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Last Wednesday, June 8, would have been Gwen Harwood's 102nd birthday. Harwood was one of Australia's finest poets and one of its leading literary hoaxers. On August 5, 1961, Harwood published a pair of sonnets, “Eloisa to Abelard” and “Abelard to Eloisa,” in the Australian weekly, The Bulletin, under the pseudonym of Walter Lehmann. Unknown to the editors at the time of publication, the sonnets read acrostically FUCK ALL EDITORS and SO LONG BULLETIN (you can read more about the hoax here). Harwood's development of several heteronyms, including Lehmann and Francis Geyer, not only offered social critique to Australia's chauvinist mid-century literary establishment, but also allowed her poetry to map our species' labyrinthine psychological landscape with greater possibility. Harwood also wrote poems under her own name, with speakers who shared much of the poet's life experiences. "1945" details Harwood's move from her tropical home of Brisbane in the north of Australia, to soporific, grey Hobart, capital of Tasmania. The poem echoes Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, “Know’st thou the land where lemon- trees do bloom, / And oranges like gold in leafy gloom” (Book III, I). Both poems dwell on paradises lost, either through concealment or exile; in Harwood’s case, the land of citrus and color is being left behind for a new home whose light is much reduced from her tropical roots and which swells with the presence of Tasmania's violent colonial history. 1945 Nineteen forty-five. I have been sick all the way from Brisbane; first time in the air. My husband's waiting in civilian clothes. Another name now. All those burning glances cancelled, all those raging letters burned. And my mocking friends - 'Holy MaTRIMony!' 'You've had your wings trimmed. You'll be Mother Goose.' We melt with good old-fashioned happiness at the desolate terminal. I see the city ending in bush, St George's on the skyline, KEENS CURRY on the hill. We find a cafe. 'Lunch is off. Afternoon tea's not on,' the waitress snaps, and sniffs. She knows we're strangers. Saturday afternoon.How doth the city sit solitary. A shuttered delicatessen proclaims HIGH GRADE AND CONTINENTAL FOODSTUFFS. What continent? Perhaps they mean the mainland. I’m in my summer clothes. A wind breathes cold truth in those English trees that tried to fool me with their false fronts on a tourist office poster. Know’st thou the land wherein the citrons bloom? I do. Exile's the name i give that knowledge. Even as I say How Beautiful How Charming why do I feel that some demonic presence hovers where too much evil has been done near the harmless rivulet, the Georgian buildings? Hungry, we link our lives and wait for evening. In my husband's luggage the Tractatus waits with the world that was the case already fading. Continue reading
Posted Jun 14, 2022 at The Best American Poetry
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What initially drew me to this poem was its title. Wake in Fright is arguably the greatest ever Australian film. It is definitely the most disturbing. Set in the fictional outback town of Yabba, the film centers on a refined, if slightly pretentious, English school teacher, John Grant, who is passing through Yabba on his way to Sydney. The town is striking in its peculiarities: It is mono-sexual (there is not a woman in sight); the streets are entirely empty and the bars are completely full; everyone seems to know each other and no one pays for anything. Yabba imprisons Grant with its hospitality. In what is meant to be his first and only night there, Grant meets the town’s chief of police who forces him, by way of Australian custom, to get drunk. The teacher begins to lower his grandiosity and his guard, and joins in the local curiosities—all of which include drinking beer. Grant goes on to get paralytic drunk and gambles away all his money. Waking up the next morning in his dusty hotel room with a devastating hangover and empty pockets, he suddenly realizes he has no way of getting home. The townspeople offer to take care of him, but will not let him leave: for the next week he is shipped around from house to house, always offered a bed to sleep in and a cold can of beer to drink. Nothing else. Grant’s world turns into one long bender, and the harder he resists drinking, the more drunk he ends up getting. His ethics and his cultural refinements gradually begin to slide off him, lubricated by the beer and the good cheer of his hosts, he begins to lose his ability to discern himself from the locals (people he only days before considered to be brutes, thugs, savages) and the thin veneer of civilization is washed away. Wake in Fright (1971) The film captures the menace lurking behind Australia’s jocular national character: the tyranny of its good cheer and the threat hidden in its hospitality. In a distressing scene to watch, Grant is taken on a late night kangaroo hunt, on which he violently clubs a kangaroo cub to death (the kangaroo, of course, being Australia’s symbol). The next morning he is served his first meal: kangaroo stew. This seems to be the moment Caitlan Maling’s poem takes for its starting point. The clever opening rhyme and metre gives the the poem a false sense of innocence, which both masks and heightens its true maliciousness, reminiscent of a Frederick Seidel poem. "Wake in Fright" then turns away from its namesake film and shifts to a more personal register that reflects on the nature of a hunt: "This is something / I should learn / the full process." Maling is a Western Australian poet who is a previous recipient of the John Marsden Poetry Prize. In 2014 Maling was shortlisted for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize and won the Harri Jones Memorial Prize. Wake in... Continue reading
Posted Jun 1, 2022 at The Best American Poetry
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Robert Harris died too young at the age of forty-two. During his lifetime he was never a major figure in Australian poetry, however, a recent publication of his selected poems, The Gang of One, has shone much deserved light on his oeuvre. In his review of the book in The Australian Poetry Review (found here), Martin Duwell writes that one of the rewards of reading through Harris's various collections, is that one sees "how hard he had to work to make himself into a good poet." I like the idea of the poet not arriving fully formed, but, like so many other things in life, being the result of experience, effort, patience. "The Ambition", anthologised by John Tranter and Philip Mead in The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, seems to me a poem of great skill presented to us with a deceptive nonchalance. And I think its first line might be one of my favourites. Enjoy. The Ambition Mum, I'll be a fireman! Did you know they gross around nineteen thousand, work four days in nine, quit, if they ever quit, in good faith & moonlight driving meat trucks? Aged people sometimes wander in to look at the fire station, saying they used to live here, at this number. They look a long time at the appliances, till the head shaking Chief rings the nursing home. When you're old I'll be a fireman, Mum. At green upper storey sills, waiting for fires, I'll lean on my blue arm and look at the sulphurous city Continue reading
Posted May 18, 2022 at The Best American Poetry
