Gather ye rosebuds while ye may —Robert Herrick, 1648
I have found it useful to begin reviews of poetry with a small excursus. So I start with a comment on Les Murray’s Poems the Size of Photographs which can be taken as a locus classicus (hot spot) for exploring a relationship between word and image. What can be on a page?
That pairing can be pushed hard in the digital age when pixel scanning can reduce image and text to bits and bytes. Pixels or bildpunkts drive the mind down to the smallest representational elements and (after my reference to Murray), both Tim Hurburgh and Marilyn Peck contain this crossover element in their poetry.
Both are concerned with word and image and both are representational artists who paint as well as write verse. Peck is a miniaturist in painting and more expansive in verse. Hurburgh is more expressionist-expansive in image but more micro and disciplined in verse. He looks for the architect’s line.
Both unintentionally challenge what I take to be an element of French “theory” that says “you cannot say what you can see”, suggesting a bifurcation in the brain and mind between vision and linguistics, and ultimately posits an arbitrary connection between word and thing. But conventions in language may simply be helpful and Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” is also a good joke.
Quadrant readers who want an excursus may net-search Magritte and his “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” image and text, and also Foucault’s extension of this into colour-word arbitrariness, such as painting in yellow the sentence “This is red” or including it as a yellow arrow pointing to what appears to be a red fire truck.
Readers might keep the word-image question alive when reading these poems and looking closely at the two books in which they are written.
Murray caught some of it in the net of Poems the Size of Photographs (2002), especially in his aphoristic “Everything except language knows the meaning of its existence”, and in the wonderfully enigmatic “The New Hieroglyphics”:
The effort is always to make the symbols obvious:
the bolt of electricity, winged stethoscope for flying doctor …
For red, betel spit lost out to the ace of diamonds
Black is the ace of spades …
Murray might have not intended it, but in some way he’s playing poker with Magritte and Foucault and has just played a winning hand.
Marilyn Peck is a notable miniaturist, and end notes tell the reader of a gallery celebration of her works as she turned ninety in 2022, marking more than fifty years of Australian and international awards and exhibitions. A net search leads to a wonderful space that exceeds the scope of this review. She also demonstrates the enrichment that age can bring and I recommend exploration of her images which, like Murray’s title, evoke what can be contained in a small, page-like space.
Peck’s poetry presumes the candour of age and the freedom to speak straight, even bluntly. Let’s all avoid the unnecessary subjunctive when the plain assertions of active speech are needed.
In “A Momentary Aberration”, Peck addresses an accident possible to many, colliding with an unseen glass door:
I’d slid down the glass door
After hitting my head with a thump on the glass
… I roared
For help from my beloved, because I couldn’t
The poem develops somewhat comically and resolves with a wisdom-saying to explain why she got off the ambulance trolley and declined hospital: “You can die in the hospital, and I am jolly / Nowhere near dead.” She was driven by the poetic impulse of the moment to write a note before forgetfulness took it away: “I’d written a poem in my / Head and wanted to write it down before / It was forgotten. I think I’ve bruised my bottom.” For that, it is worth keeping off the ambulance trolley.
Peck’s poetry is plain speech colloquial. Some, through general comfortableness in the lingua franca, uses the colloquial to sketch universally important themes. The local shines distinctively—as our world has a habit of doing and as good poets notice.
Peck has a bluntly honest poem about what older men and women might actually think of each other after long familiarity. She outlines it in “Metaphysical City”:
as they will, their wives say to me that I
would not want them now—with smirks
not to be denied. I never see them as wives
do; every day in their dotage. What irks
wives … when men chew, hawking
when they spit, farting when they chance
to bend. I can go on forever in my socking
it to them.
Just to be “gender inclusive”, Peck ends this verse with the self-referenced note about those old boys’ appraisal of her present state, “my muffin tops, bingo wings, my jaw line. / It’d be too far out now, in being Marilyn.”
This tension of difference between older women and older men is a wider human trope, as Jamie Grant also observed in “Small Boys” (2014):
Few adults—women in particular—
fail to be charmed
by the sweetness of two year old boys …
But boys turn into men,
… grow whiskers and smell sour.
It seems that women might still be held by the “small boy / who remains intact … still shy / and stubborn and difficult to resist.” Or perhaps not.
At home in the directly colloquial, Peck has pondered the value of painting and writing. All aspiring to either could ponder the poem “I Thought”—and enjoy it:
I thought of all the paintings framed
and stored inside my house …
I thought of costly entry fees I’ve paid
in competitions lost.
