by Stephen Sewell
I suppose I’ve been a writer all my life, and it’s always been getting me into trouble. I was nearly expelled from school when I was thirteen when the school paper I was editing began an investigation of the local parish priest, and my relationship with authority has been fraught ever since. It’s not that I’m a natural rebel, I don’t think, though most children are, but that I just can’t stand being pushed around. Fundamentally, that’s what it is. So maybe I just never grew up. Of course, I don’t like hypocrisy and can’t stand inconsistency, but as I’ve grown older I’ve become more understanding, and perhaps even more forgiving. It’s hard, living up to your principles. But start telling me what to do and my body tenses, my voice grows hoarse and I’m ready for a fight, and when I let rip, look out, because there’s a lot of anger in me. Why that is, I don’t know. I can’t say that I suffered a particularly difficult childhood. In fact in most ways I was very privileged. My mother and father loved me. I had two beautiful brothers whom I persecuted relentlessly. We lived in our own house, a Federation cottage with a Hills Hoist in the backyard and close to a school that taught Christian principles that in many ways I still adhere to today. I honestly try as hard as I can to love my enemy. I wrote a play a few years ago, called The Gates of Egypt, in which I tried to investigate the plausibility of loving your enemy, and the audience reaction, marked by bewilderment and outrage, indicated to me that, as a nation at least, we’ve drifted a long way from what my mother used to tell me was a central Christian practice. But maybe that was something I misunderstood at the time, and no-one ever really believed you could, even then; they just thought it was a good thing to say in front of the kids. It was the fifties and sixties, and people still spoke bitterly and unselfconsciously about the “filthy Japs” and the “Yellow Peril.” My games with my brothers were war games, and the television shows we watched – when we finally got television – were war related. I can still remember the thrill of shooting my brothers with my toy guns and then disputing who got who first. Horrible memories that make me shudder now at what little children are capable of imagining. Of course, we couldn’t really imagine it, and those of our uncles and family friends who did have a direct experience of it never wanted to share it with children they thought were too innocent to understand. And perhaps we were. Innocent. One time two of my uncles returned from Bathurst, where my family had its roots, with a collection of aboriginal shields and spears, and I and my brothers played cowboys and indians while the men talked in the shadows of the garage. I never knew what it meant, but it troubles me now to think about it. My father is dying, slowly, wheezing out the last of his life. He still recognises me, but I wonder if he remembers those aboriginal shields, and where they came from, and how they fell into my uncles’ possession. They’re dead themselves, my uncles. One from dust, that he got in the mines; the other from the TB that still stalked the slums of this land only a few decades ago, both of them what you’d instantly recognise as Australian, the kinds of Australians that Albert Tucker used to paint. Hard, angular, with heads like axes, but troubled and lonely, even in each other’s raucous company. I saw the dusted one just before he died. I was maybe eighteen, bluff and thoughtless, and I lit a cigarette, and he looked at me and cried. I’d never seen my uncle cry. I didn’t know why he did. Mysteries. Family mysteries. My mother used to tell us stories all the time, not just of her family, my one living grandparent, her mother, and her brothers and sisters; but of my father’s family, miners, boxers, sheep farmers, their hands deep in the country, searching for its fleece and its gold. Good Christians, I was told, when they weren’t drunk and making trouble. Australians, like me. Making trouble seems to be a trait. Or used to be. We’ve lost the larrikan and become civilised. There are larrikans out there, for sure, but the coppers and the clobberers have got them on the run. But that’s what my father’s side of the family was. Mad. Like him. My father was mad, like a mad bull penned up inside a slaughter-yard waiting for the hammer. He taught me how to hate, and how to live with your hate. I wonder what he’d say to me now if I asked him does he love his enemy.
All photos of the Sewell family property of Stephen Sewell
Many thanks to Anthony Lawrence for his excellent, thought-provoking posts.
This month, Southerly’s blogger is Stephen Sewell. His bio is below.
Well-known for his film and theatre work, including his AFI Award winning script of The Boys (1998) as well as plays such as The Blind Giant is Dancing, It Just Stopped and the highly awarded Myth Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America – A Drama in 30 Scenes , Sewell is one of the most celebrated and experienced writers in Australia. He was awarded the prestigious ANPC Award for Significant Contribution to Australian Theatre in 2004, and is currently Head of Writing at NIDA. His play, It Just Stopped is currently playing at in London, and his new play, Kandahar Gate, has just begun rehearsal at NIDA.
