Where Only the Sky had Hung before
Vagabond Press, $25
Axis Book 2
Vagabond Press, $25
(IMAGE YET TO COME)
Poetry is a tricky business. In comparison to novels, the print runs are small and the margins tiny. Especially so for experimental poetry. Like freestyle jazz, it’s just not everyone’s cup of tea. But three recent releases from Vagabond Press prove Australian experimental poetry is managing to push boundaries while still finding a home – among independent publishing houses, at least.
Music Made Visible is poet Jessica L. Wilkinson’s third verse biography. This collection explores the life and work of Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine, the man who co-founded the New York City Ballet and widely regarded as one of the most important choreographers of the 20th century.
Wilkinson highlights the messiness of life and language, herding entire stanzas into boxes or, at other times, mirroring the shape of a dancer’s pirouette. Her skill as a scholar shines given she manages to explore Balanchine’s well-documented life from fresh angles. The interior world meets the external thanks to snippets of thoughts, observations, conversations and music.
Music Made Visible opens with Balanchine’s childhood among “pine and white birches”. The northern European pastime of mushroom-picking becomes a formative ritual: “how one might observe the gills, the skirt, the stems, the smell”. In later sections, we are teleported to the United States, where Balanchine served as the artistic director of America’s most prestigious ballet school until his death in 1983. The meditative European setting is replaced by the chaos of New York and the punishments dancers inflict on their bodies. In the poem The Four Temperaments, the reader almost feels out of breath: “Bodies stack up and swarm like barricades, / stabbing the floor stretched to the limit.”
The poems in this collection are set to Bachine’s choreography as it develops over time and are often accompanied by notes on music, scenery and costumes. There is also a helpful guide to some of the dancers, musicians and philanthropists who interacted with Balanchine at the end of the book –helpful to anyone interested in learning more about the famous choreographer (within the verse biography itself, many of those in Balanchine’s circles are mentioned by a first name or nickname).
Music Made Visible begins and ends with a performance – a satisfying conclusion for a collection that emphasises the relationship between words and dance, linear and non-linear time.
Another recent title from Vagabond Press is Toby Fitch’s Where Only the Sky had Hung Before. What’s exciting about Fitch’s work is the way he makes art collide with humorous snippets from the internet and everyday life. It’s a textual rollercoaster that highlights how poetry can be hilarious and yet deadly serious at the same time.
Sapphic Birds, for instance, is a supercut of all the references to birds in Australian poet Gig Ryan’s work: “Another day to quail … funeral birds break the sky’s white / mortar.” Similarly, a piece later on in the collection resurrects some of the lines cut from the final version of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Waste Land.
Other poems, such as Fractoidal, list quirky facts from the internet, while Life Creep consists of three stanzas lifted from text messages and app notifications: “Everyday is abs day when you’re a snake.”
The fun, dazzling nature of Fitch’s work is balanced with several black pages with sparse, white text. These free-form poems can be read horizontally or vertically and act to separate the book into easy-to-digest chunks. An inventive way to dispense with the formal sections often employed by poets with a more lyrical bent.
The third Vagabond collection, AXIS Book 2, is the most likely to intimidate readers unfamiliar with experimental poetry. The book is the second instalment of A.J. Carruthers’ lifelong epic poem and was written on an ACER Aspire S 13 computer.
How does one read some of these poems when there is so little imagery to hold onto? Are the pieces meant to be read horizontally, or vertically? But then there are gems: “In modern trappings of existence it is so easy to forget that you live on a planet.”
As a reader, there is discomfort in having to work so hard to string together a poem’s meaning. But that, no doubt, was the point all along. And it’s oddly freeing.
Broede Carmody is a culture reporter at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald