Download PDF Here Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Two Sept-October 2022.
Leaves in August: Or searching for them – Guest Editorial by Peter Ramm
A few weeks ago, during the term break, I spent a few days re-fencing the back corner of my yard. We had removed a row of Cyprus that have outgrown their welcome and had begun to loom over the house and neighbouring sheds. Behind the row was a broken-down farm fence, splintered with barbs, ramshackled with clumps of rusted chicken wire, and leaning further than a spirit level would care to measure. As a part of the task my wife and I had to dig out the old posts, cut out all the old fence, trim back the jasmine that had osmosed into its crooked lines, and breakup a footing of concrete the previous homeowner had laid. We were shocked that the owner, who we found out later had worked at the local cement works, had chosen to concrete in the star pickets along the row. It translated to hours of smashing cement with the sledgehammer. It felt like a war between what would break first, the cement or the joints in my fingers—thankfully it was the cement. But what we thought would be a two day job, turned into four. And in an ironic turn, a week later we adopted a little puppy into the house, and I had to again re-mesh the bottom third of the new fence with wire.
It brought me to thinking about the work of a poem. Those we sit down to write in an evening, and a week later remain unfinished. That’s my experience anyway. This year has been incredibly slow on the ‘writing’ front. A bit like the diet front, there have been starts, and inevitable stops, when my day job crept in like a vine in spring—into the pockets of time I thought I’d safely tucked away for writing.
Or when my young children’s feet scamper over the floorboards and pound the wooden steps up to my room—only to be outdone by the moans or cries in their voices: they need milk, a toy car fixed, their brother said something mean. And so, the poem sits and slants its intentions over a week, or two, or half a year. I wrote to a friend at the end of 2021, that it had taken me six months to finish the poem I had started in July—I’m still not sure if its any good. And yet, it’s important work we do no matter the time it takes.
I remember many years ago when I started writing that I’d read a remark by Mark Tredinnick that went something like, “a poem is a leaf that tells a tree.” I’ve wrestled with that notion for years. Initially, I didn’t like the image too well. What does a leaf tell a tree? It’s the tree that bore the leaf. Isn’t the tree telling us more? Is the leaf missing the big picture? Yet, I keep coming back to it. The more I’ve rolled it in my mind, the more truth there seems to be. I’d obviously missed the concept the first time, and although I think I perceived it shortly after the initial reading, it was that first miss that unsettled me. There’s always that chance with poetry. A line missed the first time—the reward of re-reading, of further analysis, and dwelling. Having been an avid Gardner for a few years, growing show dahlias, and landscaping my yard, I revisited the line again, and spent some time on it. I know what a leaf tells about a tree. It’s often the first place a gardener looks for the ‘tells’ of the health of a plant: is it variegated, are the leaves the right shape, have they grown to size, are they withered, spotted black with mould, eaten by aphids, curled from microscopic bugs, the right colour? Is the soil too wet or dry? Is the fertiliser working? I could tell the future health of the dahlia plant and flowers from its first few leaves, months before the florets began to show. And so the leaf told the tree. It spoke of the future and of the past. It called out what was needed—like a poem holding a mirror to its writer or reader, and in turn, the world.
And then, three nights ago I had a moment like that. I saw my reflection in a poem, in the corner of some words strung by the lyrical mind of another. It was, funnily enough a poem by Mark that he was reading at Sydney Poetry Lounge where he and I were featuring. The poem, “Flash Fiction”, from his new collection A Beginner’s Guide (Birdfish, 2022) conveyed a sense of something I’d known for years but had never found a way to get to. There it was in vivid clarity,
“SO THE PHONE rings and it’s a girl in pyjamas sitting by the freeway
smoking cigarettes she gave up months ago and she tells me how she loves a poet who doesn’t really love her because poets are better at writing than doing it” [my italics added]
Poets are better at writing it. Like a carpenter whose house is never renovated for the time he spends on others’ work. Like a teacher, too busy to read his children’s writing because he has a pile of student papers to mark on his desk. It’s a hard truth, one that needs reflecting, Shakespearean in its tragedy. And that’s where great literature should take us, that’s the leaf of poetry. That we are not perfect, that we write to be our better selves, that ultimately, we know how far we lean from our initial intentions. How well-made foundations can grow old with time and bend when we swell like the Cyrus trunks with life’s cares and the accumulated stresses of daily life. At the heart of those realisations and observations lay the work of the poem. In its truer sense the work of metaphor to connect the way we see the world to all its layered meaning. It’s the poem that transcribes and transports us there, in my experience, at times starting somewhere, and eventually bending the writer to its will. There’s freedom in that, as Anthony Lawrence said at his and Audrey Molloy’s launch of their collaborative collection Ordinary Time (Pitt Street Poetry, 2022), “I didn’t know what I was going to be writing, because I never do when I start a poem, I don’t like to know about subject matter so much. Because poems tend to write themselves a lot… we’re useless to question it.” But what then, if setting the string line of our work is useless? It’s in this sort of paradox that a love of poetry flourishes. Jane Hirshfield in her much cited Ten Windows: How Great poems Transform the World writes, “Perhaps for something to be found, the only thing that matters is that there be searching—certainly that is the way in the writing of poems.” And so, poets are seekers. Seekers of the truth in a crumbling fence line. Seekers of the tree that the leaf speaks of. Seekers of our inner humanity, the parts of us we leave unsaid and wish against all odds, to be.
We ‘dig’ as Heaney saw it, beneath the surface of ordinary life. And hope, I imagine, that what we build will outlast us. That the taut lines we tension on the page, will stand for some time. That the reader will sense the immediacy of the moment in our words—that they may feel the same depth of emotion that we plumb when we hammer the pen to the page.
• Heaney, Seamus (1998) Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, Faber and Faber
• Hirshfield, Jane (2015) Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, Knopf
• Tredinnick, Mark (2022) A Beginner’s Guide, Birdfish
Burrill Lake after Rain
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
January again, the mile long beachhead, rain
and I’m walking in the whole sea—no edge,
Grayscale to the horizon,
hung like a portrait
Of nimbostratus. Here, the morning’s a stubborn
Shadow of night, like the first work of a poem
—The slant light, the slow movement through lines like the long
Corrugations of sand dune
water marked by tides.
There’s a dullness to the bay, somewhat hungover,
The slow topography of foredune and foreshore
—Gulls colonising the sand flats in monochrome.
It’s hard not to see the undertones of a life
In the rip,
in the undertow of waves
And heaved out. But there are my boys,
Inventing their own theogony on this coast
—Otus and Ephialtes
hurling spears of drift
Wood at each other, Artemis a shearwater
In the salt bush. These moments glean syllables, one
Unstressed, the next stressed, the soft beats, one up, one down
Their feet and the harshness
of their shrieks. Virgil
Had them reaching to tear Jupiter from heaven,
But mine are content with casting fistfuls of sand
As libations to Poseidon. Around the spit,
The estuary retreats each year, its sea grass
like a routed army
on the lake’s edge.
And now, the boys out front,
are scouting for plunder.
A white-faced heron sits old as an oracle
On a lopped branch of swamp oak,
the boys miss her verse,
Their shins deep in the flat water, a world away
From Delphi. Car tyres on the new bridge ring the lake
With tinnitus, the slow wearing of the landscape
—Pylons, concrete columns,
the otherworldly dark
Channel. We share our toes in mud, shy of shallow
Oysters unperturbed in their decade of walking
Underwater, theirs the long osmosis of lore.
The lap of wave on the rim edge, time stirring with
Lazarus in the grave
—not all of this
Along the shore, sea rush and sedge
Medusas in the wind, salt air in their lungs;
The perpetual taste of grief
soaked from their roots.
Bend way down, take the strands, boys, feel the rubber pull
Up spiny stem, to the tapering point, measure;
The arc of your arm, the strain of sinew, the growth
Of a year. Everything is tidal
in this place,
The sand bar bearing out its nakedness with worm,
Cockle and muscle. A sooty oystercatcher
Alone, beginning his black watch. His eternal
Sifting of life’s sediment, his beak a long knife
Paring the skin.
Time is a peripheral
Leaking through the inlet—intermingled
The ebb of it, the slackness
Of minutes. At the bar,
a little tern feasting.
Aegir’s halls are full of feathered gods again: godwits,
The gulls, the great egret—the long tongue of the sea
Gathering the whole world. It’s an old story told
Along the Nile,
the bennu bird flew the chaos
Waters, landed, and cried out to awaken
Creation—how often we speak forth the cosmos
For children. And mine pick and pry their way through plumes
Of broom heath and bracken on the back dune. We walk
To the boat ramp,
who’s lazy in the dawn
In a primal mix of salt and scale,
and grease slick.