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Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry, published by Melbourne University Press in 2020, gives long-overdue recognition to the breadth and quality of Australian prose poetry. Alongside recognized practitioners of the form such as Anna Couani, Jordie Albiston and Pam Brown, the anthology offers a comprehensive selection of Australian prose poems of the past fifty years from what has been a neglected tradition in Australian publishing. Cassie Lewis’s “Queenscliff” takes its title from a well known Sydney beach and is a welcome inclusion to the anthology. Some elusive dread looms over this poem as it mixes detail and feeling in the way memory does. Nothing sits quite right: just as in the speaker’s room “in Queenscliff’s solitary Bed and Breakfast”, the floor of the poem slopes. The speaker’s admissions are surprising and puzzling: “I don’t understand champagne”, “I must control the urge to be hesitant”; and while she declares to love only her companion, her absent father also labors “under the illusion that he of all people wasn’t loved.” Queenscliff We can see the lighthouse from our window in Queenscliff's solitary Bed and Breakfast. The floor of our room slopes and I don't understand champagne. Later, from the pier, you catch an enormous, rare fish the colour of coral and slowly let it go. It feels like summer. The fish swims out into the deep water. I love only you. Misery is usually someone dead, perfect: derision felt as the binding presence of grey, great books. I must control the urge to be hesitant. And from memory, that bus shelter at the edge of the world, with its wads of chewed invective, I see my absent father: mourning, directing cranes over the skyline. Labouring under the illusion that he of all people wasn't loved. Continue reading
Posted May 4, 2022 at The Best American Poetry
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Carody Culver is a Brisbane based writer, editor and poet whose recent chapbook The Morgue I Think the Deader it Gets (published online here at one of Australia's best homes for poetry, Cordite Poetry Review) deserves your attention. Playful, ironic and genuinely funny, these poems are marked by a casual erudition and a humor that is at once generous and scathing—no small achievement. Like Jawbreaker candy, Culver’s poems are perfectly sweet until you take a bite into them. Photo by Jackie Ryan “Short biographies of magicians’ assistants” offers up a list of names of magicians’ assistants and a pithy description of their demise. The brevity and inventiveness of the poem (I love the assistants’ names) make it easy to look past the otherwise obvious and uncomfortable detail—all of these assistants are women, all of them suffer violent ends. Culver’s clever use of rhyme and meter give the poem the feel of a nursery rhyme, a feeling which is abruptly ended by the final line’s refusal to conform, breaking the poem out of its own illusion. Short biographies of magicians’ assistants Tallulah Sparkles—cut in half Delilah Diviner—sawed apart Phoebe Angel—guillotine chop Amber LeBon—dagger head box Electra Montgomery—live cremation Mary-Beth Moonshine—failed levitation Juniper Bliss—disembodied Daphne Golden—disappeared. The Morgue I Think the Deader it Gets takes its title from a line in the chapbook’s opening poem, “The More I Think”, which itself takes its opening line from a well known public artwork in Brisbane by the conceptual artist Sebastian Moody (who is, coincidentally, my cousin). The poem rearranges the artwork's maxim until we reach an aphorism that could be a worthy companion piece to the original. Sebastian Moody Think Bigger (2009) The more I think The more I think about it the bigger it gets The bigger I think about it the harder it gets The harder I think about it the sharper it gets The sharper I think about it the pointier it gets The pointier I think about it the sorer it gets The sorer I think about it the sicker it gets The mirth I think about it the laughter it gets The bisque I think about it the lobster it gets The morgue I think about it the deader it gets The years I think about it the older it gets The sage I think about it the wiser it gets The sound I think about it the louder it gets The money I think about it the richer it gets The think I get about it the better it gets The gets I better about it the thinker it bets The better I get about it the thinker it mores The more it thinks about it the lesser I’m for The less I know the more it gets The less I am the more I know. The brilliance of “A short guided meditation by a thought leader” is that it is as ridiculous as it is believable. Culver borrows from corporate jargon and the language of spiritual capitalism... Continue reading
Posted Apr 20, 2022 at The Best American Poetry
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When A.D. Hope published his first collection of poetry, The Wandering Islands, at the age of 48, he was already regarded as the leading Australian poet of his day. The book’s belated publication in 1955 was due in large part to Australia’s prudish censorship laws, and there was much in The Wandering Islands to rankle the censors. Hope’s poetry was often explicit in its sexual details, but this candidness was matched by a mastery of form and authority of diction that verged on the virtuosic and the pompous respectively. As Clive James writes “[Hope] spoke from on high. His vocabulary was of the present, but it had the past in it, transparent a long way down. And it was all sent forward like a wave by his magisterial sense of rhythm.” Hope’s strict adherence to formal verse and his oracular voice can at times inhibit the erotic he audaciously explores, so that restraint (a crucial element of seduction) can calcify into incapacity, as if both partners have handcuffed themselves to the bed, beyond each other's reach. Hope's is also a singularly mascuiline eroticism. “Imperial Adam” is Hope’s most anthologized erotic poem, and his best. Rejected by the publishers of Australian Poetry in 1954 because the editors feared it bordered on “intellectualized pornography”, the poem reimagines paradise and our species’s first sexual act. It is interesting to compare the poem to the canonical narratives on the fall of man. “Imperial Adam” does away with the parables of Genesis and the angels and theology of Milton's Paradise Lost to focus exclusively on the carnal. There is no serpent to tempt Adam, but Eve’s body, in particular, her pubic hairs: “The innocent sunlight showed the place of love; / The dew on its dark hairs winked crisp and fresh.” The other inhabitants of paradise watch on in awe as Adam and Eve have sex. Upon reaching her climax, Eve lets out a “terrible and triumphant female cry”. There is something to this act that the beasts recognise as new: it is more than sex for procreation, it is sex for pleasure, driven by desire, and brings with it a whole new world of possibilities: ecstasy, gratification, jealousy, envy, shame, and most devestatingly, precipitates man's fall away from god. The fall is not sealed by Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden, but rather by Eve giving birth to Cain, his “pygmy face” arriving to a fearful audience. The poem's shocking final line “And the first murderer lay upon the earth" links sex from its origins with violence and death, to make it antithetical with innocence and complicate god's first instruction to man: be fruitful and multiply. Imperial Adam Imperial Adam, naked in the dew, Felt his brown flanks and found the rib was gone. Puzzled he turned and saw where, two and two, The mighty spoor of Yahweh marked the lawn. Then he remembered through mysterious sleep The surgeon fingers probing at the bone, The voice so far away, so rich and deep: "It... Continue reading
