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Towards the Open Sea: Martin Langford launches  ‘The Leaving’ by Brian Purcell

Martin Langford launched  The Leaving by Brian Purcell, Flying Island Books 2021 at a COVID impacted Poets Picnic at Markwell on 19 December 2021  

I’d like to begin with the acknowledgement of a debt. It was Brian who first guided me towards the community of other poets. In the early eighties, I had been living on the South Coast when I returned to Sydney keen to find other people interested in poetry. It wasn’t so easy then, without the net, or the filings of poetry organizations. Not knowing where to start, I did the dumbest, most obvious thing, and put an ad in the paper for anyone interested in a workshop. The workshop didn’t take off, but I did receive a phone-call from this guy who said he knew a few people who were interested in poetry, would I like to go and have a drink. These were the days when Sydney still had a David Ireland feel to it: when Bruce Springsteen was an underground whisper about an urban Bob Dylan from New Jersey. The upshot was I was alerted to the Poets Union readings at the Performance Space, and before too long, both of us became involved. So thank you Brian: it’s actually a big debt indeed – for me at least.

Brian has always been a poet, but he is one of those people who also has a wide variety of artistic interests: he was lead singer for the post-industrial band, Distant Locust, together with being their lyricist – there is an earlier book of song lyrics; he is a painter (as you can see from the cover) and a photographer. Couple this with the hard-slog years of putting a mortgage together, of the years working for the Lit Board and Varuna and as a festival organiser, and you can gather some idea of why, although he maintained a constant interest in the form – publishing in the literary journals throughout the decades – he should only now be publishing his first book of poems.

So congratulations: some books take a winding path before they find their way to clear air, and some births are badly overdue.

Overall, The Leaving is framed by a break-up – the leaving – and a new romance. As one can imagine from such sources, there are poems here of great unhappiness, and of ecstatic joy. The title is important: the title poem being one of the key pieces in the book. It is a response to Rick Amor’s painting, “Out to Sea”, which shows a motor-boat leaving for less sheltered waters while a menacing sky gathers. The poem – which is a superb one – ends:

He holds the rudder tightly, everything forcing him on
through the channel, out of the frame
and into the world beyond.

As I read it, this is the gesture which underwrites almost every poem here, irrespective of what its immediate topic is. We are all leaving anyway, out towards open sea, whether our lives are placid and well-organised or not. But if one has just experienced a time of great turmoil, and if one is determined to at least attempt to steer one’s way through, then one has a gesture of firmness, of insistence, to define oneself against. It becomes, as it were, the background image which is present even in poems of despair or instability.

The poems in this book are not so much interested in an event’s explanation, as in its emotional weight. If things are left unexplained, it is because explanation is not the point: the poet is more interested in recording the experience. This is a natural way, anyway, to engage with the welter of emotions in relationship-change. But it is also a powerful way for the imagination to engage with most experiences. The image is almost always more potent than the elaboration. So we recognize the pointlessness of all that low-volume earnestness, as the poem’s subject comes home to find a TV left on late: further commentary would only be deadening; likewise, his car’s shadow, “torn to shreds” by the roadside foliage, speaks so much more powerfully than any sociological analysis of his feelings about a difficult day at the polling booth.

Brian can drily observe that a Western Sydney audience responds more readily to a flick of Rita Coolidge’s dress, than to her music – alongside the unstated implication of how bleak this is for the performer, on what is presumably a difficult attempt to keep her career alive. He describes his boyhood enactment of the pieties required at church with exactitude:

A pious fraud, that eight-year-old
half-closed eyes slightly raised
above the arch of prayerful hands.

 The abruptness and insult of the way sister Euphemia attempted to get him to show more enthusiasm at communion, by pulling his tongue, is amplified in his memory by the way her collar pressed into her “white skin”.

 There is much lived experience here – more, perhaps, than Brian might have wished for. But he is consistently honest in the way he searches for the right word to capture it, and if he spares no finer feelings, it is mostly his feelings which he does not spare.

 Congratulations to Brian, and to Captain Kit and the flying island.

 This is a great setting for the launch of Australian poetry books. We define our spaces by the things we do in them. But it is also particularly suitable for the launch of The Leaving, with so many of its poems set in either Bellingen or the Central Coast, and with their tacit understanding that the human drama, at some point, is not separate from the natural world.

 I was going to say: Please do the right thing by Scott Morrison’s attempt to get the economy moving again, by investing in this volume with absolutely no sense of financial restraint. But I didn’t realise the “pocket” in “pocket books” referred to “pockets of socialism” – that the initial offerings would be given away free – so please: read this book and the others, without imaginative restraint.

 – Martin Langford

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Martin Langford has published seven books of poetry, the most recent of which is Eardrum (P&W, 2020). The Boy from the War Veterans’ Home will be published in 2022. He is the editor, with J. Beveridge, J.Johnson and D. Musgrave, of Contemporary Australian Poetry (2016). He is the poetry reviewer for Meanjin.