We have a new issue, you ask? We do! It’s just arrived in our offices and we’re packing it up right now. All the info about it will be online very shortly.
But in the meantime, we’d love to invite you to its launch!
The details of the launch are:
When: Thursday March 20th, 5:30pm
Where: Common Room, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney
by Anthony Lawrence
“What a view, I said again. The river was blank and mindless with beauty. It was the most glorious thing I have ever seen. But it was not seeing, really. For once it was not just seeing. It was beholding. I beheld the river in its icy pit of brightness, in its far-below sound and indifference, in its large coil and tiny points and flashes of the moon, in its long sinuous form, in its uncomprehending consequence.”
James Dickey, Deliverance
Watching Deliverance again after many years, waiting for the banjos and accents
the rapids and the sound of a bow-string snapping back, I reach for and open
the Collected Poems of James Dickey, and read my way to “In the Mountain Tent”
and then “On the Cootaswattee,” the river referenced, with great freedom
in the film, the one about to be dammed, the one four friends travel down
in canoes, a passage of adult rites, of booze, hillbilly rape and finally death
and reading my way through the early poems, the mythologies loom, grown
more intense since the last time I entered them, especially those of the earth
and sky, rivers and war, until I reach what is surely one of his best, “Hunting Civil
War Relics at Nimblewill Creek”, where the narrator and his one brother
are using metal detectors that float “vitally” “among the ferns and weeds,” until
remnants of the Civil War are found, unearthed, collected, named, and over
and under this concentrated gathering of items from the past and unspoken
respect for each other, the natural world comes in, first as a bird’s voice breaks
into three parts, and then as past and present merge, from wind and bracken
with the sound “fathers, fathers,” this is Dickey at his finest, allowing cracks
to appear that reveal a sensitivity that can seem anathema to the subject-
matter, and all the while, in narrow stanzas, capturing sharp, often
brutally real images that remain for years, such as the creatures that leapt
“upon the bright backs of their prey,” “in a sovereign floating of joy,” and then
“they fall, they are torn, they rise, they walk again,” and reading this, I hear
a gun-shot, and on the screen a hillbilly is staggering backwards off a cliff
and this leads me to “The Performance,” where a man “under pressure,”
“knelt down in himself beside his hacked, glittering grave,” his life
coming quickly to an end on a beach in the Philippine Islands, the Japanese
“headsman” breaking down “in a blaze of tears, in that light of the thin
long human frame,” and like the story of four men on a doomed river, these
details are enough, we don’t need to get forensic with research as to when
or where, how or why the characters and scenes in Dickey’s poems can
offer us, if not enjoyment, then a belief in the power of words to make
things come alive, or die, or be utterly compelling for the duration
of a poem, and this is how I need to read the man, not for his work’s
potently physical take on what it means to live, in a tactile, flawed way
in the world (although that’s there), or for his ability to stun
the senses into thinking he was there, as a grounded pilot, a human
stripped of wings during the Korean war (I believed him), or the ecstasy
and almost transcendental moment when, in a two-man canoe, he looks
“past the man in front’s changed hair, then along the wing-balancing floor
and then onto me and one eye and into my mouth for an instant,” he breaks
bread with me in poems like this, “On the Cootaswattee” might he here
in the south, winding through a very different landscape, the Riverina
where I nearly drowned, my ankle in a snag-fork in flood time, so I read
and look up, and read again, words and images, the coast of Georgia
opening out like a gatefold brochure soaked in salt water and blood
in “The Shark’s Parlor” where a man, “I”, Dickey, someone, runs a rope
out into the deep and sets a baited hook under a two-gallon plastic
jug as a float, then pours pig’s blood onto the “windless blue water,” a leap
of faith for a shark, then rows back and ties the end to the porch, the trick
being to sit back in a recliner and drink and await the arrival of whatever
makes it up the berley trail, tiger or white pointer, thresher or Wagga
and it’s in this poem that Dickey’s staggered syntax works its magic, the fear
and adventure come alive off the page, though it’s not really a poem about
fishing, it’s about the unrelenting times we go to the margins to explore
what shouldn’t be possible, and to place ourselves (in poems, our lives, at
the centre of improbability, and to see what happens, and this is at the core
of Dickey’s best poetry, the myth and legend, the domestic and spiritual
sharing breath, free-diving into amazement, and so I go on, I read
“Buckdancer’s Choice,” “Adultery,” “The Bee,” and then “Deer Among Cattle”
where “they are all grazing with pins of human light in their eyes,” the word
“paralysed” used to describe an electric fence, and in the film, on the river
two men are talking about their lives, and I listen in, the sound of falling
water all around them, and by the time I return to the book, I am over-
whelmed, taken in, and down, then up to relive the horror in “Falling,”
a poem about an air stewardess falling to her death from an aeroplane
it’s a long, risky, broken-down, relentless, voyeuristic, dethatched-intimate
narrative that invites and repels, and with “The Last Wolverine”
may well be his best work, it’s hard to tell, but it’s here, as on the slate-
grey water of that South Carolina river, that things are out of control
while being under the spell of a master craftsman, it’s a paradox
that surfaces frequently when involved with Dickey’s poems, the world
flayed open, its underside exposed, and that’s enough, “Spring Shock,”
brings the reading to an end, and so I close the book, turn off the light
and watch the film, it’s the scene where the sheriff (played by Dickey)
is questioning the survivors (a traumatised Ned Beatty and John Voight
Dickey is a natural, he leans on the car, “Before you go, Buddy
left me ask you something,” he looks around, “how come you all
ended up with four life jackets?” the survivors look lost, broken
“Didn’t we have an extra one,” a man says, and another man stalls
then adds “Drew wasn’t wearin’ his,” I leave the film and the rest unspoken.
