetically. Through lyrics, through words. It’s a wave, that voice. It rises and recedes, rages and calms. Apple starts with a tremor in her tone. Note the metrical structure here, the eerie, plaintive trimeter of the first quatrain — with its trochaic howling words, “SCREAMINGing,” “CANyon,” “MOment.” Then she belts the “echo” like no other singer, in no other song. The line becomes pure sound, pure mantra. The avalanche, meanwhile, seems completely out of place for an ocean-born ghost, but that’s the thing: This is a ghost voice. A vibration. It ripples and tsunamis through space, from sea to shining snow-top. There’s a oneness here, between language and sound, poet and phantom.

The first quatrain swells and solidifies into the event-driven physicality of the second, which is sturdy iambic tetrameter, reenforced with the “died”/“bride” girders of internal rhyme. Note the echo-effect of line five, with its ricocheting ictus in the canyon of iambs — my VOICE, it MADE, an AVaLANCH. Apple bounces back and forth. The literary device here — “My voice, it made,” “my abc, it xyz’d” — is called dislocation,* whereby the pronoun emphasises the noun by echoing it.

And it’s the echo, the ripple, the great wave of sound that becomes physical and powerful; that causes the avalanche, that causes the death of a stranger and a child to be born. The reference to “daddy” is intimate, child-friendly. “Containers,” I should point out, is the opening theme song of a TV series called “The Affair,” which just finished its first season on Showtime. The song lends the show a haunting artistic key with which “The Affair” never quite harmonises. Not for lack of trying. One of the show’s two main characters, Alison, insists that her dead son is still present in the world. “He’s watching us,” she says. “He’s caring for us every day.” If this is true — and at one point, yes, as Alison attempts to drown herself in the ocean, we hear the voice of a little boy shouting from the shore — if true, it’s definitely not something we want a main character to tell us.

Rather, we need to hear the ghost-voice for ourselves — which brings us back to Apple’s poem. We’re now at the third stanza, a tercet, in which the first two lines, still holding the dimensions of the previous stanza, start to tremble and collapse:

I have only one thing to do and that’s
To be the wave that I am and then

This is pure abstraction, pure searching, wavy, echolocation. It’s barely English. The five-lettered “thing” is the longest of the 18 words that flail about and say nothing. Beautiful, poetic ghost-speak. There’s a very soft, ghostly, syllabic rhyme in the enjambment — “and that’s” / “and then” — which Apple deftly stresses through the rhythm and tone of her voice, before the whole thing slams into the spondee of the original trimeter: “SINK BACK into the Ocean.” From the howling trochees of “SCREAMing,” “MOment,” “CANyon” we end with another, softer, more surrendering and mournful one: “Ocean.”

One of the most beautiful themes in poetry (which circles just beyond the black hole tug of a trope) is that of the passively almighty. The powerfully weak. The noisy unnoticed. A kind of stop-motion perspective in which things that appear silent and still and locked in eternity — the ocean, the dead, the ancient rocks of Australia (see that greatest of ghost stories, Picnic at Hanging Rock) — can rise up, knock us over, overwhelm our world with their substance. Apple’s poem contains that kind of substance. It dislocates our sense of control over our lives; and makes us stop and listen in wonder.
Zireaux’s most recent novel is A Charlatan’s Orbit, which is available on Kindle and in paperback at Amazon.

* Dupriez, B. and Halsall, A.W., A Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradus, A-Z, University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, October 30, 1991; and later referenced in Huddleston, R. and Pullum G, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge University Press, April 15, 2002.

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Tuesday Poem: “Bonsai” by Cecily Barnes

Who needs your stunted style, your tiny jewels
of thwarted art, to snatch a kite flown loose
or bad-thrown ball? Or your unsayable rules
of infinite pleasures unknown, delights abstruse,
to feel soft feathers, their talons’ sponsal band?
To splinter a street, plumb galaxy’s soil, or hold
a heaving noose? To grasp your child’s hand?
To be unbound by any soul, un-bowled
by death, to never know what the Eleventh Azure is!
The stuttering night unveils its fairy dark.
The moon, that pruning groom, the manicurist,
bends down to rub its cheek against the bark
and hears the raspy chainsaw play its song,
while wispy light appears in wonders dawned.

acacia-bonsai“Bonsai” was originally published in the October, 2013, issue of Harper’s Magazine.

“Bonsai” is a poem that speaks to me. I mean literally, it’s speaking directly to me. The haunting “Eleventh Azure” in line 9 can also be written as “Azure XI,” which of course is an anagram of my name. And I’m not going to discuss the “Jew” in “jewels,” or the “thwarted art,” or the veiled threat to my child and so forth. So let’s move on.

Cecily Barnes has composed countless poems, too many poems. Among other accolades, she was awarded the Los Angeles Times Prize for Poetry (declined it), the Bollingham Prize (ditto), a Dickinson Endowment ($100,000 received by bank transfer I’m told) and turned down an honorary degree from Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts.

I first discovered her woeful early poems at a writer’s festival in Trinidad in 2002. Derek Walcott, Rabindranath Maharaj, Olive Senior from Canada, and my overly joyful, soon to be ex-girlfriend (along with her young poet friend and soon to be bedmate, Miguel Murat) — I recall hanging out with all of them at Queen’s Park, eating aloo pies beside a passionate flame tree, with pumped-up storm clouds over the Gulf of Paria.

Cecily wasn’t at the festival. Has never been the traveling type, and, her one endearing quality, despises all forms of literary pretense. But it was there, in Port of Spain, while enduring an excursus on the awkwardly absent V.S. Naipaul (and keeping one eye on musky Miguel) that I discovered Cecily’s poetry in a clandestine browser window of my Net-suckling laptop. I read, I understood, I knew immediately what was going on; that I must find this sinister poetess, that I must get to know everything about her, tame her, restrain her, shame her, destroy her reputation, silence her, silence her.

At that time Cecily Barnes — lover of anagrams, whose name, by the way, rearranges into “Lyric Absence” — wrote under a different pen name. Back then she was the more exotic and erotic-sounding Galaxia Gaudh. She was based in a brainy railroad town in Texas called College Station, and was — to use Jane Austen’s phrasing — still very much Galaxia then, untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy and fearless. I, meanwhile, a more youthful Zireaux, was desperately lonely, hurting and hateful; far too certain of what I’d become, far less certain of what I was.

I flew to LA and straight to Houston, took a rental car and some drugs. Mad, magnificent, unmarried days. On the outskirts of Houston I bought a 9mm Glock and box of bullets at a converted three-bedroom house with a signboard: “Arrowhead Guns and Ammo.” (So oxymoronic, the melting pot of American history). I bought the gun — not to use it, but, as that deranged narrator says in Mary Gaitskill’s brilliant “The Other Place”: to know I could.