I thought of framing bills, freighting fees,
and accountant’s fees they’ve cost.
I thought of poetry I’ve written, badly,
on paper I have used.
At ninety, her triumph is there. One might endorse the mock Latin “nihil nisi carborundum”. As she says in “Teetering on the Edge”, “Back in the nineteen fifties we knew nothing / Beyond a few nuances of sinfulness.” Seventy years makes a difference but there’s an undertone of a lost Catholic world, found in time to be inadequate to the day. In “I Think of a Place”, it comes down to “Twelve Hail Mary’s for a pill!!!?”
Those who know Marilyn Peck’s paintings will want them and this book. Those who don’t know her will benefit from both. I refer the reader to Peck’s website and its extensive list of her publications. I mention The Girl in the River (2015) where twenty-nine of the thirty-one poems have prior publication; and also The Waste Land Suite (2004), which contains forty-eight miniatures in reproductions inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem. This may now best be accessed from the National Library of Australia.
Tim Hurburgh is a significant architect, and a painter, and claims copyright for the illustrations in Disruptions as well as the poems. Images need not be the lesser and are integral to the book.
Hurburgh sets out his poems architecturally. There is a kind of reduced space allocated to each and every element of every page. The book itself is a beautiful object and it is of such material quality that I have found myself holding and looking at it to see how its inner synergy works. I commend Hardie Grant and Ellison Fine Printers for their work and for all who controlled the entire production process. While the poems are about place and places, the book as material object commands consideration.
I want to lead into a note on two of the poems, “Shock” and “Horizon”, by describing this intentional aesthetic of space. On pages 26 and 27 we find a typical layout. On the left hand or poem-prior page there are four “thumbnail” images set below five lines of distinctive text-notes as comment, set in capital typeface. Far from intruding on the poems we are helped by “exploring the subconscious impact of living and working as an architect on Melbourne’s flat expanses having grown up among Hobart’s hills and mountains”.
Quadrant readers can at once recognise distaff themes explored in the collection Upper Heights and Lower Depths (see Quadrant, January-February 2023) where great energy is unleashed by the tension between Tasmania as place and other parts of the world. Though of course no Tasmanian is ever in awe of the mythical and omnipresent “mainland” in the way it’s hardwired into Tassie as “the other world”.
Tim’s journeying began up the Derwent River across from what has emerged as the chthonic MONA. He excelled and went to study architecture at Harvard and then ran practices in Melbourne before moving to Tasmania and the Highlands Ouse Community Access Centre which asked him to write. By the way, Ouse brings its original 129-mile “other river” in North Yorkshire into the picture—or at least its background. His work picks up the older, colonial-built themes, as it must. So much of colonial Australia was Britain re-imagined and gridded over the south land.
It’s best to quote a short poem in full and add a recommendation to obtain this book. It will suggest its own place of honour in your place. The poems and the book are very good indeed. Here is “Shock”:
so flat! A jolt!
On and on, relentless.
A sky lobby and suddenly,
there’s Yarrambat (and Montsalvat).
Always hills, hoisted every which way,
“round and round”, up and down,
houses higgle-dy piggle-dy
cheek by jowl, jostling for water views
(Tortured streets though.)
Peace of mind at last.
And from “Horizon”, I just note:
Down South, there is no horizon, ever present hills intrude.
… only …
[in] turning towards the sea
there is an awareness of infinity.
I commend all the images that help make this book and his acknowledgments, including this wisdom from Janet Upcher: “If the sense is not clear it will be non-sense”; his reference to Brian Sadgrove who “wrangled” the graphic design, and to help from Jack Taylor whose drive to simplicity and directness shaped it by “the more personal the more universal”. There is a poetics in that statement.
Perhaps I’m left with a sense of a Frank Lloyd Wright house looking for its Tasmanian equivalent and simultaneously finding life in older forms and places—which Tasmania still possesses.
Windfalls 2022: Random Collection of Poetry
by Marilyn Peck
Amazon, 2022, 148 pages, $13.76
Disruptions: Tasmania in Poetry: Reflections of an Architect
by Tim Hurburgh
Hardie Grant, 2022, 55 pages, $30
Ivan Head holds a PhD from Glasgow and lived in sight of Mount Wellington, Hobart, for four years. He reviews poetry regularly for Quadrant. Some more of his own poetry will appear in the magazine shortly