Posted Mar 30, 2022 at The Best American Poetry
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We were saddened to hear the news last weak of the death of Melbourne poet Jordie Albiston at the age of 60. One of Australia's most highly regarded contemporary poets, she will perhaps best be remembered for 2003's The Fall and its much anthologized title poem, an account of a woman falling from the Empire State Building who at the same time tumbles through the story of her life. Albiston's poetry was frequently adapted to other mediums: her collection Botany Bay Document was transformed into a performance work entitled Dreaming Transportation by Sydney composer Andree Greenwell, which premiered at the Sydney festival in 2003 and was staged the following year at the Sydney Opera House. In 2006, Albiston's biographical verse The Hanging of Jean Lee was used as the text for an opera. Albiston's poetry was often experimental within the confines of strict formal settings. Jack & Mollie (& Her) is a book-length poem comprising decasyllabic cinquains, while Euclid's dog: 100 algorithmic poems uses various mathematical concepts and proofs as bases for its eight poetic forms. In 2019, Albiston was the recipient of The Patrick White Literary Award for her significant contribution to Australian literature. She will be greatly missed. Soul v. Body A soul hung up, as 'there in chains Of nerves and arteries and veins... — Andrew Marvell Bout after bout I fight my body over who will rule us, me or her, and round after round sees me thrown down, knocked out. Physical she has the upper fist, the flesh and blood that gets bums on seats, while my defence is simply the idea. She is the temple and I am the tenant, held like a hermit in a strange arrangement with the world, against my will. Yes, I am the snail and she is the shell and she is for sale for giving me hell every time she has climbed on my back As the audience taunts and the bell goes again, I see certain stars yet staunchly believe that spiritually I cannot lose. Life after life I fight my body over who is the purer, me or her, and death after death we return to the same new debate. Continue reading
Posted Mar 9, 2022 at The Best American Poetry
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Last week, the UK’s Channel 5 television network announced that they were dropping the long-running Australian soap-opera Neighbours, putting the show’s future production in jeopardy. The program has been on the air for thirty-six years, and is an Australian institution—it seems every Australian actor has passed through Neighbours at some point, either on their way to international stardom (Kylie Minogue, Guy Pearce, Margot Robbie) or onto the conveyor belt of domestic television obscurity. The news prompted a number of hyperbolic reactions in the Australian and UK press, citing the desertion of our national soap-opera by the British as a metaphor for the deeper decay in Australia’s international appeal. Writing in London’s Sunday Times, columnist Caitlin Moran claimed that Australia as a destination was not “aspirational anymore,” and that for Britain’s Generation Z, the country has become “that place with all the dead reefs and offshore refugee internment camps, where the entire country often turns into one big barbecue.” This is a bit like blaming the box office failure of the latest incarnation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile not on cultural shifts in media consumption, movie-going especially, or the film’s impoverished script and diminished cast (when compared to the 1978 version starring Jane Birkin, Maggie Smith, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, David Nivin and the imperious Angela Lansbury), but rather on Brexit, the gutting of the National Health Service, and the punitive Nationality and Borders Bill. While Moran’s article speaks more to the quality of the Sunday Times than it does to the challenges facing Australian tourism after nearly two years of closed borders, it was a reminder of just how far away from much of the world Australia actually is, and how disorientating this remoteness can be (for people on both sides). Two sonnets by S. K. Kelen from his latest collection A Happening in Hades capture the stupefaction in the moments precisely after this distance has been crossed. There is nothing quite like touching down in Australia after a 20+hr flight, it feels as if you have landed in a different world. In Kelen's poems, the speaker disembarks at Sydney airport where “People speak slightly differently” and “football players you’ve never heard of / headline the national team”. The dreaded flight is so long that during the journey the world has “tipped into a new Age” S.K. Kelen is a former winner of the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and has over ten collections of his poetry to his name since first being published in 1973. Parallel Worlds (Earth No. 47) Sometimes slip into a parallel world, then the one after that, it often happens flying. It's a whole new universe when you land and disembark. Sydney Airport Earth No. 47. People speak slightly differently, the airport's festooned with bright advertising campaigns for brands and products that didn't exist a week or so ago, football players you've never heard of headline the national team. Everywhere a raw nervousness, the talk gets giggly about a new war, the time to... Continue reading
Posted Feb 23, 2022 at The Best American Poetry
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Jane Gibian is a Sydney poet and librarian, who recently published her fifth collection of poems, Beneath the Tree Line (2021). Gibian's poetry chronicles the internal landscapes of modern city life, and is marked by the subtlety of its details which often accumulate into something more transient and amorphous as they pass through the minds of their speakers. "tidemark" is a great example of this affect: through the clarity and exactness of its details: the "pale baby capsicum forming inside / its dark red mother", the poem leaves us with an impalpable and elusive disquiet, "that part of the beach / pining for home". tidemark you begin here: part of a distant beach missing its home, a doll’s saucerful of the cleanest sand sleeping in your ear grown into something with glairy edges, a tidemark advancing and receding less with the disintegration of arctic sea ice affirmed when you accidentally cut the pale baby capsicum forming inside its dark red mother, the centre of a world to turn around: beneath the surface dark rocks loom in the glassy water, further out, mutable peaks of white froth tease your eyes with dolphins where you end: that part of the beach pining for home, and at the centre an instrumental continuo around which all other voices circle and rub Continue reading
Posted Feb 9, 2022 at The Best American Poetry
