Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Five short reviews of Paper Bark Press books

   Mines : Jennifer Maiden
   Wicked Heat : Kevin Hart
   Invisible Riders : Peter Steele
   Untold Tales : David Malouf
   Empty Texas : Peter Minter


Since Australian corporate publishing companies have ceased publishing poetry, in New South Wales only three independent presses attend to this dynamic strand of literary culture - Brandl & Schlesinger, Five Islands Press and Paper Bark Press. Five Islands and Paper Bark are both run by practising poets. After fourteen years of activity, Paper Bark has ventured into in-house design for its most recent titles. Quality creamy paper, solarised mushroom-pink borders, arty black & white photo-montage on glossy covers suggest that Paper Bark books represent good taste. High art, even. But it’s impossible to discern an in-house editorial policy from the disparity of their new titles.

Mines, the latest collection from Jennifer Maiden, continues her past three decades' work researching "the problem of evil". Her earlier work is metaphysical, "poetic", opaque. This book is directly political, open, quotidian - her family, David & Katherine, literary friends like Jan Harry, Dorothy Porter and the celebrated novelist she calls simply "Malouf", float into often perturbing scenarios.

These days her method is to scrutinize North American news broadcasts received via satellite tv and to listen to the testimony of recovering victims in her role as writer-in-residence at the NSW Torture and Trauma Rehabilitation Service. The actions and presentation of U.S./U.N. political figures General Schwarzkopf, Madeleine Albright, Richard Butler et al, are analysed alongside a courteous boy now grown into a murderer, the bleak irony of collecting beautiful stamps from Rwanda, or whether S&M is a component of political torture and so on. Sounds like heavy going, and it’s possible that attestations of grim news from conflict zones could overwhelm her art and life, but Jennifer Maiden has the acuity, the wit, and a kind of true-grit dedication to her family and to justice to carry off this important project without becoming maudlin or despairing. Precious jewels and humbler sequins shimmer alchemically in many poems and a bee trapped and then set free from a fairy floss machine at Australia’s Wonderland can transform into a liberating menopausal symbol in Maiden’s complex world-view.

Kevin Hart's family migrated from the U.K. to Brisbane where he attended primary school in the early 1960's when, incredibly, it seems pen & nib copperplate writing was still taught. Hart's poems about Brisbane are evocative. Nostalgia infuses his memory of oppressive heat that "flares" but is never humid as it encloses fermenting adolescent sexual yearnings. A measured monotone and an often-used tercet form provide the structure for a kind of tranquil religiosity. All night I feel my old loves rotting in my heart/ But morning brings the Calm. It's as if these poems were written by a very serious old man and, apart from a recognisable poetic compulsion to write, it’s sometimes hard to grasp the point of this transparent yet obtuse set. Kevin Hart once wrote "Good poems lead us from certainty to uncertainty". So, in his own terms Wicked Heatt succeeds.

If Hart’s poems seem obtuse, Peter Steele’s in Invisible Riders are practically incomprehensible. What Peter Porter’s cover blurb calls "Edenic language" used to be called "stream-of-consciousness". To enjoy most of these poems readers should suspend their faculties of reason and logic and surrender to abstraction and the author’s private word-play. Dense, lengthy, formal, with a sprinkling of Latin, fustily humorous – to whet interest, I can only give examples of, say, first lines –Rammed erect in the shell of his quadriga,/The triumphator takes the City, Hacking a dun mare in from Outer Stercoria, Safe from the katabatic wind, Between a tree and a tree and a tree the form/Is flung,. When Steele, a Professor of English in Melbourne, is simply descriptive poems like "Driving Home" and "Public Holiday, Gerroa" make sense. He does give an occasional clue to his process –To keep on putting/One’s strong lines, bringing stress to the verbal scumble,/Is half or all of life.

Untold Tales has an old-fashioned, mannered tone. The first of four brief tales, is a rather dry story of a renowned early eighteenth century organist's daughter who doesn't marry J.S.Bach and has no regrets. Malouf pokes fun at Handel by having him, an unlikely suitor, camping it up with a younger man. But it's a dissatisfying read - there's no moral as is usually expected from a folktale. Kevin Hart writes Angels have nothing much to say, except/"Exceed the picayune". In his second tale Malouf’s angels are in an opposite guise as gossip-bearing runners. This seems very quaint in an era of email. The language, whilst always precise, is sometimes strangely anachronistic - here peasants pursue a task with so much ease of heart and limb. Malouf lacks the German writer Christoph Meckel's dark, ironic tone but these swiftly-moving rumour-mongers could have flown from Meckel's pages. There are also retellings (rather than revelations of the untold) of two Greek myths. Assuming that, as archetypal psychologists believe, the pagan gods and goddesses influence our lives and if in taking on the duties of a classicist David Malouf reconnects his readers with mythological allegory then these tales should delight any Jungians amongst them. The writing is so assured, so practised and, it follows, so highly polished that the overall impression is of an entertainment that is, partially, an exercise in style.

The title of Peter Minter’s exciting second collection, Empty Texas, situates his influences in late Twentieth Century American poetries. This Texas is a place where language distils through experimentation and contemplative thought into pure poetry. Sequential, playful, intellectually alert to language-use as a game, these ironies are multiple. Refreshingly, Minter abandons the construction of "self" common to most contemporary poetry and is instead atmospheric, conceptual and syntactically innovative. His landscapes are representational. His science is in living systems. Some of Minter’s poems include Paper Bark publisher, Bob Adamson, acknowledging Stéphane Mallarmé as a common inspiration. or, imagined nicely, your red/ pastourelle reconstitutes virtue, the Tempest/ and all that futile glamour/ surging over paddocks/gently wrecks the poppies/ atonal and clean, wind-up/ gorging on fever/ beside his and hers luminescences.
Peter Minter, irrational Mallarmiste for a new generation, write on!

This review was published in a different version in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in 2000.

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