by Anthony Lawrence
Swamp Riddles: Robert Adamson
- read everything you can get your hands on
- go to second hand bookshops and start a poetry collection
- write every day
- say no to your friends more often
I assumed that while I’d been at work, she’d had a major epiphany about poetry, and was now passing on this crucial news.
I’d discovered poetry at boarding school after finding Leonard Cohen’s Selected Poems and Richard Brautigan’s Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt. I stole those books and after leaving school took them with me to Yanco Station, in the Riverina, where I worked for a year or so as a jackaroo. It was here that I began writing poetry, inspired by Cohen’s romanticism and Brautigan’s surreal world view. I had no idea what I was doing, and the poems were terrible. If I’d known just how bad they really were, I might have given up, but the drive to write was far more important than any self-assessment.
Returning to live at home, I wrote constantly. My father gave me a portable Olivetti typewriter. After a few months, out of a sense of desperation, my mother went through the Sydney telephone directory, looking for anything to do with poetry. She found Poetry Society of Australia and dialed the number. When a man answered, she said “I’m worried about my son. I think he might be a poet, can you help him?” The man gave her a list of things her troubled son should know. He also suggested I come and see him, and gave mum the address.
I met Robert Adamson at his house the following week. It was a night of poetry and film. I had finally met a real poet. That night I also met Dorothy Hewett, Judith Beveridge, Nigel Roberts and Geoffrey Lehmann. They showed films on a big screen in the lounge-room: Ladies and Gentleman, Mr Leonard Cohen, and a film about Kafka. My head was reeling. At the end of the night, Nigel Roberts came to me and said: “You’ve just been cast head-first into Australian poetry – you’re going to wonder whether to thank or curse your mother.”
The next day I went looking for poetry. I caught the train into the city and spent all day looking in second hand bookshops. I found two that would travel with me all that year and beyond. These first edition, hardbound books would quickly change my ideas on how poems could be written, and would prove to be a major source of inspiration. One was Canticles on the Skin, the other Swamp Riddles. Canticles on the Skin amazed me with its poems about prison, drugs and city life, and how these details were aligned so effortlessly with poems about, and inspired by, the Hawkesbury River. Yet it was Swamp Riddles that captivated me, and challenged my perceptions of how a poem can be crafted from experience and a wild imagination. I knew nothing of line-breaks, and very little of stanza form. The idea of taking risks with language and ideas hadn’t really occurred to me. Cohen and Brautigan had set the scene. The lyric had been a serious part of my study, although in my hands it too often led to sentimentality and predictable rhyme. Now I was entering territory that, while unsettling and confusing, also forced me to reconsider my ideas on how to shape and transform experience.
The title itself was a poem. Swamp Riddles spoke of dark territory that puzzled the senses. This was back-country poetry. I felt that here was a book written under the influence of the tides. As I read these poems I felt drawn into a world where what’s left unsaid can be a potent force, and I tried to find a way into the poems. I memorised the first, untitled poem that begins the sequence After Me, Sleep:
And must it always come down on time
we are waiting in a bus shelter
for the thunder storm to pass soaked through in summer
all the city around us at 4am moving off
and we cannot shake ourselves
out of this dream of our lives spent waiting
even in love (8)
No title. No punctuation. A poem whose lines both conformed to and rebelled against everything I’d come to expect. Why would Adamson not break the third line after “pass” and the fourth line on “4am”? The poem works as both a very fine love poem and a great example of enigmatic understatement. I felt driven to find out why he’d not gone for the clear option, but the more I read the less I understood. This was a fierce education. Swamp Riddles indeed.
