Carmen Leigh Keates: Meteorites

Geelong: Whitmore Press, 2016, 49pp.

I have to begin this review with a declaration of interest. Most of the poems in this book I have seen in earlier incarnations when I myself was in an earlier incarnation as an academic and Carmen Keates was a doctoral student for whom I shared responsibilities with Bronwyn Lea. I don’t think I have had an intimate, editorial relationship like that with any of the other poems which have turned up during the ten years of this site’s existence. I realise that I might be accused of having a sort of foster-parent’s fond regard for these poems but, as someone said, there are two kinds of hometown referees: those who shamelessly favour the home side and those who treat its players harshly out of fear that they might seem to be playing favourites. I like to think that I belong to the second group. At any rate, many of these poems are pared down and so much improved from the early versions that I saw as to be almost unrecognizable.

Having said that, I also want to say that this is a really striking first book announcing an important talent with the ability to engage with issues and perspectives far from the habitual ambits of most readers. It’s something we always look for in poetry: a sign of a unique voice which we hope is good enough to engage us and take us with it on a journey we might otherwise never have made. And the journey of the poems of Meteorites is a complex one touching base with the films of Tarkovsky, Bergman and Kurosawa, dreams, family history and travels in Scandinavia. And the mode of journeying is distinctive: these poems do not operate by smooth, lyrical graces but rather by sudden juxtapositions and detours.

Two examples will demonstrate this nicely. The book’s third poem, “Gålrum Gravfält”, is based on the author’s surprise discovery of one of the great Bronze Age sites on the Swedish Baltic island of Gotland. We know from other poems that Keates is riding a bicycle on a longish journey from Ljugarn to Nãrsholmen in order to visit the site where Tarkovsky’s last film, The Sacrifice, was shot in 1986. (To the north of Gotland is Bergman’s island, Fårö, where, three years after Keates’s bicycle ride, the annual Bergman Week festival would celebrate the film’s thirtieth anniversary):

. . . . . 
                                     Today I bike for six hours
in an upright sickbed inside a fever-dream
where a Baltic Sea island creates a road to move me
in an unwitnessed procession past actual milestones.

I’m on my way to somewhere else but pull in
where I see a sign saying something here is historical . . . 

In other words we meet the “seven boat-shaped graves” – one of which has a “motherly juniper over it” – as a distraction on what is really a pilgrimage, usually the most end-focussed of journeys. And the pilgrimage itself is undertaken in a mildly bathetic way, riding a humble bicycle while “incredibly ill” from a long flight. All of this makes the sudden appearance of the graves of the site not so much a distraction, a turning at right angles to one’s road to explore another world, but rather a kind of ambush staged by another reality. And, as I’ve said, this is mirrored in the structure of the poem itself since what might have been a solemn meditation on the unreachable minds of the Bronze Age builders of these stone boats is interrupted by an account of a story told in Helsinki by an art historian about his deaf grandfather.

In the book’s title poem, a long meditation on the great scenes towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker where the three protagonists are in The Zone, there is a similarly shocking irruption derived from an anthology of Eskimo poems edited by Tom Lowenstein:

The Eskimo Uvavnuk
has a poem in which she tells
how she was hit by a meteorite
and as a result was made a shaman.

Uvavnuk waves her arms towards
the bad fortune and spirits, crying,
Away with it! Away with it!
We should all try this in our homes . . .

I don’t want to be seen as hammering a simple point but this is a poetry whose structure and methods of development and movement follow one of its central themes: the irruption of other worlds, other ways of perceiving, other “levels” of reality into a life. The journeys of this book are never likely to be merely the movement from one country to another or one culture to another.

