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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