Back on the highway, those hanging green recipe cards and their carefully measured exits — 3/4, 1/2 — grew shorter, less frequent, cooked up fewer burger joints out of the hot pancake terrain. Ten minutes past Hempstead I swerved to avoid what I thought was an armadillo (nothing but a sun-drenched tumble-bag), lost control of the car, and the local African-American sheriff, a friendly former boxer, ended up introducing me to his tow-truck driving granddaughter, a friendly former pageant queen — but where was I? Right. College Station. George Bush Drive. The one-bedroom apartment of Cecily Barnes, a.k.a. Galaxia Gaudh.

Now before I knock on that door, I must explain…or never mind, let’s just knock on that door:

“So much distance you’ve came here, Mr. Zero. Come in, come in. Such a flatterer you are for Galaxia. Some Irish Cream?”

That’s Branko, bald, burly, Latvian, punching his way through an English sentence while trying to activate an atrophied grin. Stolid, very big feet, I doubt the boxing Sheriff could have taken him down, not even in his, the Sheriff’s, prime.

“Where is she?” I asked from the living room’s squeaky white leather sofa. Beside me was a glass-topped table with a lone, twisted, long-embittered bonsai.

But to cut this story short — both time and audience are limited here — this bumbling Branko was so convivial, so charming, that I quite forgot my obsession with the vulgar poetess, his “Gal” as he called her, and before I could say “what cologne is that,” the two of us were driving to the local Dairy Queen for root beer floats, then drinks at Gatsby’s Bar, shooting the Glock near the water tower, then mini-golf, more drinks, a visit to a cute two bedroom cottage with a “for sale” sign on Appaloosa Avenue which, from the following month, we’d end up sharing for nearly three years like a good gay couple.

The point is this: We rarely let Galaxia come between us, or not until the end anyway, when, in the winter of 2005, I issued an ultimatum to my bruised Branko: It was either Galaxia or me. We had often talked about her, and I had made my position clear: “Snowball poems, diamantes, clarihews. Big whoop. She’s deaf to dialect. Always will be. Let’s see her produce a multi-layered sonnet.”

To which he’d reply: “Say what you want, mon amour. Her youth is a threatening for you, I know it. She’s read more books than yourself can ever. Writes faster. More prolificness. Did I tell you that Re:Visions Magazine is publishing her sestina series? Next stop, the New Yorker.”

Arguments in the shower. He called me a “friendless iconoclaster,” said I had an inflated sense of self, that I was condemned to obscurity, that the poet is not an individual, not even human, not worth our attention, but merely a vessel; and that poetry, like math and physics, has existed since the beginning of time, even before we acquired the voices to express it. “It’s there to be discovered, not created.”

I accused him of being afraid of other people’s feelings, of an inability to appreciate poetic passion, of suffering from a crippled cognition (okay, that was cruel), of being a Pygmalion in his laboratory (he was now a computer science doctorate, spending long nights away from home in the university’s computer lab). Galaxia, I declared, could never exist without people like me being sucked dry of our literary genius, and oh, while we’re being honest, I’ve always detected a faint but clearly discernible whiff of anti-Semitism oozing from your pores.

We separated. I moved in with a beautiful art history student from New Zealand, soon married her, and we now live happily in Australia with our daughter Acacia. Branko. of course, returned to his ungrateful Galaxia Gaudh. Did we love one another, Branko and I? I suppose we did, and I suppose it was because of my affection for Branko, this intimate bond of ours, that Galaxia — now Cecily Barnes — never trusted me, was determined in fact to destroy me, to elevate herself in Branko’s eyes as a poet of grandiosity and “prolificness.”

Over the next decade or so, I’d discover her poems in all sorts of respected journals, Granta, the New Yorker, bylined with numerous identities (“Umayu Funshock” my all time favorite). Her style was easily recognizable. The sentence patterns, her fondness for anagrams, the lifting of phrases from other poets and authors on (the line about “infinite pleasures,” for example, is from Balzac’s Gambara); not to mention her propensity for the word “stuttering,” a favorite anagram of hers. Her poetry is also marked by the vainglorious, a sense of immortality, and she often disparages the efforts of individual poets, especially poets like myself, seemingly sunk in insignificance, imprisoned in our heads, or living on “little isles,” bowl-bound by marriage, children, death.

I admit my career has never blossomed like it might have.

If I see any hope here, it’s in the strangling vines of competition, the rival forces of philistinism making fools of one another. How distressed Cecily and Branko must be by the corruption of her work. See how the creeper of surveillance spreads through the entirety of “Bonsai:” The NSA in “uNSAyable,” “spoNSAl,” “chaiNSAw,” in “BoNSAi” itself; and all those “spy”s in “wiSPY,” “raSPY,” “graSP Your;” not to mention the final couplet’s much-too-obvious — but perhaps heroic — anagram of “wonders dawned.”

Bonsai is a trivial work, indeed, a very bad poem, by a poet undeserving of our attention. It’s stunted, manicured, pruned by a collective aesthetic, shaped by the buffeting forces of self-infatuation. But even amidst such a vast dehumanization, there will always exist the “tiny jewels,” the “pleasures unknown, delights abstruse,” in the soil of its genesis; the leafy lanes of College Station, the monarchs and scarlet maple, the concentrated slice of Branko’s tennis backhand, the horrible oatmeal cookies he used to bake (his nose tipped with flour), the adorable collie pups we used to visit at Wiggles and Wags. The smell of Hugo Boss.

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Tuesday Poem: “Leaves of Glass” — the Canberra Poems of P.S. Cottier

Hyderabad's Charminar

Hyderabad’s Charminar

1. A Love-Drunk Sultan and Canberra’s King

Hard to imagine more contrasting cities than stately, expansive, rule-obsessed Canberra, where I reside most the year, and the raucous, smog-choked, densely populated Hyderabad, from where I’m writing now.

To cross a street in Canberra is to politely wait through a long routine of traffic signals performed to an often empty intersection. The same maneuver, in Hyderabad, is like that river-crossing video game with lanes of passing alligators and logs; step and wait and step and wait; and only one precarious life. Pity the poor Hyderabadi traveler; the existential horror upon arriving in Australia’s capital and finding but a few hundred souls per square kilometer (mostly public servants and their mercantile minions) when back home there are over 18000 people competing for, occupying, defiling the same amount of space.

But even so, there are commonalities, links, shared ancestries (as I will show). The hilly, rocky, red-gold terrain, the venomous snakes and insects, the fact that both cities are built on plateaus, each roughly 550 meters above sea level. Both cities were also born out of statecraft, grandiosity, carefully planned declarations of control; and both would become city states, islands and outcasts in the territories that surround them.

