Books - Novels
Toccata and Rain
Toccata and Rain, my second novel, was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and the WA premier's Prize. It is an experiment in fusion or hybrid structure, what I call a toccata and fugue, as against inventions of linguistics or syntax. It combines prose in brief chapters, narrated in third-person, with sonnets and ghazal-like poems in first-person, which stand in for / as the utterances and perceptions of the main character. The novel is the confused last few years of a man who has suffered a dissociative disorder - once called a fugue state amnesia... a man who has flown from one life into an assumed 'other', then fallen, as it were, back into his original self. The novel traces his attempts to make sense of who he is and what he has lived while in the fugue self, a self largely hidden from conscious awareness but (possibly) recoverable through hypnosis. A curious, poetic novel.
The main character is a folklorist who has set up residence on a cattle research station while visiting the nearby country town, and the farms, to record verbatim accounts of local history from the populace. The novel is vividly realistic but blended with a farcical vision of oddness and surreal eccentricity. There has a been a local tragedy that Jack Biner learns much of and which he feels increasingly unable to ignore, bringing his professional ethics into direct question. This book is an amusing but also intense vision of country town life and the uncertain varieties of 'truth'. Playback won the WA Premiers Prize for Fiction.
Other poetry titles
The Well Mouth
In 2002 and for the next year or so I kept returning to an idea I'd had years earlier - of writing about wells. Specifically the sense of being down there, fallen, inside a well. Neither dead nor alive, being in an imagined state of un-given consciousness, with thoughts, memories, feelings, in a language of permeability across these conditions. When I was a child there was a boarded-over well I was never to go near - and therefore it became a kind of sacred site - a place not to be. It might collapse, like the sand-cubbies kids had died in, or the burrows in sand hills that collapsed, or the caves and the mines deep underground.
Merged with this - the dreaming of this well theme and the voices were both about mergings - was the motif of entrapment and murder in our world, the world of newsflashes and sensation. Specifically, and centrally to this collection of poems, were the recurrent stories of women (usually) who had gone missing, presumed murdered, and were dropped down wells or shafts. The more I thought about this the more certain I became of a structure. The woman in the well exists at the bottom of the page, under the poems, and it is she who hears the suspended voices of the poems - which are the last thoughts and imaginings of the recently dead. And they are very talkative (or thinkative).
The Well Mouth began as a kind of answer to the desiring world of Sky Poems and then became darker and more of a Limbo. Desiring has ceased, and life does not progress so much as meditate upon itself. The reader makes the life and death of Limbo.
I have been asked why there are no titles in this book. There can't be titles, because titles would infer the many separate sections are 'poems' . They are not poems, they are the individual voices or representations of the people who inhabit this Limbo, this afterlife. They, the people, are themselves, they are not poems, even if their form and linguistic tone and style is that of a poem. The book is in this sense a verse novel, except that term itself is inaccurate and inadequate - the book is the world of the newly dead.
Nothing of genre fits and nor should it be made to, nor should they be made to - be reduced by genre. The dead woman in the well, the Tiresias figure, 'hears' them for us. She is their medium, their cypher and their sometimes commentator. Merged with their voices are the accounts of her own murder and those responsible for it. This aspect of the book is about criminals and corrupt police and the populist commercial ways media represent them.
It is a Dante-esque world, one of strangely poised levels of consciousness. It is lyrical yet dark, and grim but also oddly funny. It is also a world of mythical shifts through the shadows of Tiresias and Odysseus, parables of folly, narratives of want and fragments of phrasing, speaking, remembering.
A Cretive Life
Some books work as miscellanies and their strength is in variety and the unexpectedness of the different poems. Whereas the above two books are thematic and create an overall whole, A Cretive Life is made up of a broader mix of subjects and styles, with only one discontinuous group of poems holding to a theme. These poems memorialise my father, who died in the late 90s, and feature him within the context of family and the farm and his dying. The writing is therefore more personal. Different, especially, to the less immediately personal poems of the other books.
Again, though quite unlike the voices of The Well Mouth, there is voiced within this book a precariousness of perception and an awareness of that mindfulness which has no speech, or no public speech. Then there are poems which utilise the I Ching and digress into realms of chance. Against all these are poems of art, construction and invention, palimpsests or imitations, and especially preservation - the attempts we make to hold fast to our behaviours, memories and objects of value. This preservation, or 'holding onto' within form or pattern, seems a likely follow-through from the poems about loss. And I have included several longer poems which are decidedly playful and ironic takes on poetry and film to balance the more seriously emotional poems.
This was the book that changed me into a more mature poet and stylist. I say this without denying my two earlier books and also with this twist: once it was achieved, Sky Poems, paradoxically, led me forward by being a book that I would never want to repeat, in style or approach, but which opened or made acessible to me, the imaginative and linguistic possibilities I would need for all my future writing.