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January 26 is officially Australia Day, however, many Australians refer to the date as Invasion Day, which is, let’s face it, the far more compelling title, and in point of fact, the more accurate. On January 26, 1788, Admiral Arthur Phillip sailed into Sydney’s Botany Bay with the “First Fleet” to establish the penal colony of New South Wales, eighteen years after Captain James Cook had claimed the territory for Great Britain on the spurious grounds of Terra Nullius (no man’s land). It was not until January 1, 1901, that the then six British colonies came to unite as the federated nation of Australia. If you were to ask Australians what they most valued about their country, I think a fair share would point to the landscape, to the red soils and pristine beaches, the trees that keep their leaves and shed their bark, the huge skies and brilliant light—all of which were very much present before Phillip arrived just over 230 years ago. Others might say that it was our laid-back, casual way of life which takes pride in giving everyone a “fair go,” qualities one does not readily associate with penal colonies or 18th century British maritime officers. Still others would maintain that it is our Indigenous peoples and their culture, which, as the oldest continuous culture on the planet, spans over 65,000 years, and for whom January 26, 1788, is most decidedly the worst day of all of them. The Aboriginal Flag It seems reasonable enough, then, that as the date is a cause of great pain and suffering for our First Nations peoples, it should be commemorated in a more somber and reflective manner, and our national day of celebration moved to another date. And while there is a growing movement to have Australia Day reassigned, there is also a vociferous slice of the population for whom this proposed change is an intolerable offence (ironically, while observing Australia Day, these celebrants often seem determined to forget what day it is entirely, with only their empty beer cans littering the rivers and beaches, public parks and nature reserves, to serve to remind them when they come to). "Change the Date" protest January 26 is a date that lurks deep in our national consciousness, and it is no surprise that it makes its way into the work of many of our poets. In Toby Fitch’s “January 26” the mindless celebrations at a local park come to represent the failings of a nation that is “struggling and still unsure / of learning how to start over again, how to walk this back, / uninvite ourselves from this hot, manicured parkland”. Lionel Fogarty The poem I’d like to share today does not reference January 26 directly, however, the date seems imbued into its core. ‘What Saying Says’ from Lionel Fogarty’s Minyung Woolah Binnung is preoccupied with distinctions: the future is “black”, the playwriter is “Abo”. These distinctions could only come about, of course, because of January 26, 1788. While always... Continue reading
Posted Jan 26, 2022 at The Best American Poetry
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Judith Wright was one of Australia's foremost literary figures of the 20th Century, and one of only two Australian poets (alongside AD Hope) to be considered for a Nobel Prize in literature. Her passion for Indigenous Rights and her work as a conservationist led her to be viewed by many Australians as the nation's conscience. Wright's poetry often speaks to her love of the Australian landscape, and her despair at its molestation for economic gain. The action in "Request to a Year" does not take place in Australia, but rather Switzerland, and has a kind of European detachment to it, a "difficult distance" that allows the speaker to recount a catastrophic event in a tone approaching disinterest. It is a challenging poem in many ways, I am not sure I would want "the firmness of hand" the speaker requests, which allows one to witness tragedy and coolly sketch its portrait. While the poem is successful in granting the speaker her wish (the poetic equivalent of the firm hand she is appealing for is realised in the dispassionate voice the poem adopts), it is less convincing in its admiration for the "artist's isolating eye" being a thing wholly removed from the world. Is it desirable to be unconditionally accepting of our subordinate place in the natural world, a world of spectacular beauty filled with spontaneous danger? Or would we like to think that if we were watching our own child being dragged towards the precipice of a waterfall 80 feet high, we would spring into some kind of action, no matter how futile our efforts may be? Request to a Year If the year is meditating a suitable gift, I should like it to be the attitude of my great-great-grandmother, legendary devotee of the arts, who having eight children and little opportunity for painting pictures, sat one day on a high rock beside a river in Switzerland and from a difficult distance viewed her second son, balanced on a small ice flow, drift down the current toward a waterfall that struck rock bottom eighty feet below, while her second daughter, impeded, no doubt, by the petticoats of the day, stretched out a last-hope alpenstock (which luckily later caught him on his way). Nothing, it was evident, could be done; And with the artist's isolating eye My great-great-grandmother hastily sketched the scene. The sketch survives to prove the story by. Year, if you have no Mother's day present planned, Reach back and bring me the firmness of her hand. Continue reading
Posted Jan 5, 2022 at The Best American Poetry
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As it is the season of giving, here is "A Present" from John Tranter's masterpiece Starlight (2010). "A Present" is a part of a series of poems entitled "Contre-Baudelaire", which "echo, respond to and sometimes argue with some of poems from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal". A Present Hey, sweetheart, here's a poem, take it or leave it. One day, in the mysterious future, these lines blown roughly off-course may come to rest in a library, to amuse a bored reader for a while. My portrait of you will float above the limping syllables and by the special magic of art, drift in the haze of imagination, above the page. Why do I bother? It's hardly your charm, from Paris to peoria no one likes you much; those who know you give you a wide berth. You mock the talented and sneer at the stupid as though God had set you up in a judgement; more demon than angel, but utterly lovely. Continue reading