Hyderabad, the story goes, was born of love and poetry. In 1592 the scholar and poet-sultan, Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah, inspired by the passion he felt for his beautiful wife, Bhagmati, commissioned his brilliant Iranian minister to design “a city that replicates heaven on earth.” The result was poetically precise, quatrain-like, with the famous Charminar (four-towered monument) at its center, each of its four arched gates opening to avenues stretching toward the four cardinal points of the earth. There were palaces and gardens and exactly 76 meters up the northern avenue was an octagonal fountain, with four channels running from it “to represent the heavenly channels of water, milk, honey and wine.”(1)

“Fill up my city with people, my God,” sang the Sultan upon the city’s inauguration, “just as you have filled the river with fish.”(2)

Canberra, too, was born of symbolic grandeur, but without the sort of singular poetic passion that rouses a love-drunk Sultan. Conventions, committees, negotiations, referendums, a competition — the city’s incubation was kept as poetically sterile as possible. Beauty thrives on moonlit balconies; and dies in brightly lit committee rooms.

In 1912 Australia’s Minister of Home Affairs, King O’Malley (an American fraud, his pompous name being perhaps his best and only qualification) declared himself the supreme adjudicator — like Bush’s “I’m the decider” — in the international competition to design the federal capital. Canberra, in other words, was crowd-sourced. (And is a reminder of why poetry must never be). Even worse, this bearded buffoon at one point had the gall to suggest he’d be justified in using all 137 of the submitted designs. “A park might be taken from one,” the Melbourne Argus reported him saying. “A boulevard from another, a public square for a third.”(3)

A model of Canberra with the Parliamentary Triangle shown by the green lasers.

A model of Canberra with the Parliamentary Triangle shown by the green lasers.

Finally it was the American husband and wife team of Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin who laid out the oxymoron that is Canberra’s “natural garden,” a native landscape of purposeful geometry. Octagons and hexagons; a central axis, which, similar to Hyderabad, crosses a water axis; and in 1970 Canberra would force a mighty fountain, too.

Just as the heart of Hyderabad points to the four corners of the earth, the right-angled ventricles of Canberra aligns with the four local mountains, or more like very large hills, or buttes, with a triangular core that links Australia’s parliament, its defense forces and its civilians in a kind of national holy trinity, as if the landscape were branded with the hot iron of imperial decree.

2. City on a Little Rocky Hill

Acutely aware of Canberra’s poetic deficiency, the poet P.S. Cottier can write scathingly of the city’s development. In her “Houses of Gungahlin,” the grand designs of petty ambition become the foolish stuff of antiquity and fairy tale:

What space for expansive thought or emerald memory
in these distorted castles, hunch­backed yet grown giant,
perched on desecrated hills, cubist shrines to ugly Gods?
With their whole rooms for vividly flat screen projection,
but no space for gardens, no crevice to hide imagination?
Miniature Gormenghasts, ghastly in their smug block­piled
dreams. Space is impressed like a soldier, rifled to last metre,
extra empty rooms exist to power an ozone hole of mind.
They say, like Ozymandias, look on me…and despair, these
Aussie mansions. And I do, at the slanted, squeezing brains
of goons that hatched these dread creatures of spewed bricks,
and rendered into angled hell a once elegant, scant rock hill.

Distorted castles, ancient shrines, grotesque kings and kingdoms from poems and novels, soldiers pressed into service, “rifled to last metre.” It takes a poet of Cottier’s sensibility to tease out this universal wick from the thick wax of Australia’s colonial history. The name “Gungahlin,” she points out, comes from the Aboriginal word “goongarline,” meaning ‘little rocky hill’, although some claim that the word also means “white man’s house.”(4) In other words, the ridiculous fantasies which drive Gungahlin’s ghastly suburbia (Canberra is often described as “suburbs looking for a city”) are the timeless stuff of colonial invasion.

The bumbling bureaucrat, King O'Malley.

The bumbling bureaucrat, King O’Malley.

In declaring our power, in building the monuments of our future, it seems the ghosts of antiquity invade our imaginations. Canberra’s mighty fountain squirts into the sky, and four hundred years ago a Sultan looked to the Koran for his paradise on earth. In fact, the Persian conquerors of India’s Deccan plateau built Hyderabad on a place the indigenous Telugu people called “Galla Konda,” or “the hillock of graziers.”

The similarity in sound and meaning between the words “Gangahlin” and “Galla Konda” is not only striking (as is their colonial association, and Cottier’s specific use of the word “grazier” in another poem, “Vistaville,” as we’ll see), but the indigenous people of both places, though 10,000 kilometers apart, share similarities in the way they look and speak. Which is perhaps less a coincidence than it seems. DNA tests hint at a shared ancestry. Many aboriginal features, tools and linguistic patterns — not to mention the dingo — are thought to have come from South India.(5) In any case, there’s one thing both places have certainly shared: Conquerors who sought to control “the rocky hill;” the higher ground, the higher authority.

And so it was, while reading Cottier’s Canberra poems (I had requested her to send me some samples), that I was struck by how the verses of one language, one place, can speak across continents, through epochs of history.

3. Breast We Forget

Standing in the middle of Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle — that hot-iron branding of colonial federation — near the Patrick White lawns, looking across Lake Burley Griffin and toward the Australian War Memorial, the narrator of P.S. Cottier’s poem, “Vistaville,” has this to say:

From careful tiles laid outside Library
(near lawns named after a grazier writer)
one can imagine oneself

                              (OK, I can imagine myself)
a grazier of views; of vista.
Nestling among trees, St John’s spire
needles a blue vein sky,
and sheepish hills crowd —
khaki lambs around breasty curve
of War Memorial.

                              (Breast we forget.)
Parliament’s bigger pole smirks
down at that soft building;
enthusiasm for filling it unflagging.
Vistas make us all statesmen.

The “Breast we forget” is a startling bit of wordplay, and there’s so much more to it than the sort of anti-war sneering that likes to mangle a well-known patriotic phrase. (By the way, the reference to Kipling, who immortalized the words “lest we forget” in his “Recessional,” once again links us directly to India’s colonial history). There is, of course, the irony of flag-waving passions, and how, weaned from their mothers’ breasts, the country’s young become the succor of a breast-shaped war memorial (“khaki lambs” to the slaughter, you might say).

The poet P.S. Cottier.

The poet P.S. Cottier.