During the mid 80s I was looking for a more expansive style and vision for a new book. Oskar Kokoshka was an artist I had just discovered - his brilliant painting 'Bride of the Wind', in particular, had a haunting affect. It occurred to me there could be an poetic representation of this, a world set in the sky, where imagined desires, urges, impulses, became instantly real without the intervention of chance or accident (which is our actual world) and in this world all aspirations from the Id to the highest sense of after-worldly yearning, were realised. I didn't know the term then - but a virtual world.
Great idea, but how to write it? For more than a year I worried and daydreamed through the quandary of how to represent any persons's desires becoming real within a framework of others similarly creating their worlds. If I wrote the first poem, perhaps it would be the clue to the whole; if I could imagine the whole, it could be the clue to any individual poem. Catch 22 of a kind. Frustrated with this bind, I decided to be pragmatic and prompt my mind with a title: 'Instructions for Living in the Sky'. Write the bloody manual! And it worked. In one afternoon I wrote a long poem that outlined how the Sky world could be felt and thought. After a two week delay - with me thinking it was a year of cooking for one poem - it suddenly burst and the poems kept coming for months.
The collection is a virtual world where visions of Paradise or Hell and the imageries of history and memory all play back through the medium of the poems. It is a hugely inclusive book, therefore, reaching way beyond the exclusive, verse novel sequence of The Projectionist, the book that preceded it. It is lyrical and extraordinarily expansive and compassionate, but is often ironic, satiric, and it includes from this known and darker world of ours, the brutality of desire that history has shown us all too capable of.
Poetry does not sell in big numbers. Most book titles sell rapidly at first, then slowly for years, then go out of print. Earlier poetry usually stays out of print unless/until chosen for the poet's Selected Poems. Unlike some more commercial publications of this kind, a Selected should be the equivalent of an artist's retrospective and gather together in one book a sampling of the best and most representative poetry from 20 years or so of sustained writing and publication. Over time a poet may publish a second, even a third, Selected Poems.
New and Selected Poems
My Selected was published in 1998, and sold out quite quickly, which was gratifying (a Selected, full of re-prints, is a bargain but can sell slowly if readers have enough of the earlier work). It includes a sizeable collection of new and previously unpublished poems about animals, odd characters, acupuncturists, follies and visitants. The publisher recently found one more box of them hidden away in the warehouse, so I have an unexpected couple of dozen left (should you want one).
Here, in reverse order of publication, are the earlier books of mine included in it:
The Rome Air Naked - a collection of poems based on my six-month Australia Council residency in Rome. It includes the largest group of love poems I have published (!) and many (of what I have named) concurrent poems - fragments and samples and short poems mixed together on the page with letters, histories, etc. Also a selection of cut-up poems based on my prose accounts of Rome.
Feeding the Ghost - poems from many sources, something of a miscellany, with political and satirical poems from Australia, poems about art and poetry - what I call 'feeding the ghost' - but with the bulk of poems set throughout my travels in Europe and ending in a long sonnet sequence of my Residency at the National University of Singapore.
Barbecue of the Primitives - a true miscellany, poems based on city, family and country, with special emphasis on the experiences and vulnerabilities of lovers, parents, mothers. Again, a contrast between the local and the international, with some expansive poems on wheatbelt life and land, and poems of singers, composers, etc.
Sky Poems - as seen in the Current Poems
The Projectionist - a verse novel before I thought to use that term. This book uses an un-named lyric narrator who describes life in and around a strange family by the name of Benchley. It is a tautly constructed series of portraits and narratives and lyric poems of searching, suffering and psychological metaphysics. I experimented a lot with syntax and imagery in this collection and it is tensile and alternating - between raw-to-grim and rather ecstatic. There is a religious awareness running through it, made ironic by the somewhat grotesque family presence.
The Silent Piano - my first collection, in two main categories: poems of family and rural life (my own) in the South West of Western Australia, and poems based on historical figures from Europe. The rural poems are frequently stark and include fairly violent representations of nature and farming life, in contrast therefore, to more idyllic pastorals.
In 2007 Picaro Press from NSW published a chapbook of mine in their long-wagging Wagtail series. These books are of various composition but many are, like my own, a kind of mini-Selected Poems. They provide a brief sampling from earlier books, limited to something like 20 pages all up. They are cheap and great value and make good study material in schools as well as leading readers back to the original poetry in full book form. Mine is called:
The Family Fig Trees
It contains a natty selection, made by the editors and myself, with the poem of the title as a central work, a poem that has been anthologised several times and which stands as one of my best single poems. It looks into my family background, a lyric poem in the true sense, with me as son, child and adult, discovering the obvious and less obvious origins of family. This chapbook is still available from Picaro Press.
This was published in the National Library of Australia Pamphlet Poets Series in 1992. They were neatly produced folding pamphlets of about 18 pages. Mine, again, sampled a few older books for poems to sit alongside new poems.