Posted Dec 22, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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Luke Beesley is a Melbourne based writer, artist and songwriter, whose most recent collection of poetry, Aqua Spinach (2018), was shortlisted for the Australian Literary Society’s Gold Medal. Beesley’s poetry is interested in the movement of thought and experience, and the ways in which they can dislocate language. Through unexpected shifts in syntax, Beesley transforms the quotidian into something approaching the surreal, and turns the arbitrary, in the words of Toby Fitch, into "an important aesthetic category." “A Hat'' is reminiscent of John Ashbery’s “Leaving the Atocha Station”, in which disturbances and diversions form the core of the poem, and calls to mind Richard Howard’s great observation that Ashbery “reaches a pitch of distraction.” There are many similarities to be found between Beesley's and Ashbery’s poetry: a love of wordplay; a preoccupation with film and music; and a dreamlike calm, an effect which can be nourishing, even medicinal. Enjoy. A Hat I had been walking for 10-15 mins without a hat. Inside the hat I was able and was able. Customer accounts. Phlegm of coat rack hardened around my shoulders. Amuck this gunky, silvery circumstance, I made a decision, or it, it was the dec tha ma! The made, ago. Idled another coriander blemish. Awning. Team, to ever, day, docent. Soup with three full. Or stopped-up chicken cougher? Arp. I had been walking alongside water lilies (you can!) too! Have to(o) take me till I walked into the early 20thcentury and spied Arp up in the late, by it. MoMA said warm itinerary. I have it. An Attempt to Get Oats Into this Poem It was no reflection on my fondness for you, the throwing of the sour milk. The sound of the silver bucket spread out like a town at the beginning of a Kurosawa. The milk was hula. The day: ultra marine. You stepped in the mood. Do you still follow bees? I found four in a tea pot... On the cover of your book is an open locket and within it your relatives? Cousins? Their faces are small but I can recognise your eyes. With what poems will you describe them this Christmas. Christmas like the name Tony Tuckson. I guess I see spilled paint across the canvas like a pulled muscle. We could get a towel, or sit in the sun? There's a bus! And our reflection in it, turning. It was my thought today that as poets we should eat good breakfasts. You? Oats, sliced pear, pepitas, other seeds, natural yogurt. Continue reading
Posted Dec 8, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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Bella Li has published three collections of poetry, Maps, Cargo (2013); Argosy (2017), winner of both the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards 2018 for poetry, and the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards 2018 for poetry; and Lost Lake (2018). Born in China, Li emigrated to Australia at the age of three. Her work is often a unique assemblage of collage, poetry and photography, and, as the titles of her collections suggest, often deals in themes of exploration and loss—the shadow of Australia’s colonial history always looming near. “Voyage” calls to mind Baudelaire, whose own “Voyage” trails Li’s as a kind of ghost ship. “Sullen days”, as Li’s poem opens, is just one of the bitter truths Baudelaire thought our travels brought us, not an opening up of perspective but a realization that the world is “tiny and monotonous” and we are but “oases of fear in the wasteland of ennui”. Or as Li phrases it “my eyes reeked of distance”. Baudelaire’s themes take on new stakes in Li’s writing, as she pitches her work against a national history of exploration leading to dispossession and her own migratory past. Continue reading
Posted Nov 24, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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John Jenkins is often associated with the "Generation of 68", a loose collection of poets who began publishing towards the end of the 1960s and, in the words of John Tranter, "rose to public notice on the crest of a wave of poetry readings, ‘underground’ magazines, and a generally expressed antagonism to the established mainstream of poetry at that time, which they saw as too conservative." Jenkins has published over fifteen collections of poetry, several in collaboration with Ken Bolton, including The Ferrara Poems and Poems of Relative Unlikelihood. Ken Bolton (left) and John Jenkins circa 1990 "Why I Like You" is the type of love poem we all wish we could write more frequently: exuberant without being mawkish, inventive, funny—a statement of love which generates its authenticity from imagination and embellishment. How could anyone refuse being compared to a the beauty of "a tropical / avalanche in a glass full of gold"? Why I Like You Just let me say that I like you because you fell from the sky as beautiful as a tropical avalanche in a glass full of gold. Another reason is your energy. It often happens... Before I've slept in after breakfast you've already showered, walked the dogs, and made a little aeroplane out of an ice-cube. Should I also mention that you remind me of starlight pulsing between the spokes of a bicycle? You whirr around so fast it leaves me breathless! Or say, "I like you because you celebrate the motors of flesh and air." Should I also say that? Well, I couldn't imagine you ever earnest or dull. And it is really a coincidence that la douceur fleurie des etoiles (a quote from Rimbaud) also reminds me of you? Is it just a coincidence when lost in our husky sled we could wake up any moment in Cuba? And really, I'm wild too about your little joke when you dip the entire universe into a can of blue paint so everything is my favourite colour. I also like you for your teeth which are useful for untying knots and because of Tasmania the love-shaped island between your thighs, and for your eyes which rhyme and are green tiny traffic lights saying yes yes when we kiss! Continue reading
Posted Nov 10, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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With the recent announcement to open Australia's international borders next month (or as the Prime Minister Scott Morrison calls it on his official website, "taking steps to reopen to the world", which sounds more like a chapter from a self-help manual than government policy), I thought it would be a good moment to share Pam Brown's "International Experts". Brown is a central figure in the formative period of contemporary Australian poetry which took place in 1970s Sydney. With Anna Couani, Ken Bolton and Sal Brererton, she helped put together the iconic Magic Sam magazine, which published some of Australia's most important poets. Brown has published more than twenty books of her own poetry and prose, including Dear Deliria: New and Selected Poems, which won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry in 2004. She has also served as the poetry editor for Overland and an associate editor of the brilliant and too-short lived Jacket magazine. "International Experts" cleverly appraises the appeal of a place with its current cultural output. Both London and Paris have "had it", while "the americans / are doing / all the writing / these days". The speaker settles for a trip within Australia, and, based on her criteria for choosing a destination, why not? With Brown and her coterie, Australia just might be the most appealing destination of the lot. International Experts when we get restless we talk about where we could go we decide london has had it except for music. madness. marianne faithfull. the selecter. paris has had it except for a few memorable spots. paul eluard. gertrude stein. statre. semiology and plastic bertrand from belgium. of course we mention new york. the americans are doing all the writing these days. asia and india are out of the question. no package deal ashrams. although japan is interesting comics and posters. really though berlin is the place to go. fassbinder. brecht. a politically complex past. experts. micky met sumo wrestlers in japan before america and europe. jill saw paris and london last year. down in sydney the air goes bad and I fill up with gases, go to the movies, by books, a record and a train ticket to queensland. Continue reading