But “Breast we forget” also reminds us of the oft-neglected female in any imperial endeavor — the motherly breasts that nurture such nation builders as Sultan Quli and King O’Malley; or the “breasty curve” and “blue vein sky” (needled by the St John’s spire) that allow the vista-viewing writer to suckle from whatever poetic sweetness exists in Australia’s capital. Indeed, for all its male bureaucratic banality, Canberra — like Hyderabad — can never escape the debt it owes to the female form. Its very name is said to come from the Ngunnawal term for “woman’s breasts,” referring to the buxom beauties of Ainslie and Black Mountains.(6)

The comparison between building a city and building a poem runs throughout Cottier’s Canberra poems. Not just King O’Malley or Mr. and Mrs. Griffin; not just the Persian Sultan in India drunk with poetry and standing on his palace balcony beside his moonlit beloved; not just Kublai Khan suckling his milk of paradise (breast we forget) and gazing out across his gardens bright with sinuous rills; not just Ozymandias or Gatsby or Citizen Kane and his castle; but Coleridge, Shelley, Fitzgerald, Orson Welles, Patrick White, P.S. Cottier and everyone else with an imagination and the means to create.

Vistas make us all statesmen.

A gavel-slam of truth in that line.

4. The Gecko King

Apart from their vast visionary scope, the Canberra poems of P.S. Cottier are also personal, autobiographical. Cottier grew up in Melbourne and moved to Canberra in the early 1990s. In her poem “Transferred to the Head Office” she describes a species of migrant — “Young chameleons adapt / quite emerald in their ambition” — who arrive in Canberra because the…

Letters after their names
brought them to the suburban
Babel of BAs, this civil, know­all
vacant town.

The “Babel of BAs” once again hurls the Canberran project back in time, to biblical Babylonia and cities of lore. But Cottier is also concerned with the shaping of vistas in her personal pleasure dome. Whether or not any letters after her name brought her to Canberra, she cannot shake the cloak of “emerald memory” that once cocooned her childhood in Melbourne, held her comfortably in a “green cradling loneliness,” as she writes in “Houses of Gungahlin.” And it’s this adaptability, this moving between past and present, that forces the poet to contrast Canberra’s carefully drawn dimensions with the more organically grown Melbourne of her memory.

Here are the opening lines of “Missing Melbourne:”

Alleys don’t exist here. Canberra has no use
for backways streets, for furtive tales.
Lies are a different matter, but those
architectural commas, those cobbled
night­cart ways have no place amongst
paradise refined into
quintessence of tedium.

A house in Canberra's suburb of Gangahlin: "Miniature Gormenghasts, ghastly in their smug block­piled / dreams."

A house in Canberra’s suburb of Gangahlin: “Miniature Gormenghasts, ghastly in their smug block­piled / dreams.”

Once again, with the “architectural comma,” Cottier superimposes the making of cities against the making of poems. Clearly she prefers the “cobbled / nightcart” pauses, breaks, second thoughts to the much broader, overconfident, almost biblical expressions of grandeur found in Mohommad Quli’s “paradise on earth” or the tedious “refined paradises” of Home Minister O’Malley (a park here, a boulevard there).

The “comma” occurs again in Cottier’s poem, “A Gecko in Canberra,” in which she admires a creature — like the chameleon of “Transferred to the Head Office” — more associated with tropical climes than with a place like “icy Canberra.” The gecko has positioned itself between the glass louvres of her window:

He presses between hard leaves of glass,
a ghostly stroke of grey content.
Mere comma, but so persistent,
this frosted smudge upon my pane.

This is a beautiful quatrain, itself louvred with perfect iambs, as the poet — identifying with the gecko — comes to terms with feeling out of place in Canberra. She starts to appreciate the new, vista-building possibilities around her, and imagines the gecko as as fellow “refugee.” But rather than feeling nostalgic for Melbourne’s nightcart alleys and emerald memories, the gecko dreams of Queensland’s “royal mantle of heat.” Note the “royal mantle,” because here again we encounter the stuff of statecraft, of royalty, of power. Vistas make us all statesmen; and even the gecko has its ambitions.

“It’s a bit like we’re all mini-Ozymandiases,” Cottier once commented on a post of mine, “sure that somehow our creations (or re-creations, our memories) will last where others have fallen,”

There’s no doubt that Cottier’s vision of Canberra is going to last, if only because of her penetrating eye; as demonstrated by the “leaves of glass” on which her gecko is perched. It took three-quarters of a century for America to find its poetic voice in the thrusting grass blades of Walt Whitman. Canberra is a different matter, rockier, less fertile, more dominating in its imposed nationalism; and yet it’s crying out for poetry. It needs its breasty hills, its blue vein sky.

By confronting the glassiness of Canberra, Cottier provides the poetry it requires. “Ghosts rustle like dead glass leaves,” she concludes in the last line of her “Transferred to the Head Office.” And yet later in “Gecko” she embraces the glass, her mind clinging “to a new idea / as his spreading toes to louvres.” This is what Canberra is, after all — a place where the cockatoos are “crestfully yellow” (another royal motif), their “sound­beakers of heavy metal / poured into pure blue air.” Leaves of glass, and a city whose shrieking voice is turned to metal.

To say there’s a “lively” poetry scene in Canberra is to refer more to the number of readings, the size of the mailing list, the official recognition of its poets (and there are some excellent poets) than to the vitality of the art. But Cottier has found an enduring voice in her Canberra poems — a voice which acknowledges both the imperial side of Canberra and the side that, as she concludes her poem, “Vistaville”…

The 42-year-old Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of Canberra's Old Parliament House.

The 42-year-old Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of Canberra’s Old Parliament House.

                              …camps out
just to the edge of the preferred view.

These last lines refer to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy that’s remained in front of the old parliament building for the last 42 years, smack in the middle of the Parliamentary Triangle. No matter how big its monuments, Canberra will never escape its “Gungahlins,” its geckos and cockatoos, its breasty hills. Colonial history, global migration, poetry and passion — they’re in its blood, whether it knows it or not.

(1) The story of Hyderabad’s founding is taken from Narendra Luther’s Hyderabad, A Biography, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Mera shehar logan soon mamoor kar
Rakhya joon toon darya mein min ya Sami
(3) See “An Ideal City: A Capital Competition” for more information about how Canberra was designed.
(4) The source for the name Gangahlin comes from the ACT Department of Environment and Sustainable Development.
(5) Sources for the link between Australian Aborigines and South Indians include an article in
Nature, Science Daily, this Campaign Projects blog, and personal impressions.
(6) For an in-depth discussion of the etymology of the name Canberra, see Patrick Frei’s article here.

