Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Dorothy Porter was never going to go out with a whimper. The Australian poet who once claimed to write best to the tribal din of Melbourne's Hunters & Collectors was a poet utterly transfixed by life. I only knew her in passing, but from what I can glean Dorothy seemed to regard death (her own came earlier this year after a long and courageous fight against breast cancer) as merely one more aspect of life, not its polar opposite. Her last, and perhaps her finest, collection of poetry, The Bee Hut, was written very much in this spirit

have I the strength
to pay suffering its due?

she asks in "The Ninth Hour", one of the most technically accomplished, moving and strangely exhilarating poems about death and dying I have ever read. There is Porter's characteristic tone of defiance here, but for once she is not raging like Xerxes, for

I have come to a river
of blood and vinegar

I have come to a river
where only pain
keeps its feet

and she appears transfixed by this new challenge life has thrown up at her. It is a courage perhaps unique to poets, a courage that knows its limits, and by this very knowledge seems amplified.

Let me join the frilled and flying

and live vivid
as a wet dog.

- "After Bruegel"

After her final verse novel, El Dorado, I wasn't so sure what to expect from Dorothy Porter. Despite a perception in some quarters, I buzz far from the inner circle of Australian literati and simply assumed she had recovered from whatever it was that ailed her. My first instinct was that Dorothy was caught in no-man's-land with a few too many quivers in her bow - poet, novelist, librettist. - but with the phallanx of Australian literati to protect her. For, as compelling an achievement as her best-selling verse-novel, The Monkey's Mask, undoubtedly was, the two that followed will slowly fall between the stools. I doubt I was alone in missing the edgy 3 am dance of Porter's earlier collection, Crete, the deliciously tender mischief of

No sensible woman eats poppies

            or else

she'll dance
she'll fall over

she'll wake up

         with a woman in her arms.

- "Or Else" (from "Crete", 1996)

A poet living in the very act of writing, of picking herself up just as she is falling. I can't tell you how many times I have heard writers complain about how writing drains them when, as Dot Porter knew only too well, it should in fact do the very opposite, for

You can't preserve love
behind foggy windows.

Often when I read American ex-pat, Linda Gregg, I think of Dorothy Porter back in her Crete days of the early 90's, so tender with love, and I can almost sniff the light dancing on that almost interstellar blue of the Mediterranean, but Gregg always manages to break the spell because beneath it all dwells something intent on pulling her down, on harvesting her flesh, her womanhood (by which I, as a man, cogitate freedom). Dorothy Porter's poetic spirit, on the other hand, shouldered up to the breeze and laughed with the ripples and spat in the face of the necromancer casting a shadow over her towel. She could not help herself, for she was mad with life, or at least the poet in her was. Beauty was everywhere in her dusky, wide-set eyes, and in this an early trill in her parting song, we have the imprimatur of Dot Porter's distinct brand of living ( dare I say a very Australian brand of living?)

I can't shake
that ghost-town pub
whistling empty-bottled
through its black windows,
and its strangled verandahs
creaking with a terrifying
ancient thirst
under a two-storey coat
of bristling blackberry.

Is it taunting me
with the dancing skeleton
of my own life's mystery
struggling for rhythm
and lyrics?

I hold in my hand
the greedy, bleeding
that has always
gorged itself.

The bliss-mouthed
gluttony miracle -
that stained Keats
that had cynical Byron
reeling on the ceiling -
when the plump berries
and your pen slashes ahead
like a pain-hungry prince
hacking through
the bramble's dragon teeth
to the heart's most longed-for
comatose, but ardently ready

- "Blackberries" (from The Bee Hut)

Well, I imagine you can sleep easy princess. Your legacy is safe.


Monday, September 21, 2009

From the outside looking in

I am beholden to my daemons to presage this article by stating for the record that I am usually wrong.

Considering the state of law reform in this country, and the moral turpitude of many of this country's self-appointed stewards, it surprises me little that Bob Ellis has finally decided to sue the playwright Louis Nowra over his June 2009 article (one could hardly call it a review), Making a case for the unexamined life. 

Though the article caused quite a stir at the time, the whole thing passed me by largely due to the fact that I only read The Australian if trapped in a lift, and anyway Bob Ellis holds little interest for me either as a man or a writer.

As far as I can make out, however, Louis Nowra has a problem in regards to the article in question, and that problem is that he opens with the seed of a slowly flowering contradiction. The only time Bob Ellis has impinged on my life, his fateful article begins, was when I was in a solicitor's office.