Posted Oct 27, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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Martin Johnston died in June 1990 at the age of forty-two having published three books of poetry: Shadowmass; The Sea-Cucumber; and The Typewriter Considered a Bee-Trap; a novel, Cicada Gambit; and a collection of translations of Greek Poems, Ithaka. His short life was marked by tragedy: his mother committed suicide in 1969 when Johnston was 21, and almost exactly a year later his father died in his sleep of tuberculosis. In 1974, Johnston's sister Shane committed suicide. A year before Johnston's own death his half-sister, Gae, died, also in tragic circumstances. "The Sea-Cucumber" is an elegy Johnston wrote for his father, ostensibly dedicated to the painter Ray Crooke. Crooke, best known for his dust-colored landscapes of the dry Australian outback, ironically won the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture in 1969 for his painting of Johnston's father, George. "The Sea-Cucumber" details an evening in which Crooke shows George Johnston one of his new works in which the painter has "floated / a sfumato background almost in front of the canvas". Johnston's father is "garrulous as ever" but the young speaker knows there is something forced to his father's performance, as he presses "every word-drop, like the wine of a harvest not quite adequate." Ray Crooke North Queensland Landscape The poem speaks to the limitations of art and centres on the metaphor of the sea-cucumber who, when touched, "spews up its entrails / as though that were a defence" to capture the futility of the writer who knows his work cannot save him. "The Sea-Cucumber" also gives us a taste of Johnston's eloquence, his erudition (which creates no impediment to a genuine intimacy), and brings to the fore a haunting melancholy which lurks in the corners of many of the poet's works. The Sea-Cucumber for Ray Crooke We'd all had a bit too much that night when you brought out your painting, the new one, you remember, over Scotch in the panelled kitchen, and my father talked about waiting. Well, he was doing that, we knew, or it could have been the dust you'd painted, the way you'd floated a sfumato background almost in front of the canvas so your half-dozen squatting dark figures couldn't see it that moved him in that moment softly, in damp stone, outside time. He was as garrulous as ever, of course, but somehow in a time of his own, it seemed that he was pressing every word-drop, like the wine of a harvest not quite adequate, to trickle in brilliant bridles across the stained table: what sorts of eucalypt to plant—so that they'd grow quickly— art dealers, metaphysics, three old me he'd seen at Lerici, playing pipes and a drum under an orange sky. Memory finds a nexus, there in your image, people just waiting, not even conscious of it, or of ochre and sienna pinning them in an interstice of hours. None of this, you see, will really go into writing, it takes time to leech things into one's sac of words. The bloated sea-cucumber,... Continue reading
Posted Oct 13, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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Martin Johnston was a member of a generation of Australian poets who, in the words of John Tranter, “revitalized Australian poetry” in the late 1960s and 1970s. Born in Sydney and brought up on the Greek island of Hydra (where Leonard Cohen was a frequent houseguest), Johnston’s upbringing provided his poetry with a unique reference point: he knew ancient Greek, learned katharevousa Greek (an artificial hybrid conceived in the 18th century) and spoke and wrote demotic Greek, thimotki. As a child he immersed himself in Homer and in his teens began translating the work of modern Greek poets such as George Seferis and CP Cavafy. As the eldest son of Australian literary royalty, the essayist Charmain Clift and George Johnston, whose novel My Brother Jack won the Miles Franklin Award and is a seminal piece of mid-century Australian literature, Martin seemed predestined to be a writer. Johnson’s poetry is immensely allusive, evocative and erudite. His remarkable knowledge of classical Greek, his lifelong interest in chess, and his innate curiosity which led him to explore esoteric philosophies all find their way into his poetry. In Nadia Wheatley’s introduction to Johnston’s recently issued selected poems, Beautiful Objects, she notes “Martin Johnston did not speak demotic Australian. But his Greek was the people’s Greek”. It is for this reason, perhaps, that his translations of contemporary Greek poetry come to us with such power and immediacy, and might represent the best entry point into his work. Here are two of such translations. The first is an anonymous folk song, one of dozens which Johnston had been translating since his days as a schoolboy. The second is by Andhreas Karandonis, for whom, I’m pleased to report, google has no answers. Pass By My Country My friends of Roumeli, and you, sons of Moria, by the bread we have eaten together, by our brotherhood, pass by my country and by my people. Don't enter the village by sunlight don't enter the village by moonlight don't shoot your guns don't sing your songs for fear my mother might hear you, and my poor sister. But if they come and ask you, the first time say nothing, and if they doubly ask you, a second and third time, don't tell them I've been killed and make them sad hearted. Just tell them that I've married here, here in these parts, I have taken the grave for a mother-in-law, the black earth for a wife, and these strewn stones for my brothers and cousins. —Anon Old Horoscopes Now don't you fret, Mr Sylvester, nothing wrong with the shop though I won't say it's the best—pride before a fall and so on, and besides, you never know what you're in for. But as I was saying, I was born around the same time as plenty of others, each of us due for something different. Some of us having to work, others getting learning, or love, or being pious in monasteries, or summer holidays by the sea or in the hills,... Continue reading
Posted Sep 29, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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I'm on vacation this week, but I thought I'd leave you with this classic by Chris Mansell. Just a few notes: Penrith is a city to the west of Sydney (technically it is a part of Sydney) and heats up in the summer as only inland Australia can; while the Blue Mountains are a nearby mountain range, which get their name from their greyish-blue tinge. As for the rest, as my friend Bob Hershon used to say, you can thank me later. Darwin discusses Tierra del Fuego you pace out an Australian hot summer devoid of air at Penrith with some lime light artificial member of the new aristocracy the dry skin of grass cracking under boots grass grey stalks like thin glass vials hold some therapeutic acid break like needles in a nightmare before the operation you, you garrulous old metronome peeling off the layers of our secret wishes like the skin of the face of an aging actress to insist on evolution we liked the geology of our mountains we wanted only to pat the earth with our flat hans and feel its body shifting mumbling dialogue from dreams under its old clotted-cream breath we resent your careful notebooks on stratification of our blue mountains the knife between the layers the prising out collectable pimples want you to go back to the discussions of the geology of Tierra del Fuego surely exotic enough to satisfy an Englishman Continue reading
