a ghost gum leans over by Myron Lysenko, Flying Island Books 2021. In This Part of the World by Kevin Brophy, Melbourne Poets Union Inc 2020
Myron Lysenko and Kevin Brophy have a long history together as poets, as editors of the journal Going Down Swinging many years ago, with Hit & Miss Productions (publishing), and as friends. It seemed fitting that their books be reviewed together, not so much to compare as to have an opportunity to chart their different paths in poetry. It gave me an opportunity to pull previous collections by both of them off my shelves and do a little looking back as well.
Myron Lysenko’s first collection, Coughing with Confidence, created a reputation of a poet with dry humour and dark, wry observations on life, enhanced by his live readings. Since then, while retaining his unique voice, he has continued to expand his repertoire. Lysenko has been focusing on haiku for some time, including the version called rooku, and a ghost gum leans over is his second collection of haiku and senryu.
The poems don’t adhere to the traditional form where the number of syllables (17) must be exact, so this gives them licence to grab the reader in other ways. Lysenko uses surprise and small turns, but more often he employs what I call sleight of hand – a seemingly simple poem has something that nudges at you; you read it again and suddenly you see it. A double meaning or a tilt sideways into another possibility. Working through the poems becomes an adventure, one not to be rushed or skimmed over.
The collection is organised in sections and the first is ‘sarcoma’ where the poems tell of Lucy Lysenko’s journey with a diagnosis of Ewings Sarcoma in 2008. One prose poem in the middle (‘Bloom’) sets the scene for further poems of the devastation of chemo and then remission. The next section is called ‘project 365’ (2016) and charts the breakdown of a marriage over a year, contrasted with other events in the poet’s life and in the world. Again, these are poems to re-read and ponder:
the bark of a tree
The two sections – ‘in the light’ and ‘in the dark’ – have poems that startle and slap. Life is laid bare:
without a ribbon…
my brother’s coma
comes to an end –
window at dawn
At times the poems provide a sense of story where several in a row depict ongoing events and experiences; others sit on their own, keen observations of life contrasted with images of nature, as traditional haiku do.
As with any poem where the reader has been where the poet has, an extra meaning floods in:
our car rolls
backwards up the hill
marriage on the rocks
There is a road near Hanging Rock in Victoria where, if you leave the handbrake off on your car, it seems as if your car is going backwards UP the hill. It’s actually an optical illusion due to the countryside around you, but in this case, it adds a hidden layer to the poem.
Sometimes a poem leaves an unspoken line hovering in your mind (my line in brackets):
rock pool shrimps
(I can see right through you)
This also is a benefit of reading more slowly, allowing other lines to be imagined. In one section there are poems dedicated to other people, so of course there is one for Kevin Brophy:
the poet’s deep
understanding of friendship
I googled ‘banksia’ and pondered the photos of glowing yellow candles of flowers.
Along with the haiku and senryu are one-liners which some people call a monostitch. These are more opaque, requiring the reader to re-read and puzzle out, with no line breaks as a signpost (and you then realise how much the line breaks in the poems guide your reading):
A breeze moves the leaf peak hour traffic
As with any collection, there were poems that I didn’t quite connect with, but mostly the small gems caught the light and showed me bits of the world in a different way, something that I enjoyed. I can imagine picking up this book on a regular basis, opening random pages and re-reading a few at a time. There is an art to packing so much into such small poems, creating depths and echoes that linger. They are also poems to share and discuss. I’m now thinking of doing one of Myron’s haiku workshops and writing some of my own!
In This Part of the World is Kevin Brophy’s tenth collection, the 28 poems making a slim but meaty book. Brophy’s poems have always been accessible on a first reading, not deliberately obscure, and then bearing repeated readings that reveal layers and deeper ideas. I opened the book and the very first poem is dedicated to Myron. Brophy makes the connections between them as well, their shared histories going much further than poetry endeavours:
… neither of us can ever be quite over
whatever it was our fathers pressed upon
us in the slow-motion accidents of their lives
histories of the twentieth century screaming
along the veins in their foreheads.
The first section, titled ‘Here’, focuses on poems about the everyday, capturing small moments and observations (which of course most poets do) in ways that illuminate and delight. ‘Butcher Birds, Mt Buffalo’ creates a picture of ‘thick-shouldered’ birds toughened by life in the high country, and mountain seasons ‘blind and ravenous as angels’. Similarly, ‘What the Finch Knows’ brings us a tiny bird in “twisting flight”, “small, bright, neat, fast”, while reminding us of the human threat to wildlife through the wind that “hisses/ like a cruel husband frightening/ his latest wife.” After such portraits, the poem, ‘Flight Again’, about an azure kingfisher smashing into the kitchen window is even more sobering.
‘Back Yard Ladders of Surrender’ turns the idea of humans taking and plundering forests on its head in a disturbing way – here trees just surrender, initially to birds but then also to the axe and the fire:
The trees surrendered long before us.
They said make weapons of our arms,
make stretchers and crutches
snug gun-butts, make boxes of us,
make carts and beams and targets of us,
anything. We won’t fight you or anyone.
Often, a poem will turn something sideways, or shine a light from a different direction, and stop you in your tracks. Brophy does this with whole poems at times. I re-read ‘Stones’ many times, thinking about the images and the idea of “stillness/ is another way of moving/ through the narrow throat of time”.
In the second section, ‘And There’, we are in Palermo and among Roman ruins, up mountains, on rocky roads, in forests; none of these are in Australia, even if not actually identified by place. Each poem transports us somewhere different, yet anchors us with vivid imagery. In ‘What We Walk Towards’ I was struck by “The night like a cave lies ahead./ It will take us in, no-one too homeless for it.” The image of the homeless rises also in ‘Winter’ where they sleep on the streets “with their friends made of cardboard and dog”, piercing reminders of what we take for granted.
The ‘And Back’ section doesn’t so much return us home as to an idea of what home might mean, with many references to the sea or to water. ‘A World Beyond’ suggests we imagine what it would be like if our world was undersea and the earth was ‘another world/ somewhere close beside’. Other references to water appear in ‘The Quiet Day’, an unsettling poem about a 97-year-old and the image of rising water:
…I could hear water lap up to the crumbling
base of my house, floating a generation of drowned beetles
and dead grasshoppers up to the front door.
The few trees left around the house
looked down over the water
up to their knees in amazement.
And also in ‘For Judith’, a poem for Judith Rodriguez, that depicts her wide range of subject matter, finishing with:
though you always reach for the rose in each of us
and with the deep shock of the sea coming at us
you turn your face to the ‘slow politics of justice’
lest we lose sight of something beyond what we are.
The final poem in the book, ‘Ocean/Fishing’, sharply reminds us what the sea can do, even more so the rocks:
They would hand the fisher to the shattered sea,
throw birds into the sodden air,
hide crabs, anemones from the worst of it.
There are several prose poems sprinkled throughout the collection. I found these less engaging, perhaps a subjective reaction from a reader who prefers white space and gaps for myself. Overall, the poems in Brophy’s collection reward second and third readings (and more) and are well worth keeping on the bookshelf and delving into one future day, maybe when we are surrounded by water.
– Sherryl Clark
Sherryl Clark has published two collections of poetry and five verse novels for children. Her new verse novel Mina and the Whole Wide World is published by UQP. She was the supervising editor of Poetrix magazine for 20 years.