All poems and excerpts were reprinted here with permission from the author.
– “Transferred to Head Office” published ACT Writers’ Centre anthology,
Capital Letters, edited by Susan Hampton and John Stokes in Boris Books, June 2008.
– “Missing Melbourne” published in
Eureka Street, November 2009
– “A Gecko in Canberra” included in “Selection criteria for death,” one-third of
Triptych Poets Issue Three (Blemish Books, 2012).
– “Vistaville” published in
Burley, Issue 3, March 2013.
– “April Mornings” published on an ACTION bus, as part of the Poetry in ACTION scheme, June 2013.
– “Houses of Gungahlin” published for the first time in this review.
P.S. Cottier is also a member of the Tuesday Poets, a New Zealand-based blog featuring poets from around the world.

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Summary of the Tuesday Poems this Week

Keith Westwater imagines Ruamoko, god of earthquakes and volcanoes, madly derailing trains in his memorable poem "Ruamoko, trainwrecker."

Keith Westwater imagines Ruamoko, god of earthquakes and volcanoes, madly derailing trains in his memorable poem “Ruamoko, trainwrecker.” Photo: Image of train tracks after the Canterbury earthquake.

Birds, a neighbor’s cat, “a cat person,” and a little dog in this week’s Tuesday Poetry. Continents, tectonic plates, remarkable observations, loneliness and love.

Shall we see how they couple?

Mary Oliver’s “Little Dog’s Rhapsody” is chasing feathered friends in Kathleen Jones’s poems from “The Alchemist’s Book of Birds.” Together they commune with humans; and we with them.

Saradha Koirala’s “Reach” stretches brilliantly across continents, across a sliver of ocean, just as Keith Westwater’s “Ruamoko, trainwrecker” chunnels beneath the Cook Strait. They speak of transport and we hear a distinctive “dis” sound in their conversation — distance, disruption, disorientation.

We’ll pair Denis Levertov’s “Variation of a Theme by Rilke” with Rupert Brooke’s “The Great Lover,” as both are passionate, confident, madly in love — although I notice the notoriously dashing Brooke (so handsome in his military uniform) has eyes for Anna Fern as well.

Fern’s “Strange, unremarkably so,” with its stand-up comic’s tone, offers exactly the sort of playful observance Brooke would adore. But “Strange,” of course, is engaged with “Sigourney Weaver and I go to bed” by Emma Barnes, who shares a similar marvel of strange moments — in this case a fascination with dream logic.

Of all the guests in this metaphorical what — a ballroom? a banquet? an Internet dating forum? — I’d say that Westwater’s “Ruamoko, tranwrecker” appeared the most hearty, heroic and striking to this editor’s eye. But each of the poems was of an exceptionally high standard this week, each a pleasure to read (and to hear in Oliver’s case), each rich in its rewards.

Zireaux was this week’s editor of the Tuesday Poem blog. The poem he selected is “Pigs” by Les Murray. His commentary on the poem is available here.

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Editing the Tuesday Poem Blog This Week – “Pigs” by Les Murray

Les Murray. Photograph by Adam Hollingworth.

Les Murray. Photograph by Adam Hollingworth.

This week I’m the editor of the Tuesday Poem blog. The poem I’ve selected is “Pigs” by Les Murray. Hoping to read all the Tuesday Poets’ submissions this week and write a sort of wrap-up commentary here:

…check back soon.


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“At Melville’s Tomb” by Hart Crane

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Zireaux's diagram of "At Melville's Tomb" (click to expand). Special thanks to Lynda Farrington Wilson for her help with the drawing.

Zireaux’s diagram of “At Melville’s Tomb” (click to expand). Special thanks to Lynda Farrington Wilson for her help with the drawing.

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
A risk, I know, to post this poem by Crane. I can already hear the twitter-twatter of distracted brains, like bird feet on a tin roof. The furrow of brows(ers). The clicks of the mice — back-button, window closed. What a strain this cranial Crane! Too hard, too dense!

But stay, my reader. Let us creep across the stars. A little voyage for us to make. A little ship for us to sink in.

It’s in our biology, programmed in our souls, to feel attraction to water. Crane, who found his dirty pleasure (dirty to him, that is) in sailors and their scepters, leapt off a steamship into the Gulf of Mexico. A suicide, apparently, after a male crew member responded violently to his physical advances.

“Harold Hart Crane 1899–1932 lost at sea,” reads the inscription on his father’s tombstone.

I’m no Cranophile, not by a longboat, and only recently — budded by Bloom (Harold) and carried by a Griffin (John) — has my interest come anywhere near the poet. But here’s Crane now, floating beside us, his debris on the page, in water writ, forever inscribed in “Melville’s Tomb.”

And it’s not every day a dead man speaks. Poets know death. They betroth themselves to death and learn how to “charm its lashings,” so to speak (see my notes on “Of Mere Being”). One measure of a great poet: The degree to which she mingles amongst the living and the dead.

In the history of great poetic voyages, Melville — who was foremost a poet (a fact I’ve stated before and which so often astonishes my readers, as if there was any question about it) — was death’s first mate and closest companion. Our Harold Crane, by comparison, was a mere able seaman, and his poem “At Melville’s Tomb” is a little wooden rower compared to Herman’s mighty Pequod. A single swipe of Moby’s tail would dash this poem into a 110 pieces.

But it holds water. It’s seaworthy. Can survive a humpback, maybe. Keep us from the sharks.

Observe my diagram. Most importantly, observe the position of the drowned Melville “beneath the waves” (he died and was buried on land, in fact, but Crane is speaking of his spirit here). Observe the living poet, standing on shore, beer bottle in hand, contemplating the ocean from his “ledge.” Ledge, of course, being a thing from which people, especially edgy, ledgy poets, often fall…or leap.

We start with the “embassy” — a Shakespearean locution for a message (see “Sonnet XLV,” Twelfth Night, King Henry V, etc) — which is “bequeathed” from sea to land, from washed-up bones to (dust-to) dusty sand. Speaking of messages, are those Crane’s fingerprints on chapter 104 of Moby Dick from where he stole the word “bequeath” — indeed stole the whole idea of messages coming from the mysterious underwater dead?

They are. The word “bequeath” appears once is that leviathan novel, in the chapter titled, suitably, “The Fossile Whale.” Ishmael describes how whales “bequeath [their] ancient bust” in limestone and marl. Messages from bones. And interestingly, in the very next sentence, Ishmael describes how whales also appeared in Egyptian hieroglyphics — writing, forsooth! — represented by the print of a whale’s fluke.

You can see, in my diagram, this cycle from bones to messages to chapters and hieroglyphs — and this is very important, because Crane is about to deliver his most astonishing and brilliant couplet:

Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Crane himself offered clues about these lines in a letter to the perplexed editor of Poetry magazine, Harriet Monroe, who initially rejected the poem. But Crane assumes — incorrectly — his readers can at least understand the basic layout of his vision.