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Paintings by Brian Purcell

 

Future Flying Islands’ poet Brian Purcell has his first solo exhibition of paintings up now! ‘The Day on Fire’ is on at The Shop Gallery, 112 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe, 11am to 6pm every day until Wednesday 3rd March. Brian is at the gallery during those hours, so please drop in for a chat or a cup of tea.


Responding to BE-FORE — AVANT by Beatrice Machet

 Responding to 

BE-FORE — AVANT by Beatrice Machet

Thank you, Beatrice, for your poem responding to mine, which is a distinct poem in itself. Like mine, yours raises questions about how to respond to this crisis. We are lucky in Australia to have largely avoided the death toll and unbearable suffering experienced in much of the world, but still there are effects. Last year I lost my job due to Covid – it was a complete shock, as I was a permanent employee of the company, but ‘permanence’ seems to have changed its meaning over the last year. The experience of loss fed into the poem – I had actually moved to the house I was living in to be closer to my workplace – so after the dismissal, I was in a strange place that no longer meant what it had, and in lockdown where everything had changed anyway. It was a strange feeling, set adrift and walking around the same streets at night, knowing nothing was the same – something that many, many people have experienced during the last year. In writing the poem I felt akin to the approach that Craig Raine and the ‘Martian’ poetry had adopted – as an alien, seeing everything from the outside, as if new – well, because everything wasnew.

That’s the thing I reckon – as you ask in your poem –

before loneliness is the norm

these « before » times

were they more free

– there must be huge benefits as well that this interruption of the world in its thudding, ongoing progress can deliver – potentially anyway – if each person is willing to look at things differently. Is it loneliness or solitude? A break from the machine that is disfiguring the world?

My job, for example, was really only that of a glorified proofreader – mundane and unfulfilling – so when the HR manager delivered the news, after the shock wore off, I told him that it wasn’t so bad since I was thinking of leaving anyway, as I wanted my future to be more about creative work. He was a little taken aback, then said, well, that’s good, and he told me of another man whom he had just dismissed – most of the people made redundant were over sixty – and the man had responded: ‘Well, my life is over then…’

I don’t want to diminish this man’s suffering and loss – but I hope there came a time after it had all sunk in that he said, ‘well, what now?’

I could go on about all this for a long time, but better writers than me have talked about it from many angles. Such experiences as these can turn any person into a poet – confronted by a complete disruption of their daily lives, in which we often don’t need to think or even feel in our comfort – how do they act and communicate this confusion? Asking questions may be the beginning.

The first draft of my poem had eight lines more, which I later cut. They ask more questions, and I wonder if the ‘wraiths’ in these lines are punishing ghosts, or questions that we haven’t yet asked? Thanks again for your response, Beatrice.

…who is out there now, who can look at the stars

and imagine skies that will always be clear?

 

when the lovers of the earth will stay inside

staring at partners who are always near

 

and far away the wraiths that cross the fields

are moving towards us with unstaring eyes

 

who will welcome them when they arrive?

who will watch the closing of the gates?

in a time of lockdown

 

Brian Purcell

in a time of lockdown

 

I walk out in clear air

that moments ago was filled with rain

 

catch a face at a window

filled with terror

 

streets that were jammed with cars

now empty

 

neon lights of a café closed for weeks

beat ‘open now’

 

a shape moves between pillars

of the locked-down care facility

 

distant skidding of a solitary car

I cannot turn around

 

to watch it pass

light and darkness    beats

 

words fill pages then empty

now that rain no longer falls

 

reasonable ideas

dissolve in mist

 

the woman returns to the window

her face calm, the horror departed

 

she searches the streets

she looks right through me

 

my steps land on tar

the brittle surface no longer holding

 

I think of your lips, so far from me

the calming words that are now meaningless

 

and possibly always were

but there are colours and shapes

 

and memories that cannot be removed

by solemn gentlemen in long dark vans

 

whose faces always

tilt to the earth



Brian Purcell

Brian Purcell

I’ve been publishing poetry in magazines such as Meanjin and Southerly, and anthologies like Australian Love Poems, for nearly forty years. During 1985-95 I was the lead singer/lyricist for the band Distant Locust, which toured Europe and released CDs there in the early 90s. I am also a painter and working towards my first solo exhibition, as well as working on a poetry manuscript for Flying Islands.

Construction Site

breathing

like an infernal machine

that waits for me

limbs now diagonal

                        horizontal, vertical

all movements of ease

                        acrobatical

the goblins are digging up the streets

            down the hill

ribbons of wind and light

knotting in the trees

and the full moon

cracks a half-grin

at nightfall, at 2am

slumped on the side of the road

I wait for you

bound to you

until the cars parading the avenue

outrunning the quarantine

are ghostly still

carapaces

filled with a fragile

network of cracks

meanwhile the earth shakes

machines climb the hill

the virus filling everything

with its rotten breath

I remember the way

moonlight followed

the curls in your hair

I remember

how still we were

when silence was enough

all I do now

is open and close these doors

2am

while I try to sleep

the ground

beneath my feet
is breaking up