Posted Sep 15, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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This week I'd like to share three shorter poems by John Tranter. "The Moment of Waking" and "The Plane" are both from Tranter's 1970 debut collection Parallax, while "Balance" is from his sophomore outing Red Movie and Other Poems (1972). I like the idea of the pilot who is daydreaming in "The Plane", as a plane flying overhead is so often a trigger for our own daydreams down here on the ground, and a kind of Russian Doll of daydreams is established. "Balance" manages to create the uncanny, intriguing and overall unsettling mood that one often finds in Ashbery's shorter poems, such as "Anticipated Stranger". The Moment of Waking She remarks how the style of a whole age disappears into your gaze, at the moment of waking. How sad you are with your red shirt, your features reminiscent of marble, your fabulous boy girl face like a sheet of mist floating above a lake. Someone hands me a ticket, in Berlin a hunchback is printing something hideous; my passport is bruised with dark blue and lilac inks. Morning again, another room batters me awake— you will be haunting the mirror like silver— now the nights punish me with dreams of a harbour in Italy — you are there hung in the sky on broken wings as you always have been, dancing preparing to wound me with your distant and terrible eyes. The Plane The plane drones low over Idaho, a thundering shadow on the wheat. The captain is thinking of a dust-cloud disappearing out to sea. The heavy wings tilt, a silo looms abruptly. The cloud falters on the horizon of his mind. Taped to the cockpit wall is a photograph, a piece of Sunday afternoon, a lawn, a bright dress, flowers. Soon they will be flying over the mountains in a halo of ice. The cloud hangs about, behind the imaginary trees. Balance The traveller slouches at the table handling the glass of pale sour liquid. In the dim corner someone plays a mandolin and the heat wavers at the door. He can see the bus crawling away into the desert. Having arrived nowhere, he finds a portion of despair like a gun settling into a comfortable balance in the hand. Continue reading
Posted Sep 1, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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Anna Couani is one of Australia's best exponents of the prose poem. A founding member of the Sydney Women Writers Workshop (also known as the No Regrets Group) in 1978, Couani also established the small press Sea Cruise Books, which published collections by notable Australian poets such as Ken Bolton and Pamela Brown. In "Map of the World" the extended length of the opening sentences, freed from the interruption of line breaks, creates a slow drift, mirroring the winding of rivers and the smoothness of hills and sand dunes. The sentences are then condensed and the pace of the poem quickens with the use of repetition and slant rhymes—the sentences generate a momentum like relay runners, each handing off the baton to the next. We begin to rush through this map of the world, which expands at the rate of our seeing it, until the closing lines take us off the map and out of the poem. A kind of revelatory distance is created, so that in these lines it is as if the poem is seeing itself in the mirror. Charles Simic once wrote that the prose poem was "the sole instance we have of squaring the circle." I think "Map of the World" does just that. The Map of the World The map of the world is felt from the inside. Rough around the coastlines and smooth over the hills and sand dunes. Warm and moist through the rivers which lead outside to the forests like long hair then sparser like shorter more bristly hair to the touch. Reading a globe of the world with its topography in relief. Reading with the fingers as though blind. Feeling it with the back, down the spine. Making contact with the nipples and the nose only. Moving at a fast rate underwater through the oceans and large lakes. Most of the oceans connect up with each other. Moving so fast that you become aware of the earth's surface being curved. Flying low but fast across the land masses. Make yourself feel like the world. As old but not as troubled. Continue reading
Posted Aug 18, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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The difficulty in introducing John Tranter is knowing where to begin. Surely any attempts to elucidate his poetry would be reductive, and any measure of its influence fall embarrassingly short. Tranter is a major poet and in my estimate the major Australian poet of the second-half of the twentieth-century (though John Forbes might have something to say about that). His renown stretches far beyond our antipodal boundaries. As his good friend John Ashbery wrote in the introduction to Starlight: 150 Poems, Tranter is an "international phenomenon". Over his 20-plus collections, Tranter has seemed to live and die by the motto found in one of his most ambitious and accomplished poems, "Red Movie", that "an experiment which succeeds... is no longer an experiment, but has become / a demonstration of the obvious". Tranter's poetry always surprises and refuses to rest on its laurels—just as you think he's hit on a winning formula in one collection, he upends it in the next. Through his fifty years of writing he's employed a multitude of styles and techniques, but always present are his keen ear for the Australian vernacular, a frighteningly sharp intelligence, and a "larrikinism" that never lets his poetry take itself too seriously. The poem I'd like to share today is not particularly representative of Tranter's oeuvre, though it does exhibit several qualities that we can find in many of his poems: his wit, a love of the movies, and his extraordinary ability to absorb the essence of another poet and transmute it into a contemporary Australian landscape (both geographical and emotional) to offer us something at once uncannily familiar and entirely original. "After Hölderlin" is a favorite of mine, and I suspect it may be a favorite of Tranter's too, as it serves as the opening poem to his new & selected, Urban Myths. I plan on sharing much more of Tranter's poetry over the coming months, so stay tuned. After Hölderlin When I was a young man, a drink often rescued me from the factory floor or the office routine. I dreamed in the mottled shade of many a beer garden among a kindness of bees and breezes my lunch hour lengthening. As the flowers plucked and set in the little bottle on the table still seem to hanker for the sun, nodding in the slightest draft, so I longed for a library loose with rare volumes or a movie theatre's satisfying gloom where a little moon followed the usherette up and down the blue carpeted stairs. You characters caught up in your emotions on the screen, how I wish you could know how much I loved you; how I longed to comfort the distraught heroine or share a beer with the lonely hero. I knew your anxieties, trapped in a story that wouldn't let you live; I felt for you when you were thrown from the car again and again; when the pilot thought he was lost and alone, I was speaking the language of the stars above his... Continue reading