As we might expect, gateways (“portals” in contemporary argot) are going to bear a lot of examination. In “On the Border Between the Parishes of Garda and Lau” (a poem, incidentally, which alternates between scenes set in an art gallery in Brisbane and scenes on Gotland at a site near Gålrum) we follow a pathway which is both into a forest and back in time into the Bronze Age. Although gateways can be crossable in both directions, in this one “Hoof prints go in- / to the forest, yet none come back out” and the forest has an absorptive quality, sucking even sound out of reality. This is a feature of the most potent “portal” in the book, the well that Writer sits on the lip of at the end of Stalker in “Meteorites”. As the poem describes it, the scene begins with Writer being resurrected, rising from “a death pose”, though the interest is really in the way he has been “elsewhere”:

. . . 
This place has killed him first
then released him and for a moment
he has been elsewhere –

like the owl that disappears
in that jump-cut
on those low, indoor horizons
over artificial dunes
of soft and dangerous dust . . .

Just as The Zone in Stalker is capable of making life (and owls) disappear, so it is also capable of rendering a well bottomless by making a stone thrown into it go “elsewhere” at a stage of its descent. The well is thus “a mouth that does not speak / but only swallows, / like outer space” – a more intense version of the forest that exists in the liminal space between the two Gotland parishes.

Although “Meteorites” finishes by pointing out that we always say that Earth was struck by meteorites, never the other way around, there are cases here of two-way portals. In the book’s first poem, “At the Bergman Museum”, the author rides away from a storm building up over the Baltic:

The lightning is concerned with a secret
affair far off in the unlit Baltic.
Only the rain comes home.

Tracking down the road, my bicycle, my eye,
past the Viking huts with their weird antennae,
I am riding a lightning conductor away
from a museum about a recluse . . .

The poem wants to explore the allegorical possibilities of a fraught situation: perhaps the pursuing cloud is Bergman himself, haunting his admirers like an avenging angel. But the poem finishes by considering the possibility of a two-way interaction between inspiration and masterwork:

                         For if Ingmar’s films broke

into his dreams and, as he said, sat at the base
of his soul, maturing comfortably like mighty cheeses,
perhaps now he haunts the work right back . . .

The final image of the final poem of the book, a poem about Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, is, perhaps fittingly, about a gateway, in this case the strange gateway of memory whereby we can move into the past (when we remember) but the past can, often in dreams, move into our present. “Memory”, the poem says “is a demon that walks / like a soldier from a tunnel”. I think this image probably derives from the dream in Kurosawa’s Dreams in which a soldier is confronted by all his comrades killed in the war emerging from a sinister tunnel. Interestingly, the first one to emerge from the tunnel is a suicide dog, complete with explosives, a reminder of the dog in Nostalghia who in the previous poem, “Domenico’s Dog”, “stalks / the perimeter of Gorchakov’s sleep / as though there were a fence there he / finds a hole in”.

The dominant issue of the poems I have looked at so far is the way the various levels of reality and “foreign-ness” that we live within and which live within us can be activated and explored and, when we have no control over them, accommodated. The poetic problem – which I think Keates handles with great success – is how to keep such poems unified and coherent. But the poems of Meteorites have other interests too. “Cloud on Mount Wellington”, a poem about a much homelier totemic site than those of far-off Gotland, has a decided interest in the interrelationship between perspective and creativity. It juxtaposes a tourist’s trip up the mountain (with the bus driver/guide’s comments inserted in a dry demotic) with a dream about the elements of a novel seen from above; that is, seen from the physical position of a mountain top:

. . . . . 
Last year I dreamed I saw the plan
for some wunderkind’s novel laid out
on the floor of a warehouse. Chalk outlines
of different continents and Scandinavian coasts
were drawn on the bitumen. Regions demarcated.
Artefacts grouped on blue tarps.
Everything was meant to be

viewed from above. . .

The result (as I read it) is a description of what happens when an artwork “works”, when the bell, the forging of which occupies a very long stretch of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, actually rings:

This writer was revealing
something he knew to be right
but its elements had to first be
arranged properly, tended,
for it to manifest at all.

What he was preparing to reveal
would as much be disclosed to himself
as it would be shown to others . . .

There are a lot of complex things happening in the poem (the obsession with cloud and condensation, for example, which appears in many of the poems relating to the Tarkovsky films) and it would be oversimplifying to see this as a “poem-poem”, one engaging with its own method and the principles that lie behind the other poems of the book, but that is undoubtedly part of what it is doing.