Not the most musical of openings, but I won't quibble over syntax here. What is important is that Nowra goes on to relate how Bob Ellis did not in fact impinge on him personally in said office, but rather via the sage words of said solicitor, who found it pertinent to remind Nowra that Ellis had shifted the goalposts for publishers in Australia after passing off a piece of lewd gossip as salacious fact and landing his publishers in court. Nowra's solicitor was cautioning him against making the same mistake with his own book. Even though the stories were true, he said they would have to go unless I could back them up factually.

Thus by this simple device, the reader is led to believe that Nowra is somewhat of a disinterested observer in the one-man circus that is Bob Ellis, the Aussie auteur.

Perhaps Nowra should have listened more closely to his solicitor, for later in the same piece he relates how  he and Ellis in fact played in the same cricket team.

Given Ellis's occasional misadventures with the facts, I was interested to read about something of which I had a first-hand knowledge (good to see that grammar improving, Louis). He says he played for a Sydney suburban cricket team called the Metros for more than 10 years from the late 70s. During the same period I played in the same team for three years and I only saw him turn up once (my emphasis).

I was going to quote more of this passage, but I fear doing so may land me in the same hot water as Louis Nowra.

Now, either Nowra's earlier statement that he was only ever impinged on by Ellis in the abstract is at best an obfuscation, or the Metros are one seriously dysfunctional cricketing family, or, more to the point, Nowra failed to heed his solicitor's advice and is relating in Murdoch print a piece of club house gossip as though it were a fact he could personally verify.

If read in this light, Nowra appears guilty of mixed messages. Either he knows Ellis well enough to while away a Saturday afternoon with him on a cricket field, or he knows him only as I do - as a name and a professional bugbear - and is happy to print in one place what he dare not print in another.

Now, let it be re-iterated quite clearly for the record here that I am no fan of Bob Ellis the writer or the man. He strikes me from a distance as that stamp of boomer male against whom I have been struggling all my creative life, and without whom the cultural life of this country would probably be none the poorer.

But read in the light of this apparent contradiction, Louis Nowra's article reads less like the "pure gold" of James Bradley's opinion ( and more like the vituperative snarl of one grand old dog at another through the gilded mesh of Sydney gliterati. That Bob Ellis' reply to this article only helps to underscore many of Nowra's points about him does nothing to alleviate the impression that he has not been totally forthcoming.  Passing acquaintance, after all, does not a passing stranger make.

But why does any of this matter?

Because so strict are the defamation laws in this state that, as Richard Ackland put it so succinctly in a recent article about New South Wales Defamation Law Reform,

When journalists see the word "reasonable" as the defining legal test they may as well pull out a gun and shoot themselves.....a journalist may think it "reasonable" to make 10 phone calls to check a story. The judge will say, "why didn't you make 11?"

Ackland regards this as a purely mainstream media problem, but as the recent use of NSW Defamation Law by a US citizen to sue a UK blogger proves, it is a concern for cyberspace as well.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Come join in an exploration of Bondi Beach
with 3 of Australia’s leading poets

joanne burns  Brook Emery Les Wicks
with music from Maryjane Leahy

accessible & engaging –
unique perspectives on  a world icon

@ Bondi Social
1st floor 38 Campbell Pde Bondi Beach
2.15 for 2.30  October 10


Open mike session where audience members can read their poem on or around Bondi. Prizes for the best poems. Winner will be published in “Guide to Sydney Beaches”.

This event is part of the celebrations for Waverley’s 150th Birthday. Proudly supported by Waverley Council.

joanne burns has had many collections of her work published, the latest being 'an illustrated history of dairies' Giramondo Publishing 2007. She grew up in Rose Bay and Dover Heights, Bondi was often her 'playground' from very early childhood into early adulthood. She was a member of the Bondi Ladies Swimming Club for a couple of years, and taught beginners in the 'Learn to Swim' classes at Bondi Baths in the summer of 1961-2. In her teenage years she also played tennis at the legendary Tib Dorahy Tennis Club of North Bondi. She attended 1st Class at Bondi Beach Public School, where her great aunts Beatrice and Marjorie Taylor were Headmistresses.

Brook Emery has published three poetry collections, and dug my fingers in the sand (FIP 2000), which won the Queensland Premier’s Prize, Misplaced Heart (FIP 2003), and Uncommon Light (FIP 2007). All three were short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Prize. Individual poems have won the Newcastle Poetry Prize, The Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize, the Max Harris Award, and the Australian Sports Poetry Award. He calls Bondi Beach his second home. He was once a Beach Inspector there and is a Long Service member and former captain of Bondi Surf Club.

Maryjane Leahy has been playing classical guitar for more than 30 years and has been a composer for 15 of those years. Her current focus in composition is music for contemporary guitar. She is also pursuing her life journey through music in a Masters degree in Composition, looking at incorporating Indian rhythms into Western orchestral music. All of Mary-Jane's guitar pieces are a reflection of her personal experience and each has been written for someone who, at the time, had a great impact on both the direction and meaning of her life journey. Her recent collaboration with Dominic Wy Kanak has taught her a great deal about the relationships between white and Indigenous Australians.

Les Wicks’ 8th book of poetry is The Ambrosiacs (Island, 2009). Wicks has been a guest at most of Australia's literary festivals, toured widely and been published in over 200 newspapers, anthologies and magazines across 12 countries in 7  languages. He runs Meuse press, which focuses on poetry outreach projects, the latest being “Guide to Sydney Beaches”.  Les was a westie kid with family in Bondi. His main ambition in life was to live over east which he has managed to do for about 35 years.

Enquiries: 02 9580 4542

Monday, September 14, 2009


Received my copy of Issue One of the new Perth literary quarterly, dotdotdash, today and I felt a charge of energy waft out as I opened the envelope. Inside was a heart-felt letter from the editor, SJ Finch, and one of the sleekest looking literary publications I have thumbed through since Ireland's The Stinging Fly. In fact, if I had to bundle this 10-pound baby, I would call it half-Stinging Fly, half-Eddie Magazine of mid-90's Newtown, as the graphics are both shopping-list intimate and arresting as an ANZAC day plinth. And as you would expect of an issue entitled "Quicksand", there is poignancy and pathos running all the way through this issue, and not a little of that Gilliganesque slapstick as the truth is slowly dawning......SKIPPER! SKIPPER!

It may not have saved the SS Minnow, but it just may save you! Click on the post heading for subscription/submission/stocking enquiries.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


Reading Anna Goldsworthy's article about the Australian National Academy of Music got me thinking about a great many things, but mostly about scale. It is a beautifully written article that launches itself from something of a default position in matters of Australian excellence  (ie that elite sportsmen are champions whereas elite artists are snobs), toward a stratospheric overview of the heights being scaled in that beleaguered institution I will  henceforth refer to as ANAM. We are a strangely Cartesian country in that regard, both body and mind striving for identity, and all in the great epoch of monumentalism where the deliberate project on all sides of politics has been to dwarf the human, as though if only power could purge itself of the human element it would run as cleanly and smoothly as that famous Pythonesque hospital without any of those mortally sick people in it.

Anna Goldsworthy should write more. I know she is a great musician, but rarely do musicians of any stamp write with such precision in the medium of the tongue laid flat.

Last year, when Peter Garrett announced the withdrawal of funding from the Australian National Academy of Music, he must have been startled by the response.

The usual flat-line tone all editors ask of their novices these days. And so I imagined myself wading through another plaint from the top end of town that is the performing arts in Sydney. Until...

He constructed an arc in loose parallel to Bach's variations, generated by texture and density rather than harmonic progression. His variations were not only polyphonic but hour after he sat down, the Town Hall clock chimed eight; he wove these tones into the texture of his improvisation.....

To a sunny exile of the East European defiles of Sydney's Castlecrag, this sings like a scrap of Zbigniew Herbert who witnessed mind and body colliding in a way I never. In other words, tender and thoughtful and unadorned.  

Peter Garrett, for those readers north of the line, is the Australian Federal Minister of the Arts, and the erstwhile lead-singer of the iconic rock band Midnight Oil. He otherwise fits the Westminster bill perfectly in being both bald, middle-aged and proud owner of a law degree. He is also passionate and intelligent and perhaps a little too scrupulous for Australian politics at the highest level. Anyway, as singer of Midnight Oil through that fecund post-punk era from 1978 to 1984 he could not put a foot wrong. As left-wing anti-nuclear activist from 1984 to 1989 ditto. But perhaps like the veterans of all wars, a piece of him misses the action.

I went looking for a war
and the only guns I saw
were never used in anger
- "Armistice Day" Midnight Oil 
The point about Pete Garrett and Midnight Oil, though, was that they somehow managed to bridge that divide between the body and the mind in the Australian polis at the time. Everywhere, from student digs to mechanic's workshop, echoed with the dissonant, rhythmic, strangely polyphonic eloquence of Midnight Oil throughout most of the 1980's. In hindsight, the only anomaly is the stretch it took for Garrett to, well, stretch his arms wide at the ballot box. His Christian proclivities aside, I will state my bias here as an older X-er with an enduring love for the man. I was not alone in finding his announcement regarding the withdrawal of funding from the ANAM a little more than confounding.

Giants are writ large in Occidental Culture, as is perhaps befitting the hemisphere where things are pressed tall only to topple into the dread sea of long memory and the dying sun of the Portugese.

Only giants could have moved such stones, amassed such armies, mustered such goodwill amongst the myriad and single-minded.

Only giants beyond our reckoning now could have mustered the courage to establish the institutions that maintain us. For those who can't live with them, the digital age allows you to live beside them. Not quite body, not quite mind, but a memory none the less.

Anna Goldsworthy brought me away from Ezra Pound's giant-killing, in-human couplets

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

- Ezra Pound "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley"

John Cage playing his toy piano snatched a few startled sounds from the last sparrows of WWII. That was not his intention, for he was thinking always with his audience, a war before. We, on the other hand, though still trapped on the same old roller-coaster, seem to have opted for the perennial winter of discontent....

Late the following night.... A small audience had gathered in the darkness to hear Ross Bolleter, co-founder of the World Association of Ruined Piano Studies. "The piano was a great agent of social cohesion.....(it) was home and brought home with it." Were we celebrating or mourning the piano's demise? Was this a wake? Why was it so beautiful? "When a piano was sold or dispensed with, it was proof of imminent ruin and disgrace."

Monday, September 07, 2009

New Work by Wayne H. W Wolfson

Black Swans and Stars

After all these years, there is still a sort of defeat in winning. I had to go into exile, I kept bumping my head on the roof of the city. Everyone else preferred to stay small and could not understand my complaining.
Exile, I won and now I was spending time with her. My punishment? Or maybe I just thought too highly of myself. I did not want to repeat the same old patterns and so kept my circle of friends small.
Enza was always around and sort of fell into my orbit by default. She had two small black swans tattooed on the back of her neck, heads bent as if supporting hers.
At first I thought she had been pulling my leg about never reading. She often had no idea what I was talking about but liked listening to the sound of my voice.
We fucked but usually as an almost after thought to the night. We found plenty of other things to argue about.

"Triple X Theater" (ink&paper)

I had just met my deadline, editor happy, I now had the illusion of freedom.
Enza had a new scarf which she was anxious to dirty up. We went out.
The drinks were the prize, winners, losers; the only difference was who had gotten caught.
She tells me about her day, none of that matters.
I am talking to me again through her, a two drink chorus. Now she is just letting me talk. No matter how clear my thoughts, I can not get the stars to reflect off of my fingers.
She has to run off for a moment, probably to score. The waiter with sleepy eyes which people mistake for wisdom watches her go.
Under the awning the heater is snapped on, Votives are lit. I have won and now have nowhere to go. It is not for Enza, I sit at my table and wait. It is for yesterday but a specific one, a far older one than that which carried me empty handed, into today.
My fingertips read the table as of brail. Eyes now wander down, the surface, stars, lattice holes which allow me to see my shoes, their hunger, starving.
I could have another drink. I do not wait, for anything. That first kiss, music of our youth, twirling her on the dance floor, red dress blossoming out with the undulating current of her motion, that first kiss with her, ours.
Believe me, it isn’t coming around anymore. I have forsaken or forgotten it all anyways. How could I not, knowing it would be I who broke that fragile shroud of memory.
Enza comes back smelling of smoke. Her pupils are two large, black pools which when seen from certain angles reflect the stars.

"Le Millionaire" (pastel&paper)

- Wayne H. W Wolfson 2009
Click on the post heading for artist's web page.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Calling all Poets

Once again I am fresh out of rants, doubtless to the relief of many of those whose air of entitlement is only outdone by their vapidness. I will be reviewing Dot Porter's parting shot next week, so start curling your toes, oh milk-faced ones. In the meantime I am CALLING ALL POETS.

Just click on the SUBMIT tag at the foot of this post (I am still not getting a sidebar!!) and submit anything up to five poems, a 1000 word comment or review in the body of the email. NO ATTACHMENTS PLEASE. I have a very good turnover time, and that applies to most things I do. Just ask my bevy of exes.... The worse you will get is silence, as I won't comment on subs unless I can see some way of working with the author to make them more suitable for posting under the Bluepepper. There are no payments and thus no guidelines.