The second poem (also untitled) seems a natural extension of the first in that it deals with time and intimacy, here in terms of solitude and a palpable sense of (potential) loss. It’s also the first time I encountered water and tides as symbolism in Adamson’s poetry. Months of negotiating the tricky territory in Swamp Riddles eventually led to Canticles on the Skin, where water is central to many of the poems. Here, Adamson teases out meaning by refusing to order his syntax in predictable ways. The enjambment in the first six lines has the effect of creating a sense of calm that ends with surprise when the line goes on:
The things that are going out of my life remain
in its wake a few yards
behind following me asking to be retrieved like
cigarette packets bobbing
at the stern of a boat leaving
with the tide (9)
For a reader ill-equipped to deal with a poet who re-orders or transfigures syntax I was forced to examine every nuance of each line to try and break the code of what it was Adamson was doing. One effect was to amplify a state of confusion. The broken rhythm of “in its wake a few yards / behind following me asking to be retrieved” leads into
And it seldom occurs to me that they are not in
the water but could be falling
from my life
The poem concludes with
When I wake up mornings alone it is more disturbing
when I imagine the it could be
the living things
that are going out of my life (9)
There is a disarming immediacy to the first few poems in Swamp Riddles. The subject matter is not itself confronting, yet the way Adamson has deliberately played the lines out against anticipation forces us to reconsider what’s happening in the margins as well as what’s in full view. There is a confluence of ‘real-time’ and what appear to be stills cut from memory, skillfully placed to make an odd, demanding music.
“Sibyl,” “The Dunes,” “Completely Happy” and “Mondrian: Light Breaks Upon the Grail” work as curious, luminous links between the intensely personal, questioning poems that open the first section, and the final (untitled) poems that conclude it. The absence of punctuation means that we must negotiate the poems in terms of their line-breaks and rhythm, and trust in our intuition to lead the way. It’s in these poems that Adamson’s imagery takes flight: “they thread their red pebbles / and do not require / shadows” (“The Dunes”); “fish knife flickers in the sunlight” and “Sun dries fishblood up my arms on / my shirt and the intricate fishing tackle” (“Mondrian: Light Breaks Upon the Grail”); “Campaigns rose from reflected stars,” and “And on the jetty / my catch, white as the planets and shining there / as inconstant as prayer” ([Untitled] p14).
Swamp Riddles works as a cryptic, spiritual journey through the physical and emotional elements that the Hawkesbury River had instilled in Robert Adamson. Even when he wasn’t there, its essence was moving through him. Adamson is not interested in investigation for its own sake. It’s the peripheral details that move quietly to gain our inner attention and help us to understand the variousness of each poem’s focus:
The hawk tumbles for its balance in a pocket of air.
I hold the bird book tightly in my hands.
My whole life seems curbed with these demands
For order – I fling back the chair
Stride straight through the back door to the high
Verandah and stare directly at the hawk.
There is no order: just excuses for more talk.
I turn, instead of jumping from the rail I sigh – (16)
This is one of two poems that employs the abba rhyme scheme to great effect. It is also (after a fleeting mention of them in the previous poem: “flying birds / down through the valley in brief gusts” the first time in the book that birds are given prominence. As future books would reveal, birds appear as images that are salient to the metaphorical or metaphysical content of the poem. Rarely does their appearance rest exclusively on their description. So when he writes “My whole life seems curbed with these demands / for order” he is aware of the contradictory nature of the conflicted man giving over to intense observation while trying to define a species, and the need for control and order within the shaping of the poem’s formal style.
My favourite poem in Swamp Riddles involves the mystery and attention to detail that fishing demands, while knowing all the while that nothing is certain. The poem aligns the tethering of the spirit with an attendant need, or desire to break free, to “let go”:
These fish we cannot catch make our lives difficult
when there is no explanation
When we can’t even say for sure they are constantly
swimming around us (17)
The poem is in four sections, each one a slow breaking-down of defences until the fish (unseen, desired) connect with the human (in disguise, fearful) and a connection is made that relies on belief and imagination. Belief in the potential for redemption and intimate connection is one of the book’s most influential, pervasive themes, although Adamson weaves into and around these issues with a conjurer’s skill. What we think we see and hear can turn into something else entirely. Take these lines:
new animals bumping rocks in the moonlight
will remind us of their search
for watercourses that tumble to sea
even into our dreams their pursuit continues
and watching a chemical glow
beam from caves we will not dream
even truth raised in sadness will not help us (19)
Something as tactile and raw as “animals bumping rocks” leads to “their search / for watercourses that tumble to sea” and then we are shocked away from the scrub and the animals into something that could be (and why not?) some kind of alien interruption to the flora and fauna: “a chemical glow / beam from caves”.
