The poetic spirit of Rare Objects

The Violence of Waiting, Jennifer Maiden
Luminous Alias, Emma Lew
Maps, Cargo, Bella Li
Elegant, Ania Walwicz
Published by Vagabond Press as part of the Rare Objects series


The immense support that Vagabond has shown to new and established poets alike through their Rare Objects series is without competition, and with the series soon winding up at #100, it presents an impressive and elegant tribute to the poetic spirit rather than the publishing market, the poet and reader rather than the profit margin. These Rare Objects are limited in print run, beautifully typeset by Chris Edwards, each with a striking visual image on the cover – mostly by Kay Orchison – that works in harmony with the poet’s poems. It’s as if these image-squares are exquisite windows into each poet’s work. These books are not just rare objects, but valuable objects, destined for the hands of a future inveterate collector, or the inquisitive fingers of a poetry scholar in the rare books archive of the world’s most important libraries. Indeed, the mission statement of the ROs states that these limited edition, handmade objects ‘are made to disperse and disappear quickly within a floating community of readers’. I like this description – there’s some kind of resistance at work here, against ubiquity and commerce and online ease of viewing, as if these objects are paper spectres launched and released, and you have to be quick to catch one.

MaidenCover_grandeOn a deeper level, haunting, retrieving and gathering, are themes that subtly link these four new Rare Objects. In The Violence of Waiting, Jennifer Maiden continues to be haunted by historical and political figures who converse in pairs; here we revisit couplings that have appeared in Maiden’s previous works, and listen in on their imagined conversations: Hillary Clinton is consoled by Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa reassures Princess Diana, Kevin Rudd gains strength from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and fictional George Jeffreys discusses online reviews of his writing with his lover Clare (Collins), in a Pokies venue bombarded with media coverage of what is most likely political horseplay. Past and present, real and imaginary, dream and waking world collapse into one another as Maiden stages these exchanges upon poetic-narrative ‘Maps in the Mind’, as the final poem in the collection is titled.

These poems capture moments of vulnerability and doubt, and one of the pair of characters in each poem plays the role of comforter, ‘dispeller … of fears’. Indeed, three of the six poems conclude with the characters clasping one another: Eleanor clasps Hillary’s hand ‘and the prison/ calmed slowly back to sleep’s peaceful garden’; Mother Teresa and Diana ‘clung together for a long time, nodded/ to and fro until a revived Diana/ asked Teresa what she knew of elephants’ and Rudd’s hand ‘was small, soft, hyper/ in [Bonhoeffer’s] grasp’ and ‘[t]hey sat together, as/ cold clouds of Sydney locked around their sleep.’ There may be a link here to the title of the chapbook, ‘The Violence of Waiting’ – political inaction can have consequences as calamitous as action itself: Eleanor says to Hillary that ‘Franklin did some awful things/ with power… he just sat/ back and watched Pearl Harbour,’ and Bonhoeffer asks Rudd: ‘Have you become violent with waiting?’

But there is as much humour in Maiden’s depictions as there is pathos; the light-hearted provides a moment of clarity in the face of disturbing world affairs. This collection is quietly yet resolutely political, and leaves us considering our own strengths and vulnerabilities, and who we may imagine clinging to for guidance through tough decisions.

LewCover_grandeEmma Lew also gathers together the strange, the mysterious and the haunting in her Rare Object Luminous Alias, the first collection of poems to be published by Lew since her award-winning 2003 collection Anything the Landlord Touches. In the journal of experimental women’s writing called However (now HOW2), Lew once noted that she aimed, in her poems, to evoke an effect akin to something she herself experienced while viewing a painting in an art gallery of a long low building, by Ed Ruscha:

I remember being jolted out of my numb gaze when I noticed a small patch of flame and smoke over on the far right-hand side of the roof. This serene, unassuming building was actually on fire – the horror and absurdity of it! An instant of tremendous surprise and disorientation, at once disturbing and thrilling; a feeling of being violently reawoken that was delicious and compelling.

Whether or not Lew still stands by that statement, from the very title of ‘Luminous Alias’, she promises to deliver that effect. An alias always misleads, or leads us to assume one thing, while concealing another. And in the first poem of the collection, ‘Speculative Realms,’ Lew’s subject fools the reader with her lost bearings, only to unveil a more profound security and delight in the unknown. There is humour here too, to quote from that poem:

Chaos persists and leads to inner haunting,
spreading ruinously, as in dreams.

So I’ll go on suffering with a kind of relish
in the shadow of heroic virtues,
until my errors of allegiance are forgotten
or I fall into a brook one morning, very simple!