I’ve read at least a dozen other commentators of these lines. Bloom, Buckingham, Franks, Irwin, Leibowitz, Lewis, Penn Warren, Quinn, Tate, Woods, others. Crane’s metaphors are so tightly packed (the calyx, for example, possesses both the whirlpool-like cavity created by a sinking ship and the flowers one puts on a grave) that none of these admirers seem to completely grasp the clear visual precision, the exactitude, which Crane has achieved.

Looking up from below: Hart Crane would have appreciated this camera angle in the movie Life of Pi.

Looking up from below: Hart Crane would have appreciated this camera angle in the movie Life of Pi.

Monroe couldn’t understand how eyes could “lift altars.” But in chapter 119 of Moby Dick, titled “The Candles,” Melville writes of the corpusants (also known as St. Elmos Fire) that ignite the Pequods masts: “Each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.” The sky, the horizon in Moby Dick, is a kind of altar, the masts are like candles. To Crane’s drowning sailors then, their frosted eyes looking upward as they sink into the ocean depths, it really would appear as if the alter were being lifted.

And what about the answers creeping across the stars? “As soon as the water has closed over a ship,” Crane writes in his polite exegesis to Monroe, “this whirlpool sends up broken spars, wreckage, etc., which can be alluded to as livid hieroglyphs, making a scattered chapter…”

In other words, the “embassy,” or message, has gone out to the shore; its “answer” then — following the allure of the sea — has come back by ship, which (like Ahab’s Pequod) founders and sinks, leaving its wreckage, as scattered chapters, or livid (sea-smeared) hieroglyphs, to float across the ocean’s surface.

Observe again my diagram and see my point: From Melville’s perspective, from his position at the cruel bottom of the ocean looking upward from his tomb, the “answers,” the replies to the “embassy,” the scattered bits of wreckage, really would appear to silently creep across the stars.

The silence here is crucial, too. We can hear so little when we’re underwater. Especially at the bottom of the sea. Wrecks pass “without sound of bells” — the same bells which Crane borrows from chapter nine of Moby Dick: “The continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog”.

Similarly the floating wreckage above us is absolutely silent. This will hurt Crane-lovers, but Disney — a la Pirates of the Caribbean — has given this perspective an almost camp quality; camera looking up from below at the floating bodies and debris above. And, too, the dead silence.

So naturally the “monody” — the song of poets, of this poet, this poem, coming as it does above the boundaries of Melville’s tomb, “high in the azure steeps” (the word “steeps” packed not just with height and loftiness, but with eyes, jewels, stars) — is silent as well. With this understanding, with this sense of being deep underwater, amidst the absolute silence, the final line of the poem presents itself as — ironically, given Crane’s craving to leap from the ledge — a celebration of being alive.

Because to the sea-entombed Melville, to “the mariner” looking up from below, the water’s surface is the limit of his world. There are “no farther tides.” Life, music, poetry, beauty, the sheer power of Crane’s language, this fabulous world in which we live above the surface of the sea — it’s but a shadow to those who lie beneath.

Zireaux, who can’t help but break a word-limit for Herman and Hart, is the author of four novels, including
Kamal, which is currently being serialized on the web. His first novel, written in 1990s, will be available in paperback soon (with a free copy going to whoever solves this puzzle poem).

Please be sure to visit the poets over at Tuesday Poem. Surely there’s a Hart amongst them — Crane and Melville both sharing periods in their careers of extreme, debilitating under-appreciation. It’s a good reader’s responsibility, therefore, to locate and cherish the treasures in the tolling fog.

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Tuesday Poem: “Dreams” by Edgar Allan Poe

Thomas Stothard's Tempest, c 1799

Thomas Stothard's 'Tempest' (c 1799). Says Prospero: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."

“Dreams” was selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem).

Zireaux is also this week’s editor of the Tuesday Poem blog, on which he discusses the poetry of “Kath and Kim” (Jane Turner and Gina Riley).

Edgar Allan Poe

Oh! that my young life were a lasting dream!
My spirit not awak’ning, till the beam
Of an Eternity should bring the morrow.
Yes! tho’ that long dream were of hopeless sorrow.
‘Twere better than the cold reality
Of waking life, to him whose heart must be,
And hath been still, upon the lovely earth,
A chaos of deep passion, from his birth.
But should it be — that dream eternally
Continuing — as dreams have been to me
In my young boyhood — should it thus be giv’n
‘Twere folly still to hope for higher Heav’n.
For I have revell’d when the sun was bright
In the summer sky, in dreams of living light.
And loveliness, — have left my very heart
In climes of my imaginings apart
From mine own home, with beings that have been
Of mine own thought — what more could I have seen?

‘Twas once — and only once — and the wild hour
From my remembrance shall not pass — some pow’r
Or spell had bound me — ‘twas the chilly wind
Came o’er me in the night, and left behind
Its image on my spirit — or the moon
Shone on my slumbers in her lofty noon
Too coldly — or the stars — howe’er it was
That dream was as that night-wind — let it pass.
I have been happy, tho’ in a dream.
I have been happy — and I love the theme:
Dreams! in their vivid colouring of life
As in that fleeting, shadowy, misty strife
Of semblance with reality which brings
To the delirious eye, more lovely things
Of Paradise and Love — and all our own!
Than young Hope in his sunniest hour hath known.


Edgar Allan Poe

A Chaos of Passions: Edgar Allan Poe. Portrait by Oscar Halling, c 1860s, after an 1849 daguerreotype.

Zireaux’s comments on this poem
“Is it true what Robert Graves once said / that every poet over thirty’s dead?”

Any work by Poe deserves a careful handling (snap and snap of the blue nitrile gloves), but especially this poem, a piece of juvenilia, composed with all the flexible fancies and daring dismounts of a lithe and limber brain.

Edgar was 18 when he wrote it.

Many more times he’d attempt to capture this unique species of dream, in essays, poetry, short stories: Not sleeping dreams, not Freudian dreams, or Proustian time-traveling remembrances; not hallucinations of hope, or preacher visions sung from the Capitol’s Mall; or Disney dreams, or the fantasies of aspiring pop-stars; not pipe-dreams, prophecies, visions, trances, mirages, hypnotic dreams, psychedelic dreams, laudenum-induced comas, the Dreamtimes of prehistory, visitations from Morpheus or Sibyl, glossolalia, or a hello from a hologrammic TuPoe with a trillion views on YouTube (“Yo whassup Tuesday Poets!”).

Fancies, daydreams, reveries — Poe would settle, at last, on “fancies,” but even that, he insists, was just a word plucked at random to capture a “shadow of a shadow.” (“A dream itself is but a shadow,” says Hamlet).