In its lyrical explorations of bush and headland, river and ocean, city and friendships, life and death, Swamp Riddles might seem a heterogeneous collection. Its apparent disparate nature, however, is sharpened and refined by Adamson’s ability to define and link what’s in his viewfinder by its associative powers. The scene inside a poem fades and then looms. The surface tension of things is soon broken:
We escaped the city by listening to
endless popular songs
on damp nights through broken radios; fish
chips and Coke. Now the smell of cat’s piss
will always remind me of you, those
paperbacks gone with mould (41, 42)
These lines are from the elegy (For Michael Dransfield). It is, (with “Sonnets to be Written From Prison,” one of the book’s most personal, intimate, immediately accessible poems, and reveals Adamson’s ability to engage emotionally, and courageously, with difficult subject-matter.
An extended version of this essay is forthcoming in the monograph Fin, Feather, Sky, River: the Poetry of Robert Adamson.
by Anthony Lawrence
Sometime in 1990 I was at home in Geraldton, WA. I was at the kitchen table, writing. It was late morning. I heard a car pull up. The front gate creaked open, there were footsteps, a thump, and then a woman shouted: “Arsehole!” When I reached the screen door, I saw her striding away. She had dark hair and was wearing a white shirt and black pants. She got into her car and drove away. I looked around. Near the door was a cardboard box. I picked it up and carried it into the kitchen. I shook it. Then I opened it, carefully. Inside were some books, one of which was The Gold Cell by Sharon Olds. The box had been sent from my friend Judy Beveridge, and the woman was a postal contractor, who had shouted “Parcel!” In the accompanying letter, Judy described her delight at having found Sharon Olds, and thought I might also find her poetry worth reading. Judith was right. I took The Gold Cell into the living room, sat down, and read every poem. That day I read the book a few times. The poems did what fine poetry can often do. They made me want to write.
Sharon Olds’ first book of poems, Satan Says, won the San Francisco Poetry Centre Award in 1981. Many of the poems are confronting and visceral in their exploration of child abuse, motherhood and sex, and they set a linguistic and thematic precedent for much of what would follow in subsequent collections. The book opens with the title poem. In “Satan Says”, Olds creates a claustrophobic scene set within a child’s music box. The way she aligns a child’s innocence with adult sexuality and responsibility is both brilliant and horrifying. Satan comes to the one inside the box and makes demands: in order for her to gain freedom, she must say things about her parents – My father is a shit, my mother is a pimp… She says the words, but then Satan takes things to a darker level. Say shit, say death, say fuck the father. She says the words and the box begins to open. But there’s more. Say: the father’s cock, the mother’s cunt… She speaks the words. Having said these things, Satan leaves her there and seals the keyhole with wax. It’s your coffin now, he says. The poem’s last line: “the fire, the suddenly discovered knowledge of love” is the first time Olds lays open and begins to explore, in poetry, her complex issues of confrontation and forgiveness. As a child she was sexually abused by both her mother and father. This is dealt with, in varying degrees of intensity (and success), in her first four books. In this brief discussion of her poetry, I’d like to focus on the books: Satan Says,The Gold Cell and The Wellspring.
Many poets have written out of personal experience, defining emotional and physical trauma. Unless the subject matter is dealt with in ways that don’t diminish or undermine narrative or lyrical control, it can become nothing more than catharsis, a 12-Step Program in verse. The so-called Confessional poets made misery and pain legitimate subjects for poetry. Anne Sexton, in particular, gave voice to sexuality, the workings of the body and mental illness, and paved the way for other writers to explore these issues, where previously it had been more or less taboo territory. Sharon Olds writes from a similar perspective to Sexton, but I’d like to suggest her control over the details and her ability to know when to end a poem make her a better poet. Olds takes the raw, unfiltered sides of our sexual and familial lives and shocks them into new perspectives. These lines from “The Sisters of Sexual Treasure” (Satan Says) are classic early Olds:
As soon as my sister and I got out of our
mother’s house, all we wanted to
do was fuck…
The men’s bodies
were like our father’s body! The massive
hocks, flank, thighs, elegant
knees, long tapered calves (24)
There is an urgency here that is perfectly matched to the subject-matter. And the comparison to the father’s body is an example of deliberate, confronting detail Olds would use again and again – an uneasy dovetailing of intimate personal detail with parental interference, illness and death. I’ll focus more on why her confrontational subject matter is (mostly) successful as poetry, but for now I want to share some thoughts on Olds’ line-breaks – they are a curious, idiosyncratic aspect of her technical arsenal, and demand close scrutiny.