Posted Aug 4, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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Fiona Hile is an award winning Australian poet whose poems move fast through unexpected turns of language and imagery. Take this line from "Snakebite with Anecdote": "In the corridor we listen to the sounds our babies make when they cry." The distinction the speaker makes between listening to babies cry, and listening to the "sounds" babies make when they cry, transforms the action into something far more clinical and uncanny. It is a distinction made travelling at such speeds that it is easy to miss, as is much in Hile's breakneck poetry which deserves an equally alert attention. "Forget the Stars" is such a poem, which opens with the image of "taxidermied light" and breaks down into near fragmentary utterances. Forget the Stars Focus on the taxidermied light, the quarked vehemence of splayed negation, to rags, your britches, seeping glib intent, sight catastrophic, given to seizures. The curlicue scent has not the mother in it. The fall of romance, the hold of the tender new, programs aloft, every nerve to shudder: ghosting monitions of the incomplete. Either will the aching swells, apart from bliss. Coordinates of favor, hip neath fiber strip follicle sheath of slip chord parent display. Sensitized gift wagon fern entrenched, the halo of the nation is the caul-throated blood of hench, rosella'd of the peak of taxonomied childless. Where your mottled hologram, the feathered monstor of the throttled. Quizzical with the world, am to console, the hope for saplings entrees the ingredient of dining undertaken. Your teeth the grinder, your lips the sensitive house. The beds' laments' the reindeers' horses' dreams' in halves' comeo'd sighs. Continue reading
Posted Jul 20, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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I first came across Lionel Fogarty's poetry in The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry edited by John Tranter and Philip Mead. At the time, I was pretty well ignorant of contemporary Indigenous Australian poetry. High school English had stopped at Browning and Hopkins and hardly ventured into Australia at all, let alone Indigenous Australian poetry. In fact, the only mention of Australia's first nations peoples in our state's curriculum back then was to be found in "Aboriginal Studies", an elective, which I took, and which focused heavily on the land rights movement of the time and not at all on modern Indigenous artists, ignoring the interdependence of the two. Fogarty's poetry is unashamedly political, but it is his experimental use of the Aboriginal Australian language, innovative, often surreal, that has garnered him praise of the kind from John Kinsella, as being "the greatest living Australian poet." One of my favorite of Fogarty's poems is "Appearance Shadows", in which the speaker considers the nature of disappearing as a kind of negative action—for a disappearance to occur, something has to "un-occur", be removed, taken away, so that "Magic give disappearing acts to appear" and "We cannot define disappearing life as appearing in the present." The poem is haunted by Australia's history viewed as a disappearance of Indigenous peoples and culture. The poem I'd like to introduce is, however, an assertion of being, and, it seems to me, an introduction in itself. "Fellow Being" opens with the declaration that "we aboriginies in humanity" and goes on to, in part, describe Aboriginal people and their profound relationship to their land: "An aboriginal is nature's soil, you pick it up hold it in your / hand and / you will feel our growth in the ground." It is a relationship that is felt and known without being able to be "understood", and therefore, impossible to explain. Fogarty's poetry is a bridge to this feeling. Fellow Being An' we aborigines in humanity. The pulses of the red sun give a beat in aboriginal people. The kissing of winds to trees are the love between aborigines. Even the water we drink is the pure tears aboriginals share. We wisely in our humanised aboriginal homes are united under all one colour. The aboriginal is the bread of man's rich land. We are the rocks of ages and purpling skies. Look at every scenery in bush you will see an aboriginal face, body and spirit. The aboriginal is not owned by any human being on earth. Our presence is the flesh of fresh new worlds. We are music that floats into a wonderful not to all ears. An aboriginal is nature's soil, you pick it up, hold it in your hand and you will feel our growth in the ground. We are the gods of man in this land but then we are not humans. Yet we are part of you kind now hey. The earth above is our spirituals. And now if you speak our tongue, don't... Continue reading
Posted Jul 7, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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Billy Marshall Stoneking was born in Florida and grew up on military bases across the US. At the age of twenty-five, he emigrated to Australia with a BA and a postgrad in Education from California State and began teaching in remote areas of the country. From 1978 - 1983, Stoneking lived with the Papunya community about 150 miles northwest of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, where he established a program to help local Pintupi and Luritja people write and read in their traditional language. In 1980, he edited Stories of Obed Ragett, the first bi-lingual text published by an Indigenous Australian writer. Billy Marshall Stoneking (1947 – 2016) Stoneking’s collection Singing the Snake - Poems from the Western Desert, 1979-1988 is infused with his experiences of the desert, both the diurnal and transcendent. The poem I’d like to share, however, is a dual citizen, like the poet himself. “On the Death of Muriel Rukeyser” connects the Australian desert with New York City, where “death might be / fifty storeys high”, and is a great example of the transportational power of the imagination. In a bid to transcend the assumed mundanity of Rukeyeser’s death, “More likely dead in a dirty brasserie”, Stoneking places her at the foot of ancient “dinosaur hills” in Australia, which, never having visited in life, the famous poet and activist is able to gaze upon in death through the conduit of the poem. On the Death of Muriel Rukeyser Old Sister Death bit you off maybe dreaming of my backdoor; I'd sent you a letter explaining it all: (living in ancient Aboriginal land at the foot of big dinosaur hill); I said drop in and see me... and you said maybe I will. But as Annie says, all's got teeth: cups and card tables, drawers and feet. In New York, death might be fifty storeys high; a railing that gives way too easily; the last beat of a dry martini. I don't know how it came to you — not that poetic, certainly. More likely dead in a dirty brasserie or impatiently with a pen after the heat leaked out. The news I received was impersonal, the cost of Time magazine: Sixty-six, poet of social protest, Heart attack: proselyte of the dissident muse (not Sappho, Sacco) — the message more important than the way it's read. But if I could reach you now past solemnity, past Death, past fame, we might laugh at that last grim joke; pointing to the dinosaur hills you never visited, your thick, woman voice gesturing: 'Those mountains waited two billion years for me to be born, and before I could see them I was dead.' Continue reading
Posted Jun 23, 2021 at The Best American Poetry