reading revival: a poetry book blog

reading revival is devoted to promoting australian poetry books and related discussion through reading one book - firstly, duty by geraldine mckenzie. i will choose a new book roughly every 3 months

Monday, March 20, 2006

here's my review of 'duty' as it appeared in famous reporter. this is one of my early attempts at trying to write a review, getting past my even earlier attempts of responses. reading it now, im surprised by the energy of it; my thoughts now are different (not that i disagree with what i said before). the reason for the title 'Mrs Robinson & A ??' is that it appeared following my poem 'mrs robinson and a mango' (ode ode p 42). It gave me a starting point.

Mrs Robinson & A ?? (Duty, Geraldine McKenzie, Paper Bark Press, 2001)

What do the question marks represent? A hand grenade? A light bulb? What does the culture want from women? – from poets? Two seconds of Peter Costello yelling in parliament and I’m ready for matriarchy. I don’t want to give the wrong impression: Duty’s not a tract – merely a brilliant piece of work.

It’s easy for poets – and other agnostics – to feel unnecessary: that is the impression I want to give – that of necessity: not hectoring or refutation – though a negation – but art.

The sculptor Lawrence Weiner says the role of art is to present reality so that – rather than be metaphorical itself – the reader of art can make their own metaphors of the relationship between themselves and life. He quotes a child saying the word ‘apple’ is written inside an apple. He tells a group of teenagers interested in graffiti that it’s not enough to say ‘Me Jose’: say rather ‘the sky is blue’ or ‘my children are hungry’.



these are strangers
with their awkward gaze claiming
kinship like an egg
teetering in rough

you signal



item: one pr. womens shoes
item: one pr. workboots
item: one pr. mens shoes
item: one pr. womens shoes (evening)
item: one pr. childrens shoes



I don’t think poetry
can save us

(‘the honey pit’)

I’m hungry for the avant garde, and for forms which are assured but don’t rest. Mrs Robinson had two outlets: an affair with a graduate, and the repression of her family. Geraldine McKenzie’s putting her money on poetry, and relatively speaking, it’s a good bet.

It’s no joke. I’m reader enough to notice ‘??’ parody the female form. And parody questioning itself. Hell, I want freedom too, and if I can raise the subjects of misogyny – or sexism if you prefer – and Order, then I will.

I don’t remember getting excited over ‘Adenfrorde – fragments’ when it appeared in Calyx 30 Contemporary Australian Poets (Paper Bark Press, 2000). Was I brain dead? Maybe just not ready...


here’s where the forest
lays down its arms & sings
for bread


are you familiar
with this—


a green horse
prised from meticulous
forest its slow canter
into cloud traces of this morning’s milk
star breathy over
the ridges
(‘Adenfrorde – fragments’)

What colour is your sky?

‘3. The lighthouse is no longer orange.
35. A sentence with teeth and a digestive system.
A sentence with all organs intact. Go on.
54. I’ll eat this mango slowly.’
(‘After Ritsos’)

‘O throw me an orange anyone’ (‘counting coup’)

McKenzie eats fruit like anyone, and won’t be reduced.

‘a sentence like a threshing machine
a sentence like the cigarette smoked absent-mindedly
over the body’ (‘a bit of fun’)

Like any reader of Gertrude Stein, avant garde heroine and world war veteran, McKenzie cares about sentences. If not ourselves, for poems are that, they are closely related.

‘4. We observed the insects carefully and one was aware of
the ferocity of their existence.

5. After I saw the shocking cannibalism that always
terminated the relationship of male and female insects,
one never knew whether to be awed or simply
8. He bows his neck and raised his thorax.


death jump
oh jesus’ (“text/book/work...”)

It’s the cunning ending – and she achieves this over and over – that performs the feat of balance: not resolution or neutralisation, but ayurvedic satisfaction: salt, sour, sweet, bitter, astringent.


begin with hazel gathering to itself a clean landscape

the birds will sing us out’ (‘The Five Simplicities’)

It’s not possible to convey the range of forms packed into Duty, though the titles might give some indication: ‘ ”listen that is hear...” ‘, ‘the next dance—,’ ‘The Beloved: A Miscellany,’ ‘I-V,’ ‘Iconoclasty,’ ‘ “No.8” ‘; ‘this doesn’t have a name’:

‘lived experience. someone knows what this means.... THESE FIGURES HAVE BEEN RACIALLY ADJUSTED.’;

‘Full bore’:

‘Absence of daffodils. Colour as what we believe.’

Feel better? The world hasn’t changed, but maybe yours has.


At 5:41 PM, Blogger michaelf said...

what occurs to me now, re-reading duty some years on, is the control and intelligence, the variety of the poems, the beautiful design. mckenzie seems as good, as sophisticated to me as anyone writing poetry in australia now, and more consistent than most. why doesn't she have a higher profile? there are some obvious reasons; few poets have any sort of profile in australia; also, mckenzie doesn't read often, nor has she published much since duty. should this matter? obviously, promotion helps to reach readers ... but i wonder why word-of-mouth hasn't had more effect? is it because it's considered unwise to talk too much about a first book? or because, reviews aside, there are only certain kinds of sophistication, welcomed or understood? mckenzie has entered into the belated era of post-language writing, where anything that seems a bit difficult may be labelled language poetry (emphasis on the first word of the term). i cant help thinking that what gets dismissed as language poetry is often not as difficult as wallace stevens, nor as experimental as ee cummings. it all depends on what you read; duty to me seems just good poetry, and despite her awareness of northern american developments, has also incorporated much of european tradition into her poetic. it's small comfort to reflect that its often clear a critic has read less of language poetry for example than the writer being criticised. id be curious to know who mckenzie thinks would be good preparation for reading her own work. the back cover blurbs (listed on paper bark website) by dorothy hewett and charles bernstein indicate that her work is appreciated across a wide range of readers ...

At 6:25 PM, Blogger michaelf said...

i received this via email from peter boyle; he okayed me posting it ..

Dear Michael

many thanks for this. I just checked out your blog and very much enjoyed it
- especially the Geraldine McKenzie poem which like you I'd kind of missed
in terms of recognising its power when reading Calyx. Over the weekend I
was rereading Celan - spurred by preparing a paper on Job for a Melbourne
Conference - and getting into new layers of power, insights that blossom,
break out in his poems - and Geraldine's poem resonates with a real kinship - also quite agree with your comments on how to find any kind of real
readership - have to remind myself of the story of the Greek poet - Ritsos?
Seferis? - who was talkimg to Henry Miller and said "If one has one reader
one is not yet a poet, if one has two readers, one is not yet a poet, but if one has three readers ..." and the comment is something like that from his
look three readers was as powerful as the whole world. But seriously it is
also a drain to feel that books go out into a void, that one's writing is for an audience of 25 - and the feeling that if Rilke came back from the dead and
gave a reading at Sydney Uni on a rainy night he's be lucky to find 30 listeners. The reward of writing poetry, the freedom to speak truth and go deep in ways that satisfy on all sorts of levels; the price, being ignored by media and marginalised . . Still I felt very pleased for Oz Poetry with the organising of a tour for Bob Adamson - some more than well deserved
recognition from within the US for a great poet.


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