It’s true that poets have a kind of pirate code, a feature of which is the ‘book swap’—a poet of any standing can approach you at any time asking to exchange their book for yours. It’s a tradition rarely spoken about within our circles but it’s one that you come to learn. Every offer must be accepted, no exchange of cash. It’s a fringe system of words and ideas.
Keri Glastonbury calls Australian poetry a ‘gift economy’ and the book swap attests to that. It’s a wink and a nod among fellow scramblers, a small trade of our finest loot. The gesture is an act of camaraderie and perhaps sometimes an act of truce. These titles sit on our shelves, a reminder of readings and encounters, but mostly of the egality of letters.
Your Looking Eyes by Emilie Collyer and The Wings of Angels: A Memoir of Madness by Sandy Jeffs are two books I’ve been reading thanks to this fine tradition. Both of them were sourced over warm conversation, so it’s been a pleasure to delve into their works.
Your Looking Eyes is a keepsake chapbook not only for its poetry, but for its illustrations and design. Working with artist Eiran Chapman, Collyer has produced a refined collection based upon her residency at C3 Contemporary Art Space. Poetry and illustrations can be tricky to weave together, but this is so thoughtfully planned that they complement each other without a fault. The poems are even printed in a purple font! There should be more poetry published in purple!
Collyer and I were recently on a panel at the Williamstown Literary Festival discussing ‘parenting and poetry’ but it’s her evocation of childhood that grabs me most. Like her I was a child of the 70s, a decade that seemed drenched in sunshine—was there any other decade so bright? She transports me back there while turning me around to consider the act of reminiscing at the same time. This from Frames of Childhood…
spread out on the carpet
collecting evidence of the time
before we started falling
this thing we called childhood
belongs to adults
Sandy Jeffs’ The Wings of Angels: A Memoir of Madness is completely different, being a remarkable articulation of Hell. Jeffs’ encounters with voices and angels is well known, but upon meeting her at the Eltham Courthouse reading I had forgotten about her wonderful appearance years ago on Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope. This book speaks as impressively as she did that night about her experience of schizophrenia. It’s bold and unflinching, a kind of violent hymn with a touch of her own black humour. The poem ‘The Agony begins/The Scream’ asks us to consider it a sonnet, though every one of its fourteen lines is:
Published by Spinifex press in 2004, this book represents Jeffs’ fifth collection of poetry and I feel so lucky to have come across it, and her. I can’t imagine living with a Cerberus, let alone one with the head of Barbie, Ken and Ronald McDonald who is gorging himself on his own junk food. It is truly memorable work and I will treasure it for the inscription she wrote: ‘To Nathan, enjoy the Angels!’
Continuing on with darkness, I’ve recently been exploring ancient woodcuts and symbols. I’ve been tracking down grotesques and hybrid creatures for a collection based around the Apocalypse. Originally I was using written texts for inspiration but I’ve found that visuals stir wilder thoughts, so I’m reading these pictures, gleaning lines from their nonsense and the dark imaginations of their artists. The works of Hieronymous Bosch led to the creatures of Arent Van Bolten, Fortunio Liceti, and a collection of 120 wood cut illustrations printed in 1565 titled The unbearable mask.
The idea of masks is also explored in Land Before Lines, a beautiful book of portraits by photographer Nicholas Walton-Healey. It presents over sixty poets from around Victoria along with a poem they each wrote about the experience of being tracked down, captured and shot, then published by a press called ‘Hunter’ Publishing—a delightful irony, don’t you think? So the book is a unique exploration of image and identity—what we parade and disguise in full view of the camera and in the light of the blank white page. This from the poem ‘Dysrhythmia’ by Josephine Rowe…
that the camera will somehow pin you
to the wrong self
(as though you have not, already
turned every delicate bit of skin
towards the page)
And on a concluding note, this calm, thoughtful reflection in ‘Photo Life’ by the wonderful Judith Rodgriguez…
I’m settling in to the longer life,
fragments of I
and his eye
circling in stellar winds
Nathan Curnow is a prize-winning poet, playwright and spoken word performer. He has published five books of poetry—get swapping!