In the poem ‘Luminous Alias’ we are told: ‘Keep your eyes on the road, that’s a kind of kissing./ We’re bound for nowhere, it’s a beautiful place—.’ Perhaps the ‘luminous alias’ is akin to a poem – the light shines not from the fact of a given name or place, but from the more potent truth of a name and path that is self-chosen. Reading Lew’s collection is like feeling one’s way through dark rooms, where each collision with an object awakens memories of past encounters.

LiCover_grandeThis compelling disorientation can also be discovered in the Rare Object, and debut collection, of Bella Li. I’ve only recently come into contact with Bella Li’s work, but became an instant admirer of her adventures in experimental historiography. Maps, Cargo presents, as Li states, ‘a compendium of imagined and historical geographies, inhabited by explorers, ships, roads and rooms.’ The poet retrieves pieces of a historico-geographical puzzle that cannot be solved; instead the pieces are gathered to illuminate both an adventurous spirit, and a deep melancholy, at the heart of geographical, oceanic and self exploration. In many ways it is as if these prose poems also address a poet’s experience navigating the difficult terrain where the language of information collides with the language of art (to use terms from Cole Swenson, in her discussion of documentary poetry). This tension not only lays bare the gaps left in the wake of lost material, but reverberates with the energy of a Mallarméan void, with poet and reader standing on the precipice. Here’s a quote from ‘Marquette,’ which draws from the Journals of Father Jacques Marquette, a French missionary who was one of the first Europeans to explore and map the northern section of the Mississippi:

Marquette, on the 17th of June, “with a joy that I cannot Express.” We Entered the River. In the river, Marquette. Joliet. Following the bends and The Blessed Virgin Immaculate. From here the way is straight. From here the Mississippi winds southwest , drains into the gulf (he is certain, of this except         ). Traces a map: Lac des Illinois in the centre, the centre surrounded by            .

Li’s poems are also intensely visual, and it is as if the vision is held by moving and moveable moments of chaos. In ‘Three views of the Hindenburg, Ocean County,’ my favourite of the collection, we find: ‘Precisely a vision of the earth, trailing white cords; body a round kite. Clouds forming – this thing with its many voices…’ which becomes, from another perspective, ‘an eclipse and the black tower, frozen. Only later moving sideways, becoming – only later – a steel hurricane,’ which then becomes, from another view, a ‘stock photo.’ In ‘Drowning dream’, the subject moves up and down the floors of a house, observing the emerging damage of a flood, and the beautiful line: ‘I studied the ceiling for cracks through which the rain might bloom.’ Indeed, the prose poems of Maps, Cargo bloom like maps, like wrecked ships, cargo erupting – disasters so beautiful that we cannot look away.

WalwiczCover_grandeWhere Bella Li traverses external territories, led by mapped coordinates, Ania Walwicz turns inwards, gathering the unravelling threads of the unconscious and translating them to the page in her Rare Object, Elegant. This work follows the sustained dynamism of her book red roses (1992, UQP). That is, without punctuation or chapter breaks to pace reading, one proceeds breathless through the text and arrives at the ‘end’ somewhat exhausted. I say ‘end’ because this work does not so much end as it finishes a cycle, only to lead back to the beginning. The writing and reading of this work presents an almost Sisyphean feat. Indeed, Walwicz has contrasted situations of reading ease with situations of reading complexity, stating that her works aim for the latter, to goad the reader into a state of activity and heightened awareness.

Beneath this flouting of the conventions of grammar and syntax, however, the work explores complex social, cultural and personal issues as the little girl ‘I’ (a little Ania, perhaps?) moves through memory-scapes negotiating the feminine self across time – dressing up, dressing down, undressing, dressing-gown (!), this work confronts the made-up self and the self made-up:

this is the maker of the slip string words dress me then all up i am all done up the make the most elegant then hayday of the hayday in her last dress to make me i am the outline then the body disappears into a dress of dress into the creation then i am making all lacey in lacey dressing dressing and lovely to be made of the dressing and changing to be made of the shining

Surrealism, psychoanalysis and dream-works are among Walwicz’s many influences, as we note from the fluidity and stream-of-consciousness style of her writing. As she has said, ‘[i]t appears that I am producing this dismembered language, but in fact I am producing language which is actual and closer to the actual process of feeling and thinking. My motto is: notation and enactment of states of feeling/being.’ Walwicz describes this work as a ‘flight of language’ and a ‘theatre of my head’: it is a wild ride that will not let us escape.

Plaintive, luminous, exploratory, elegant; these four chapbooks gather together the voices, traces and mysterious spaces inhabiting and inhabited by inquisitive minds.


Taken from Jessica Wilkinson’s launch speech for these four works in Melbourne last week.

Jessica L Wilkinson

Jessica L Wilkinson’s latest book of poetry is Music Made Visible: A Biography of George Balanchine (Vagabond Press, 2019). She is the managing editor of Rabbit and an Associate Professor in Creative Writing at RMIT University.

More by Jessica L Wilkinson ›

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