Although reality and dream interact in “Cloud on Mt Wellington” it’s tempting to group it, in this book, as one of a series of domestic poems, a series which would include “One Broken Knife”, “Burning Train”, “I Bought My Father an Axe”, “I Remember Two Lines Upon Waking” and “Leaking Through”. Though the basic situations are far from those of Andrei Rublev or Nostalghia, the way the poems work and what they want to explore are not dissimilar. In “One Broken Knife” and “I Bought My Father an Axe” we are in the world of totemic objects, no less dangerous for having been (or being in the process of becoming) domesticated. And the poems, though domesticated and having none of the glamour of Gorchakov’s Italy or Rublev’s Russia, have their own, rather wonderful weirdness. In the second of them, the poet, having got her gift home, puts it on the kitchen table:

. . . . . 
I put a bow on it. My axe. I tried to introduce myself more,
just until I handed it on. I had this feeling it wouldn’t come when called,
somehow, not just yet. No trust. I wondered, Is any axe new? . . .

It’s strange, distinctive and as far from cliché as it is possible to be.

“Burning Train” and “I Remember Two Lines Upon Waking” are dream poems, the former an especially powerful vision of passengers inside a passing train who barely register that it is on fire. But this dream is interspersed with memories from childhood and, especially, with the misunderstandings of childhood that create yet another reality:

. . . . . 
As a child I remember Dad calling
the electricity company to report
that on the pole outside our house
the transformer was humming.

To me at four, these words meant war
was coming, and I packed
my baby doll’s clothes in a suitcase
and waited in that living room
to hear the tanks come down the road,
cracking our bitumen . . .

And “Leaking Through” recounts hearing (perhaps at the edge of sleep) a woman’s shout and deciding that it belongs to another world which is “leaking through” – not all interactions between worlds need to involve wide open portals that can be crossed in either direction.

Of course, separating the poems of this book into those about Gotland, those about family and those about film obscures the fact that their interests and methods are remarkably similar. There are two newer poems though, “The Bandit Without Mifune” and “Smoke Talk” (the former alluding to Kurosawa’s Rashomon and the latter to Bergman’s Persona) that seem more like poetic meditations in that they don’t have the startling juxtapositions and alterations to a different mode of reality that the other, earlier poems have. Whether this heralds a new method is something that only a second book will reveal, but for the moment it’s enough that we should content ourselves with the remarkable poems of this remarkable book.

Eileen Chong: Burning Rice; Mathew Abbott: Wild Inaudible; Vanessa Page: Feeding Paper Tigers; Carmen Leigh Keates: One Broken Knife

Eileen Chong: Burning Rice (Little Lonsdale St, Vic.: Australian Poetry Ltd, 2012), 40pp.
Mathew Abbott: Wild Inaudible (Little Lonsdale St, Vic.: Australian Poetry Ltd, 2012), 39pp.
Vanessa Page: Feeding Paper Tigers (Brisbane New Poets III: np, [2012])
Carmen Leigh Keates: One Broken Knife (Brisbane New Poets III: np, [2012]).

Among all the new poets emerging at the moment I’ve chosen these four though I might have looked at others and, in fact, hope to do so in later reviews. Unfortunately the last two of this group are represented by “micro-collections” of only a few poems and thus resist any confident description but the same can’t be said of Eileen Chong and Mathew Abbott. The saddle-stitched books of Australian Poetry’s New Voices series look minuscule but they have the standard dimensions of, say, a Penguin paperback and run to thirty-five pages or so of poetry. They are, in other words, roughly two-thirds of a conventional volume and are thus quite long enough to get some kind of provisional sense of how the creative part of a poet’s mind is working. Among the four poets you can detect two fairly conventional poetic approaches and two that are, in some respects at least, unusual.