Olds frequently uses enjambment to delay or hasten the delivery of information. Her use of this (much misunderstood and misused) line-ending technique can be tricky to negotiate at first. It’s quite possible that she uses some line-breaks to conceal an emotional reaction to having exposed her intensely personal experiences. The paradox is a potent one: the need to write from direct experience, and the desire to construct ways to calibrate this exposure. It’s an aspect of Olds’ poetry that has intrigued me from the outset. Years ago I had an ongoing, good-natured argument with the poet Bronwyn Lea about the way Olds breaks her lines. Bronwyn’s take on it was that Olds knows exactly what’s she’s doing, and that it’s all in the name and nature of finding the best possible rhythm for each sentence, even if it seems at odds with our perceived notions of interrupting syntax. I think she may have added that Olds tries to negate reader expectation, not only with her enjambment, but her choice of odd words with which to sign off on a line. I agreed with the last part of Bronwyn’s argument, but in general I was almost dismissive, saying that Olds might have been tyrannized by where to end a line, and so let them end where they fell, as some vague notion of an aural or visual signature. I was hard to convince. The content of her poems, and the way she dealt with it, impressed me hugely, but her technical acuity was uneven to say the least. Bronwyn was right. Olds’ line-breaks might not be subtle, but there’s a strange desire to subvert our thinking of how to parse or annotate syntax, and I was stubbornly refusing to acknowledge this possibility. This curious way of negotiating a line’s-end can be best seen towards the end of the poem “Summer Solstice, New York City,” from The Gold Cell, in which a man who has come to the top of a building to commit suicide is rescued by the police.
…they closed on him, I thought they were going to
beat him up, as a mother whose child has been
lost might scream at the child when it’s found, they
took him by the arms and held him up, and
leaned him against the wall of the chimney and the
tall cop lit a cigarette
in his own mouth, and gave it to him, and
then they all lit cigarettes, and the
red glowing ends burned like the
tiny campfires we lit at night
back at the beginning of the world. (3)
To end lines with words like “and” and “the”, and to repeat them, in quick succession, seems to go against the tide of what is expected, in terms of predictable syntax. It also creates a visual oddity – the eye and tongue want another word to fill the space left by these articles and conjunctions, and this expectancy prompts a concentrated focus on what follows: “beat him up,” “lost might scream,” “leaned him,” “tall cop lit,” “then they all lit,” “red glowing ends,” “tiny campfires we lit”… Olds begins most lines with an emphatic action, or potent sense of impending action. By beginning a line this way, the poem’s momentum is driven sharply towards its resolution. Olds does this when a poem deals with human drama, i.e. most of the time.
Imagery in a Sharon Olds poem is rarely passive, and at its best is some of the most indelible, original in contemporary poetry. It is especially good when Olds is describing sex, either within the immediacy of specific sexual acts, or in poems of reflection about dating and sex. Sometimes her poems explore the kind of territory most would either consign to an edgy memory or abandon altogether. Take “First,” from her collection The Wellspring. The poem describes a fifteen or sixteen year old (sophomore) performing fellatio on a man (“a writer, married, a father, widowed…”), she met in the hot sulphur springs by the ocean:
…I felt I knew
what his body wanted me to do, like rubbing
my mother’s back, receiving directions
from her want into the nerves of my hands.
In the smell of the trees of seaweed rooted in
ocean trenches just offshore,
and the mineral liquid from inside the mountain,
I gave over to flesh like church music
until he drew out and held himself and
something flew past me like a fresh ghost. (27)
This is classic Olds: personal sexual details that include a reference to a parent; the rich evocation of land or seascape; the contrast between the spiritual and intensely physical. “The mineral liquid from inside the mountain…” suggests the semen that “…flew past me like a fresh ghost.”
