6 October 2008

Launch, Carolyn Fisher's 'The Unsuspecting Sky'


Sunday 5th October, Launceston
Tasmanian Poetry Festival

In 2004, when I decided to begin the process of closing down Cornford
Press by not accepting any more manuscripts, I did so after a fairly
agonising debate with myself. The reason for this was that there
were three collections of poetry which were crying out to be
published. Were I to bring out these three books I could retire
satisfied. A bit like an addict, I suppose, trying to convince
myself that I’d quit after just three more hits. In the end, I went
cold turkey (well, there was a bit of backsliding later, but that’s
another story.)

The three collections that I really wanted to see in print were by
Jane Williams, Ouyang Yu, and Carolyn Fisher. Earlier this year I
had the pleasure of launching Jane’s Begging the Question in Hobart,
and in the mail on Friday, just two days ago, I received a copy of
Ouyang’s The Kingsbury Tales. This morning I complete the
trifecta, and so it is with a sense of relief that I stand here
before you to send Carolyn’s The Unsuspecting Sky out on its voyage
into the world of readership and critical appraisal.

Of course it is with much more than a sense of relief. It is also
with a sense of admiration for her skill and one of gratitude for
what she has given us as readers. I remember my first encounter with
Carolyn Fisher’s poetry. It was in the Forth pub at one of those
readings organised by the indefatigable Fay Forbes. There were well
over a hundred people there and a considerable percentage of them had
a poem or two to present. As one would expect in such a gathering,
there was a fairly mixed bag, a vast range of styles, subjects and
levels of expertise. One poet stood out. I don’t think I caught
her name at the time, but I later came to know her and her work,
which was growing in quantity and quality over the next few years.

When Chris Mansell informed me that Carolyn had won the inaugural
PressPress Chapbook Award, I was really pleased. Not only did it
mean that Cornford Press was somewhat off the hook, but, more
importantly, that my judgement of Carolyn’s poetry had been
vindicated by someone whose opinions and publishing acumen I respect
immensely, someone from interstate who didn’t know Carolyn
personally (the manuscripts were submitted anonymously), but, above
all, someone who was in a position to do something practical about it.

And what a wonderful job she has done, too! This little book is, as
are all PressPress chapbooks, elegant and simple, a demonstration of
the principle that poetry doesn’t need big flashy production values,
that an inexpensive product, if tastefully and thoughtfully created,
will not only look good in itself, but will actually enhance the
presentation of the poems. Not that the poems themselves need any
enhancement. They would be great whatever the presentation, but it
is gratifying to see them given the respect they deserve.

Carolyn’s strengths include a remarkable eye for telling detail, an
ability to cast that detail into crystalline imagery, and an
overarching compassion which not only informs the work but fixes it
in the heart of the reader. To take just one example, in first
stanza of the poem “Pademelon” we are shown “the sunrise / of
her underbelly”, a well-observed and delightfully captured detail,
but the poem immediately goes on, “…slowly setting / by the side
of the road”, building the original metaphor into a conceit, but
maintaining the tone while deepening the emotional content and
advancing the narrative. All this in about a dozen words. But
that’s not all. The poem has started, a couple of lines earlier,
with “the full stop”. This is in itself an arresting opening.
After all, we are used to poems ending with a full stop, not
beginning with one. That this is more than just a clever device,
however, is clear when we realise that the poem has started with the
ending of a life. The “full stop” is more than a conceptual
metaphor, however; it is also, from the perspective of the driver/
poet, a visual one: one tiny corpse in the whole scheme of life,
roadways, traffic, busy-ness. That it is followed, “a couple of
hops / further on” by the “tiny comma” of the joey, is not only
felicitous as reinforcing and unifying imagery, but it marks the
significant shift in the dynamic of the poem, out from observation to
engagement. So, having started with a full stop, the poem restarts,
as it were, with a comma.

I could go on with this sort of analysis of each of the poems in this
collection, but this is a launch, not a lecture, so I shall leave
you, the readers, to discover such joys for yourselves. Even if you
don’t dig so deeply into the way the textual richness of Carolyn’s
poetry has been constructed, there is a great deal of pleasure to be
obtained from just revelling in the results of this construction.
And pleasure, after all, is the whole point of reading.

So, buy the book, enjoy it, and wait, as I am waiting, for the next
collection by one of Tasmania’s most exciting poetic talents. It is
with great enthusiasm that I launch Carolyn Fisher’s The
Unsuspecting Sky.

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