Eileen Chong’s book is “conventional” to the point where, on initial acquaintance, you are likely to miss its virtues. It does look, at first, as though a Creative Writing supervisor had said to a prospective student, “Look: you’ve had an interesting life with an interesting background that will be exotic to Australian readers. Why not write a series of family poems? And then you can fill out the MS with some monologue poems where you enter the characters of women in Chinese history. It can’t fail.” The great virtue and charm of this book is that its poems go far beyond these expectations and grow on the reader – well, this reader at least – with each successive reading. I’m not sure that I can specify with any exactitude why this is the case but it is worth the effort to try. To begin with, there is a level of certainty about both tone and technique: if they seem, initially, unadventurous poems then they are also fully-achieved. Secondly, they never give a sense of being exploitative, of focussing on the gap between the perspective of the writer and that of the Australian reader to the point where it can be used for effect – especially for melodramatic effects. So the poetic cast of mind seems calmly inward-turned and explorative rather than showily dramatic even though the poems have conventionally dramatic shapes. “My Hakka Grandmother”, celebrating a Chinese ethnicity noted for its migrations, its extraordinary domestic architecture, its separate language, and the comparative freedom of its women, can stand as an example of this poetry:

If time could unwind for you
yet be still for me, we would run
through the fields, feet unbound
and pummelling the ground towards

the earth-house. I read about it once:
its architecture unique to the Hakka people
in Fujian. Dwellings like wedding rings
stacked and interlinked. You would lead me

through the building's single gate
and show me where you slept, above
the communal granary. It would smell
of rice husks, like your dark hair

in the mornings before we'd braid it
long and sleek. I would speak
in your tongue, but we would not need
words. The lines on my palms mirror

yours almost perfectly. I wonder where
our bloodline begins. We are guest people
without land or name, moving south and south,
wild birds seeking a place to call home.

Thematically, like so many poems of Burning Rice, it focusses on links, especially generational links. This poem is, in those terms, mildly disruptive in that it wants to shortcircuit the generations and let the poet live alongside the grandmother as a coeval. The poem is strengthened and held taut by a subtext of images deriving from the idea of lines so that time is imagined unwinding, feet are unbound and identity is expressed in matching lines of the palm. This sets up a nice conclusion whereby it is lines of blood – bloodlines – which have put the poet where she is today, Sydney. Contrasted with this are the circular images: of the Hakka houses joined like rings and the symbolic braiding of hair.

All of this is predictable enough and doesn’t account for more than a well-made, thoughtful and successful modern lyric poem but somehow the poems of Burning Rice are a lot more than this. Asian sensitivities to family history and the loyalties and respect within the generations of those families is a familiar enough trope in twenty-first century Australian poetry (there is also Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s 2004 book, Against Certain Capture) for there to be no especial frisson of exotic otherness and so the answers must lie elsewhere. Perhaps it’s a matter of the tension between the calm of the poems and the blandness they would fall into if they were not as structurally animated and woven together as they are. Somehow they have to be perfectly achieved not to be faux-oriental banalities and they are perfect of their kind (though one might quibble at the last five words of “My Hakka Grandmother”). I’m not expressing this at all well but I’ll resort to the defence that it is a complex issue.

There are also poems in Burning Rice which are, in terms of lyrical tactics and disposition, more ambitious than the calm quatrains of these family poems. The book’s first poem – as though to demonstrate that there is more to the author than well-made Austral-S.E Asian poetic pieties – is a surrealist love poem influenced by Joseph Pintauro: “. . . . . You’ll simmer a cauldron / of silver stars and I, I will weave / you stories from gossamer / and dew. Wait now – the cat’s / coughed an elf. Wake now.” And there are a group of poems in the middle of the book which deal with great personal pain and which evolve their own complex strategies for doing this. The best of these is “Chinese Ginseng” which fools us into thinking that it is a “memories of Singaporean life” poem activated by the smell of the ginseng before revealing that it is really about the inadequacies of the poet’s mother’s traditional medical suggestions in the face of an acute problem:

"Try ginseng," my mother says. "Must be Chinese,
not Korean or American." I remember the ginseng's
bulbous head, its desiccated torso, smaller roots

for arms and legs - bound with red string to cardboard backing,
displayed in boxes stacked for sale. Panacea, tonic, necessity.
The medicine man extols the virtues of each unique root,

then shaves the ginseng into slices so thin
I could melt them on my tongue. He weighs them
on a brass scale pinched between forefinger and thumb,

then wraps portions into paper packages. There is no point
in telling my mother what she doesn't want to hear: polycystic ovaries,
endometriosis, infertility. Instead, I just listen - I can almost taste

her soup: sweet dates and wolfberries, smoky angelica and lilybulb,
but above all, the unmistakable bitter-sweetness of Chinese ginseng.

That’s a sophisticated poem because its structure is evolved to deal with a personal issue whose pain is increased by the emphasis, in the other poems, on family links. Finally there is the second last poem of the book, “Lunch”, which adopts what one would think of (I’m on shaky and potentially ethnic-essentialist grounds here) as a very un-South-East Asian referential structure. The poet and friend go shopping after lunch:

. . . . .
Your basket is half-full. We are mirrored
in the glass-walled fridges when I tell you
about the time a man tried to pick me up

by telling me how much he liked
the way I shopped. "Like an animal,"
he'd breathed, "smelling and touching."
Put that in a poem, you said. I have.

I’m always attracted to this kind of elegant self-referentiality which I think (although I’m not at all sure about this) occurs first in Western poetry in the wonderful Catullus VI. One problem is that, having used this structure, you really can’t repeat it.


Mathew Abbott’s poetry is a different phenomenon and poses entirely different questions for the reader. Even at its most concretely visual – in a set of comparatively approachable poems devoted to the western states of the USA – you want to say that it remains highly abstract. But “abstract” is a dangerous word with many subtle colourings and one wouldn’t want to give the wrong idea. “California” is different to conventional poems of place because it doesn’t seem to separate its interests (what the place is and “means”) from its conception. It certainly isn’t one of those poems that begins with some poetically concrete description and then moves onto understandings in the back half of the poem. It seems to be a poem trying to embody, rather than stand outside of, the Romantic question of the relationship between observer and observed:

the field out there
is that expanse

hazed in glary
tired light

       the field
       gone to yellow
       at the endings

birds are out in it
and too much with us

the passing of our train
indistinct to them

              they know
      in the upwash
              finding shapes
                        to split the flow fields

the towns
have the sense
of being paraded

        the life in them
        stripped back
        to glint

               the turbines

        turn the head

        hum the skull
        to juice the mind

     the field out there
     meets the field of the mind

at the horizontal

      the faked water
      of the heat
      the turbines cut

Here is a poem about the American state which is simultaneously the home of the “field theory” of postwar American poetry and the home of popular visual culture and an actual, non-metaphorical field is seen as a set of flickering images from the inside of a train carriage – as though the characters of a film were animated into observers. Although the idiom is difficult and its fractured quality foregoes the relaxed rhetorical sweep of philosophic meditation, it certainly has to be counted, at the very least, as an example of organic form!

Two poems of Wild Inaudible, perhaps the next most approachable after these “travel” poems, are list poems: “Twelve Surfaces” and “Ten Maladies”. Again, there is nothing new in this structure – it recalls Stevens, a poet who atttracts and explores the word “abstract” – but it is always an intriguing one. The individual examples cluster around the theme and lead us to wonder how exhaustive the catalogue is, whether they point towards a definition of the central term, what is the principle of ordering, and so on. The twelve surfaces of the former poem are: word, shrill, copper, bribery, kubrick, god, comedic, bad, gnomic, bug, doggy, and surface. There is no doubt about its reasons for beginning with the first, a call to reading, “look at this / word surface // gets you to look / at this word here” or for concluding with the last “surface surface is / all the way down surface”, which recalls the famous William James story and has its inevitable paradox, but I can’t proffer any reasons for the selection and ordering of the others: it might be thematic or aesthetic (in that it responds to internal juxtapositions which seem to “work well”) or it might be deliberately aleatory. At any event, it’s an engaging poem.