Another poem from The Wellspring that showcases Olds’ brilliant imagery is “Necking,” a poem that precedes “First.” The details are less visceral, yet no less arresting:
of the cars were shaped like soft flanks,
the cloth front seats plump as some mothers’
Again, the need to align intimacy with a parental reference. And then:
without my glasses, was like a bottom
drawer of smeared light. (25)
The motifs of subdued, altered or enhanced light are common in Olds’ poems. They are often used to define varying degrees of emotional involvement in a scene or situation. This is showcased beautifully in these three lines, the first two towards the end of the poem, the third closing it:
and murder of our classmate had happened in these hills,
so the fragrance of the dirt, porous and mineral,
– eucalyptus and redwood humus –
that had buried her body, was there with sex,
and one gleam down there was the donut shop
where he had picked her up… (25)
…the rivets in boys’ jeans,
their soldered clothes, the way they carried
the longing of the species, you could not help but pity them
as they set you on stunned fire.(25)
…we drove down the
hill, the porch lamp blazed, I would enter
below its blurred gem, it seemed
endless then, the apprenticeship to the mortal.(26)
I have chosen these three sections as they exemplify so much of what I admire about Olds’ poems. The language is rich, yet never overextends its intentions; the images, mined from metaphor, seem both organically connected to the fabric of the lines around them, and invite close attention: “one gleam down there,” “set you on stunned fire,” “below its blurred gem…”.
“After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for My Childhood” from The Gold Cell seems totemic to Olds’ overall style, and voice. Line-breaks, imagery, tone, subject-matter, rhythm, the variousness of emotion… Here is the poem:
When you tilted toward me, arms out
like someone trying to walk through a fire,
when you swayed toward me, crying out you were
sorry for what you had done to me, your
eyes filling with terrible liquid like
balls of mercury from a broken thermometer
skidding on the floor, when you quietly screamed
Where else could I turn? Who else did I have?, the
chopped crockery of your hands swinging toward me, the
water cracking from your eyes like moisture from
stones under heavy pressure, I could not
see what I would do with the rest of my life.
The sky seemed to be splintering, like a window
someone is bursting into or out of, your
tiny face glittered as if with
shattered crystal, with true regret, the
regret of the body. I could not see what my
days would be with you sorry, with
you wishing you had not done it, the
sky falling around me, its shards
glistening in my eyes, your old, soft
body fallen against me in horror I
took you in my arms, I said It’s alright,
don’t cry, it’s alright, the air filled with
flying glass, I hardly knew what I
said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you. (43)
The emotional impact this poem unleashes on the reader is unrelenting. The poem begins with a heightened sense of personal trauma and unfolding conflict, and doesn’t really ease off. And yet, despite the drama and almost palpable sense of grief shared by mother and daughter, there is a great tenderness at work here. Amid the images of splintering and flying glass, water under pressure, shattered crystal, and the horrific image of “the / chopped crockery of your hands swinging toward me…” Olds is able to simultaneously create a scene where compassion and forgiveness ebb and flow as the destruction rages. It is her true gift: to work through personal conflict with craft and a striking vision, invoking tenderness and compassion from the awful details.
I would like a simple life
yet all night I am laying
poems away in a long box.
– from The Ambition Bird, Anne Sexton
Ambition is normal. It’s the fuse we light when we begin. We want our poems to succeed, whatever that means. When we start out, it’s a good thing we don’t know how to file all the burrs down. Our early work, with its deep flaws and inconsistencies, is all we have. Self belief. Ambition. Faith. Trying to second-guess ourselves in the early stages kills the pilot light. Self-consciousness is the last thing we need, when we’re beginning. The only time being fully self-conscious is valuable is when we’re editing, staring down a poem’s failings late in the drafting stages, taking a cane-knife to sentimentality and lazy line-breaks. As we develop as poets, as our work comes under public scrutiny, being self-aware is inevitable. It’s when we start to believe the spin we invent for ourselves and start to act out our own mythologies…. this is the end: ambition has claimed another one. And so we carry on, doing the best we can, and we need solitude. We need isolation. It seems especially so with poetry, or at least it is with me. I’ve written a novel, and while I loved the process of inventing characters and hearing them speak, of watching them move and recording it all in the best prose I could bring to the table, I was rarely in a state of complete immersion. Writing poetry, in the early stages of a draft, I enter what I suppose is a form of self-hypnosis, and I can be missing in action for hours. It’s always been that way. The most important thing is to attend to what’s at hand, not some idea of ourselves further down the road. Ambition feeds projection. To find time for deep involvement in our writing is hard won, and for some of us we’re lucky to find a few hours a week when we’re able to give ourselves over to our imagination without fear of interruption. But it’s what we need if we’re going to turn common ground into amazement. The poet Wallace Stevens had the right idea. Many of his poems, or their foundations, were composed as he walked to and from his work as Vice President of Hartford Accident & Insurance company. The rhythm of his footsteps, of his body, informed the rhythms of many of his poems. Isolation is essential if we’re going to make magic happen, and it doesn’t matter if it involves a room, desk and chair, or a walk to consider a flawed line inside a sestina. Stevens was an ambitious man, but when it came to his poetry, he let it do the talking.