“Dreams” is often dismissed as an immature work, and it’s true, the poem is no “Raven”, no “Ulalume” (see my comments on “Ulalume”), no “Bells” or “Annabel Lee.” But when we gently cut through the poem’s husk (Eternity, Paradise, Love, Hope, High Heaven), peel back the fleshy endosperm (all that “living light” and “loveliness”), we not only find the germ of poetic genius, but one of the most important discoveries ever made by an English language poet.

I don’t just mean the fine observation — see it there, in lines 4 through 8 — that for a person of passion, even the saddest dreams are more pleasurable than waking life. Enchanting, yes, but Coleridge had distilled the same elixir 40 years earlier (notice, by the way, the Coleridgian cast of moonlight that shimmers across lines 23-24).

Poe’s vision is much more radical than that. As his dreamer marvels in line 18, the most critical element of such dreams, it turns out, is that they are “of mine own thought.” They are “all our own!”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

A pilot dreamer: Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944)

The dreamer, then, isn’t possessed. The dreamer possesses. The Raven on which the dreamer flies, flapping its black wings of Time (same dark wings that swoop through H.G. Wells‘s phantasm), belongs to its rider. A pilot, then, is this dreamer, with compass to consult, instruments of accuracy — airspeed, altitude, pitch — and there’s Saint-Exupery buzzing over the Sahara in his Brueget biplane (oneiric angels splattering against his windscreen).

Freedom through form, fancy as precision, music as mathematical formula, mutation through logic, a brilliantly bridled madness — this is Poe. And this was young Edger, his “chaos of passions” expressed in rhyme, carefully constructed meter (note the mimicking meter of lines one and four in “Dreams”), his “wild hour,” his being “bound” in a spell, a vivid colouring in a moonlit slumber for a delirious eye.

This, to me (slap and slap, gloves removed, flourished, tossed in bin), is the miracle of all great poetry. Not the passion alone, but the structure, the precision, the dreamy chaos held in absolute control.
Published as part of the Tuesday Poetry group.

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“Road Sign in Eastbourne” by Windsor Arbonne

 Little Blue Penguins (Eudyptula minor)

A Little Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor)

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Road Sign in Eastbourne
Windsor Arbonne

Toward Eastbourne (and whatever else we might see),
the radio singing of old cars and new,
a bloodless president, wealthy coup,
names and happenings soaking up the sites, we

participated in a common New Zealand view
as if — our world cut in half —
we were cornered in some graph
where y equals mountain and x is all blue.

Sudden road sign swatting; car, swiped at
(a kind of “intimidation game,”
drunken ones having better aim),
we continued unscathed, words untyped yet,

when — the way long hair can leak through
open windows on such a drive —
its signature entered, came alive,
a seated, sight-seeing audience to speak to.

Imagine “Sing U Pen!” on a Parker written,
or “A Friendly Guy Named Joe”
on the business card of a CEO —
so the aukwords of this self-smitten

noseless chap, cowing, clarion, straight
as leadership’s leading “l,”
enabled bowing readership to spell
its own universe. The authoritarian trait

of most flat-faced didacts you must admit
could truly benefit
from just a bit (a bit)
of child-like descriptive prose. To wit:

“You risk a hood ornament in the hip!”
— full sentence flashing instead
of that green man blushing to red
(if only once the Martian would slip!).

Shady arboretum, a swish of clarity
as a wife of thirty years is hearing
“See dear, a Lady of a Thousand Earrings!”
instead of his Latin gibberish for cherry tree.

And yes, just as “Medusa” gives the hydroid life,
so too this New Sealand resident
(so unlike the bloodless president)
materialized in front of me and my wife,

crossing the roadway’s middle, true, sanguine,
a family of them, painted all
with their water-colour, like Russian dolls
dangerously determined: “Little blue penguins.”

Zireaux’s comments on this poem
Correction: The poem “Road Sign in Eastbourne” was wrongly attributed to me. It was written in fact by the poet, Windsor Arbonne, a friend of mine when I was living in Wellington. He vanished without a trace in 1999 during a mountain climbing expedition in Peru.

I recently found this poem in my files, but didn’t have time last week to comment on it. So a few words here:

All poems are about poetry, said Wallace Stevens, and here we have a poem about words — the confused spoken words on the radio (mixing bloodless coup and wealthy president) contrasting with the short, clear printed words on the road sign: “Little Blue Penguins.”

Forget the Latin gibberish, or even the cryptic common names of many animal species (Emperor penguins, Adele penguins); the actual name of these little blue penguins is nothing more than the pair of simple, descriptive adjectives themselves — little and blue — which is all a reader requires to bring the creatures to life.

Of course, we can zoom in even closer: You’ve surely noticed, my good reader, the anagram in “Sing U pen!” (Clever Windsor!). The play with names — “aukwords” (“Auk” is a sea bird), the Medusa hydroid (a New Zealand jellyfish). Look at the variety of communication — radio, pictographs (the pedestrian crossing lights), handwriting (“its signature”), printed road signs, spousal speech (a coded language, you might say), and, of course, poetic metaphor (the road sign is described as a letter “l”).

The closing metaphor of the Russian dolls is genius — describing both the doll-like penguins crossing the road, and the language of poetry itself. Words, lines, stanzas as nested dolls, with the poem being the largest, most encompassing doll of the bunch.

For other “Tuesday Poetry,” be sure to visit


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“Scissors” by Alan Gould

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

by Alan Gould

They have become her fingers.
Her present ends
possess no closer friends.

Silver twins, dividing their estates,
they follow the invisible maps
she laid there, years ago perhaps.

Without this risk there’s no precision,
And so they come this far
absorbed in their decisive mission,

a slish then slish
that parts one stillness from another,
the blades swimming like two slender fish.

The room grows dark, this draws
all light toward her fingers.
There is, as well, you note,
her smile so calm for interests
so utterly remote.

“Scissors” is published with the permission of Alan Gould

Woman Ironing, by Pablo Picasso, 1901 (1881-1973)

Woman Ironing, by Pablo Picasso, 1901 (1881-1973)

Zireaux’s comments on this poem
So where do we cut a 17 line poem called “Scissors”? Right down the middle of course. Line 9. “Absorbed in their decisive mission.”

Not since Emily Dickinson’s description of a snake in the grass — “his notice sudden is” — have I encountered a more effective sibilance of subject matter. But these words, “decisive mission,” are perfectly selected not just because they sound right (“slish and slish”), or even because they look right — the double-ss in “mission” mirroring the double-ss in its scissoring twin — but rather because they cut to the very core of the poem itself.

The current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary lists 171,476 words in current use, and 47,169 obsolete words. This, then, defines the monumental task of all great English novelists and poets — making choices, selecting which word goes where. It’s really no more complicated, and no less daunting, than that: Minute-by-minute decisions, revisions, changing one’s course, changing one’s mind.