We’ll cross here, set course for the jetty, three bodies
Piled on one kayak,
the younger’s nappy full
Of seawater and leaking a calligraphy
Of sand down his thighs. The elder, afraid of the deep
Current, has sunk into his life jacket, eyes tight
—castaway in his father’s arms.
Below the boat, King George whiting are schooling us
And the blackfish in a million-year-old chorus
Theirs the tragedy of propellers and paddle
Boards and the hand lines of little boys on the docks.
Bream are drowned mirrors
under the surface,
chrome scaled sunlight
The morningtide’s sunspots on the seafloor.
Meanwhile, we fidget
about our business, the young one on the bow,
hands on the paddle
Cutting a somewhat smaller arc than my own two,
morning, going at its own pace—the father’s work
Is always the sons’. Peer down boys, see the stingray’s
like a serpent, its bulbous head
An artifice of sand and contoured with the deep,
Like our bodies, written and rewritten with time
—Drafted, revised, artefacts of the past. The draught
Shrinks beneath us, Thor taking his long drink, the horn
Of the point
almost at empty,
the roar of air
Brakes from the bridge—everything has a limit.
It’s all low now
and we’ve become semi-submerged
In the slough,
the prow dug in and we haul ourselves
Overboard. I’m marooned and mutinied by time’s
Two thieves who are tacking and tripping each other
To the bank as an eastern curlew wades, and weighs in,
And lets the water tell its life
—like we’d all like,
As if our story doesn’t just run out with the tide.
Stratocumulus piebald the park, the sky somewhat
Undecided whether it wants to turn itself
And the weatherman to fiction or if the rain
Will drop by
—a dark suited witness
at the door.
On this side, the sheoaks are thinning in their age
branchlets like sprung wires, remembering most
the dust of the old road, the bangalay
And blackbutt forests—the way the cool ripe air blew
Before the caravan park moved in with redhead
Matchboxes, it’s hung fly traps and Victoria
Bitter cartons slumped beside the bins.
In the park
An ice cream van is selling sherbet and flaked cones
—Ambrosia for the pint-sized gods, a soft serving
Of modernity. We’re part of the understory,
The folds of land; bitumen, kikuyu, soft fall,
—Banksias like ogres,
twisted and knotted,
By fence posts and driveway, the vanguard of wattle
like a dying myth, or a purse net
Broken to pieces.
Two fisherman putter on
By, their tinny and the gulls going the same way
Down the line of marsh, down the stoney creek, the birds
Circling unbelievers. We go separate paths,
Full of ice cream and chips
—some small faith, licked like salt
From our fingers, to the headland written cursive
On the horizon, unkept like a four-year-olds
Colouring book. Windblown heathland above, siltstone
And sandstone shelf below—the impulsive rock pools
Pocked and pierced,
of a thousand years.
We roam the face of the platform, the Pacific
Flung as a drop cloth,
ragged and torn from the reef,
Some snorkel at the littoral edge,
but our troupe
Forage for limpets and periwinkles in the holes
And slits of the rock—portals to an under world.
Evolution’s most fit, great survivors,
Starfish and anemone,
keeping their secrets;
Atlantis, the fall of Carthage, the Siege of Tyre
—The eternal hubris of men. In the distance
An old man is collecting seaweed, a future
Fathered in his work, kelp and bladderwrack—the wreck
Of life washed
the way we all must go.
The day stretches itself out and into midlife,
The moon exhales,
the wrack line gathering the sea’s
Sleep, pockets of shells
—the residue of a life.
Only immersion brings us into the kingdom,
Knee deep pilgrims, the boys holding Neptune’s necklace
—Still after the gods. We come to a circle of sticks,
A henge for a pair of hooded plovers,
Their chicks on the blunt edge of the berm, on the brink
Of all the southerly can throw. Theirs’s the brindled
Debris, the pumice stone and brown algae, urchins
For a time, infant heirs of the tide—redeemers
Of the detritus,
© Peter Ramm
Peter Ramm is a poet and teacher who writes on the Gundungarra lands of the NSW Southern Highlands. His debut poetry collection Waterlines is out now with Vagabond Press. In 2022 he won the prestigious Manchester Poetry Prize. His poems have also won the Harri Jones Memorial Award, The South Coast Writers Centre Poetry Award, The Red Room Poetry Object, and have been shortlisted in the Bridport, ACU, Blake, Newcastle, Tom Collins, and KSP National Poetry Prizes. He has been published in Westerly, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, The Rialto, Eureka Street, and more. https://www.peterramm.com/