Other poems seem to focus on physicality, the status of our corporeal existence in the world. “Attenborough” concludes by speaking of the “wonky natural 2 / -step of the animal / human heart” while “Wetware” uses (I think) the physical situation of being caught in very heavy rain to play against the idea of the body as “wet”-ware (as opposed to “soft- ” or “hard-“). It is hard not to connect this with a later poem, “Rain”, which seems to be a meditation built around the linguistic phenomenon of our use of an impersonal verb (“it rains”) in this situation and to ask the question of what this “it” actually is, suggesting that it is, perhaps, the “rain” of events and experiences. At the same time, to read it in conjunction with “Wetware” is to invite the idea that it connects to our physical selves.

These rather ropey readings get even more provisional when Abbott takes as his subject liminal states of awareness. These seem often connected with poems about love and relationships so that the fine first poem, “Good Morning” is simultaneously about being next to a state of awakening and being next to the loved-one: 

 there's a plateau in the night
                  learnable in surfacing

          to wake is this one thing
          the arrival is peripheral

as i turn up
you move to speak

                   asleep to it
. . . . .

And the book’s final poem, “Cusp”, is, well, about cusps and rather beautifully and richly lyrically connects the loved-one with a liminal state that – though I can’t follow the philosophy of it exactly – is a highly significant one in terms of imaginative expressiveness:

i wake to the good
of the small of your back

                    heat at the skin's hand

          your breath
          is the fall
          of sleep in you

grace of arms
               and rift at heart

points of fact
               abstracting the line

the cusp of the world
curves at the touch of you

That is a very fine poem, very beautiful in structure, very intriguing in its meanings and in no way related to any existing formula. Wild Inaudible is a really impressive debut collection and, if I have made it out to be “difficult” intellectually, I should also point to the grace and attractiveness of individual poems. The New Voices format seems almost too humble for something as good as this.


The same, rather shaky distinction between a poet who explores and exploits conventional structures and one who seems, from the outset, to be doing things in his or her own way is re-enacted in miniature with the two poets of  Brisbane New Voices III. Vanessa Page’s poems tend to focus on emotional states: the first, “Five fifty-three am” is about happiness, and its structure – a set of rhapsodic metaphors (“It’s the morning rubbing the last of a dream from its eyes / as day-broken birds open their throats to the light”) – mimics the way the state lends itself to imaginative celebration rather than, say, sceptical analysis. A more common state in these poems is loss and separation from the loved-one. This seems a state more easily connected to exploration and one really fine poem, “Chrysalid”, does this within the metaphor established in the title:

This day is made for breaking.

I lie awake inside the shell of sleep.
Outside my window, agapanthus
heads invite deconstruction

There are only incidental details left.

I inhabit shadows like silk-sheen
resting my fingertips on your detritus . . . . .

The poems of Carmen Leigh Keates have an eerily individual quality which derives not so much from their subject matter – though that is often disturbing enough – as from their disjunctions. Some times these disjunctions are stylistic: in “Leaking Through” it seems as though the the world of dream (at least I think it’s a dream) dominates and the disjunctions are a mimetic way of conveying the weird logic of dreams. In “Out There By the Airport” which “tells the story” of the experiences of a Salvadorean hospital cleaner there is a disorienting and very unusual juxtaposition of direct and indirect speech.  But the title poem uses this technique in the most radical way. It begins with a domestic enough set of comments about the use of knives which modulates to:

It is the twin of a knife
found in the grave
of someone you used to be
in the fourth century.

before beginning the next stanza, even more radically:

Radio feels mysterious.
You walk about
listening with your eyes . . . . .

Disjunctions and unexpected movements such as this between the domestic, the sinister, and the analytical, give these poems a tremendous internal drive. It is not a rhetoric but a very distinctive way of exploring the different levels on which we live – domestic world, dream world and intellectual world – and their collisions and interactions. It’s full of possibilites and one wants to see a lot more of it.