But how to decide? And for what purpose? “You note,” writes the poet in line 15, addressing himself in much the same way Wallace Stevens commands himself to “Note that” in line 22 of “Poems of our Climate.” Poets are notetakers, record-keepers, observers of detail, passionate scientists, ship captains with exhaustive log-books, and what we have in “Scissors” is a poet with an extremely sharp vision.

He catches something vital in the act of scissoring, namely, the way the scissors “follow invisible maps” from “years ago perhaps;” and that in so doing, in using the past to guide their “present ends,” the woman’s fingers are able to pursue a “decisive mission.” There’s an important truth here for all great artists, for all observant poets, namely — and here’s the lovely part — “without this risk there’s no precision.”

Precision. Yes, note that.

I’m wary of poets who work to create moods of transcendence. I’ve struggled, as my readers know, with Wallace Stevens, his wintry mind, his snowy smells. But it takes a fine poet to write about poetry. Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Jennings, Wallace Stevens (and now Alan Gould) are some of the poets who, as I’ve noted in previous posts, successfully capture the poetic mind. What they all have in common: a devotion to precision, to the careful selection of words.

“Poets’ poets,” they’re often called, and this would make sense if, in fact, the majority of poetry readers weren’t themselves practicing poets. Or put another way, with the exception of certain half-developed homunculi like Vladimir Putin and Rick Santorum, there’s a little poet in everyone.

And artistry, craftsmanship, will always captivate the discerning poet (see Jenning’s brilliant poem on Rembrandt). Gould’s enchantment with the lamplit task of the female homemaker, his observation of cutting and stitching (his “Scissors” is followed by another poem, “Needle”) brings to mind, for example, Picasso’s and Degas’s infatuation with women ironing clothes. You’ll note (note that!) the dark eyes and peculiar smile on the lips of Picasso’s “Ironing Woman,” as if she, too, is “calm for interests / so utterly remote.”

Or even reading, shaving, showering, smoking, driving a car — these are the moments of the poetic mind (see my post “The Poet as Absent-Minded Neuroscientist“).

Gould is a Canberra-based poet, and Canberra (with its regular readings at the Gods Cafe, or my chance encounter with Gould, who I’d never heard of before, and who was discussing his latest novel at the local Canberra library) is surprisingly rich with writers and poetry. But Gould is also an immigrant with seafaring blood, and it’s this past that rises to the surface in “Scissors” — the scissor blades (splash and splash) “swimming like two slender fish.”

Appropriately, the collection in which “Scissors” appears is called The Past Completes Me, and the past is certainly a guiding source of inspiration for poets. But there’s something more here, too — that despite the precision, the years of dedication, the painful hours of agonizing selection from an ocean of hundreds of thousands of words, there’s a poetic acknowledgement that on the shifting estate of water, alas, is where the poet’s words are inevitably writ.

For some more great words on water writ — and by memory preserved — readers are encouraged to visit some of the other Tuesday Poets at


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“Land Down Under” by Men at Work

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Men at Work singing Land Down Under

“Land Down Under”
by Colin Hay of Men at Work

Traveling in a fried-out combie1
On a hippie trail, head full of zombie2
I met a strange lady, she made me nervous.
She took me in and gave me breakfast.
And she said,

Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.

Buying bread from a man in Brussels.
Six-foot four and full of muscles.
I said, Do you speak my language, brother?
He just smiled and gave me a vegemite3 sandwich
And he said,

I come from a land down under
Where beer does flow and men chunder4
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.

Lying in a den in Bombay
With a slack jaw, and not a lot to say.
I said to the man, ‘Are you trying to tempt me
Because I come from the land of plenty?’
And he said,

‘Oh! Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.’

1 A broken-down van. It comes from the VW Kombivan (a neologism for “combination van”), popular in the ’60s and early ’70s, especially with surfers and hippies.
2 Zombie was a particularly strong batch of marijuana, also known as “Zombie Grass,” named for its effect of transforming its users into the walking dead.
3 A fermented yeast spread; Australia’s national food.
3 Aussie slang meaning to vomit.

Colin Hay singing Land Down Under

Zireaux’s comments on this poem
In poetry, the sound of thunder is anapestic.


That is to say, its metrical pattern is two unstressed beats followed by a stressed. Oh sure, it can mimic other patterns — bacchiatic booms, dactylic detonations, cretic claps — but when conversing with the Muse, anapest is her meter of choice.

From stanza 47 of Res Publica:

“To the West / soft thunder answered in anapest / a pressing question.”

Thunder is also anaphoric, that is, it’s repetitive, which is why Colin Hay’s lyrics, “Can’t you hear, can’t you hear” (can’t you hear the anapests?) and “you better run, you better take cover” — apart from creating a relentless, undulating urgency — work so perfectly to produce the music of impending thunder.

Last week we looked at Dicken’s “The Ivy Green” and how van Gogh (who never owned an iPod, my plugged-in readers) was as much impressed by its song as by its sense. I tried to show how music contributes to meaning, not in some vague emotional sense — a melancholic minuet, or a cheerful Bach cantata — but rather in a more specific manner, the way a particular letter can produce, in certain cross-wired brains, a particular color. (The letters “I-V-Y,” according to my synesthetic son, would be orange-brown, purple, and pale yellow).

In other words, the music of a poem can contribute to such things as character, setting, narration, with as much effect as any words can. The “ivy” in Dickens’s poem was fully personified by the friendly, affectionate rhythm and song. Conversely, words — such as Hay’s extraordinary “Down Under” lyrics — can give a catchy, upbeat melody the sort of social vision and earthly gravitas it couldn’t possibly possess on its own.

We see this effect — like a kite string connecting the music above with the spool of our daily lives — most dramatically when words are used to create characters in songs, especially when these characters actually speak for themselves. Think of The Eagles with “Hotel California” — “And she said, ‘We are all just prisoners here…'” — or Paul Simon’s penchant for dialogue and scene-setting (“And she said, ‘Honey take me dancing,'” in Graceland). In “Down Under” Hay creates several characters: a globetrotting, easy-going Aussie, a strange lady, a muscle-man from Brussels, the manager of an opium den in Bombay.

But it’s the thunder that can’t be forgotten.

Like its protagonist, the music of “Down Under” is carefree, playful, laid-back. But the thunder isn’t. The rhymes are casual, capricious (nervous/breakfast, thunder/cover, language/sandwich), but the thunder — “can’t you hear, can’t you hear” — is striking and deadly serious (“you’d better take cover”) and metaphorically more Australian, with its ceaseless rumble of history, than any Australian food or colloquialism. Such a thunder reverberates in every Australian sound, in every dialogue, in every situation of Australian life, even to those who are deaf to its portent.


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