Ambition becomes a problem when impatience sets its hooks under the skin. Poems can take a long time to write or they can emerge, fully-formed, in one sitting. That’s unlikely. Once they’re finished, they take on a different form, they are distant now, set in objectivity. We can leave them in a drawer (which should be part of the later editing process anyway, as almost-finished poems need extended time in the dark) or we can give them wings and send them out, to print and online journals, to newspapers, small and major magazines. But it’s a slow process – not as slow as before email, but we need to remember this: it should always be about the poetry, not the poet.
In the late 1980′s, early 90′s, with the internet and email in their infancy, poets had the opportunity to network widely. Now there was no need to slip poems or letters with stamps or international reply coupons into an envelope, dispatch it to a journal, then get on with writing more poems while checking the letterbox, weeks or months later, for the good or bad news. But sending out poems was not always the major agenda. Some understood the power and allure of networking, of instant gratification, and they used the internet to great effect. But, some will say, why not utilise technology, put yourself out there, get connected, get ahead. Yes, but the person or the poem? The persona or the sestina?
‘What seems to be generosity is often no more than disguised ambition, which overlooks a small interest in order to secure a great one.’
Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Ambition, when it outmaneuvers or overshadows the work at hand, can lead to a number of tricky outcomes. Poets can become careerists, seeing themselves in terms of a literary corporatism. They make certain they are frequently photographed. They work hard to fashion the idea that they are, indeed, a major talent. They outstay their welcome during poetry readings, believing, very unfortunately, that going overtime will be welcomed by their adoring fans. One common characteristic of the Career Poet is a sensitivity to criticism akin to an anaphylactic reaction. Another might be a tendency to utilise (appropriate?) the work or works of others into their own cultural and geographical contexts. Some try to conceal the flagrantly porous nature of their work, others don’t seem to care. One will try to make the sestet their own, even though it trails the dust, drips the water, and reeks of the sky under which it was first hammered out, in isolation, in a southern state of another country. It’s as though they are trying to reestablish the voice of a major literary influence in their own work, and hope no-one will notice. Ambition is cultivated, shaped, and then becomes second skin. Ambition, when off the leash, can be ugly.
Recently, on Facebook, someone tried to discredit me, calling me (among other things) an ‘academic poet’. Ouch. Being an academic has nothing to do with being a poet – composing, editing, wide reading, publishing poems – this is what poets do. Being an academic provides a great opportunity to pass on some of the tricks of our dark trade and to turn students (and other academics) on to poems and poets. Ambition can ambush the writer who works in this field. The pressure to publish, and being competitive with peers can strip our trust in intuition and ability to be still, and quiet. We need to be mindful of the pitfalls of expectation, or perceived expectation. I love teaching, and the research takes care of itself – the idea of writing an essay on poetry is a delight, not a burden. I’m aware that many academics who also write and publish poetry see the work and the writing through the same lens. That’s great, as long as they’re able to pull the blind down on conference alerts, and try to ignore, when it matters, what their peers are doing, to return to their own poems as often as possible. Competitiveness is common, and being too self-aware can put out the fire of our need to compose. The temptation to keep up, to get ahead, becomes too great.
‘The thing is to write better and better poems. Setting our heart when we’re too young on getting our poems appreciated lands us in the politics of poetry which is death.’
Most of us begin writing poetry before taking on any theory or critical discussion that pertains to it. During this time, we have a natural, open-ended belief in our ability to describe and define our feelings and observations. To offer up our work for critical analysis too early would surely diminish our confidence and force us to second-guess ourselves, as we write. This summons that old debate of whether it’s best to write strictly for ourselves or with an audience/reader in mind. I’ve always had faith in the former, as to get that ahead of myself seems ridiculous when there’s so much hard work at hand, and ahead, and so many unknown elements to negotiate.
‘Ambition is not a quality of the poem but of the poet.’