Linen tough as history

Michael Sharkey
photo by Brian Everingham

Michael’s speech makes me blush, but here it is. Thank you Michael.

Michael Sharkey’s launch speech

In a poem called ‘Advice to Poets’, Kevin Brophy says in relation to other poets, ‘Tell them nothing. They steal everything. / They are thugs and desperately / short of ideas, even words.’ Well, I’d like to steal a lot of Julie Chevalier’s ideas, even words. She has an enviable take on the world that makes me wish I’d said half the clever things she says about it. As Fiona McGregor wrote in a review of Julie’s short stories, Julie is ‘wry, gritty, knowing and true’. I guess we’d all like to have such a collection of positive qualities attributed to our writing. And since it’s glowing testimonials time, I’ll say here that along with other readers, I’m struck by Julie’s terrific sense of the absurd: some of the people and situations she presents are plain funny.

T.S. Eliot said that ‘immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better or at least different’. Julie has read more poets than many of her better-known peers, but she is beyond imitating them; like Eliot’s ‘good poets’, she transforms what she takes from poetry of all periods and places. She’s crafty in the best sense – like Fleur Adcock, Gavin Ewart, Carol Anne Duffy, and Anne Rouse: poets I imagine she’d get on with famously, talking a storm about poetry, celebrating humour and having a ball. Like them, she knows that poetry can be serious without being sombre, comic without being a joke, complicated without being obscure – that it can be, in short, all the things that have captivated everyone who has read her poetry for years, especially those who have come to celebrate her collection.

She shares her fascination with language with us. She turns words around, throws us new one to consider, and takes us to places whose names are exotic to us no matter how comfortable or drab they seem to the people who inhabit them, and no matter how familiar we are with them because we’ve glimpsed them in movies or brochures.

What you get in a Chevalier poem is life in a gow gee. What’s a gow gee, you ask? It’s a bowl for a yum cha—something elegant, unique, crafted, in Julie’s account, by a glassblower obsessed with a handsome Chinese waiter and inspired by the shapes of poisonous jellyfish cast up on a beach. The result is something sexy, edgy, and dangerous. Julie makes the literally ordinary into something strange and profound.

Her characters speak of koi (what’s that? an ornamental fish, for heaven’s sake), a stem christie (a skidding ski turn, of course), a dutchy tee shirt (o how trashy, a word from the slums). We travel to Venice, Towradgi, Segovia, Globe (Arizona), ancient Rome, Roselle (New Jersey), Hell’s Gate and Parramatta Road (not the same thing).

All these are magical places, including Parramatta Road: we won’t read Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘The Day Lady Died’ again the same way after hearing Julie’s extraordinary riff on Frank O’Hara’s performance. Her poem, ‘the day we almost hung’, pays homage to an admired poet, and it’s a funny and sardonic comment on our culture. Her poem is one of many impressive takes on paintings, sculpture and photographs – a series of meditations on what art and poetry can do in their different ways.  She also produces rabbits out of hats worn by other poets – Sylvia Plath, for one, and she writes a riveting extended narrative that takes off from Anne Carson’s poem on the beauty of the husband, transforming the experience in the exciting way that great poems overtake their origins and leave us admiring a unique work, far beyond an imitation. The technique is versatile and canny, conveying more than visual effect: such poems are ripostes.

Subtle intelligence matches the verbal pyrotechnics of these poems. Words make patterns and shapes including concrete and playful Cummingsesque appearances, prose, prose poems, Williams-step-stanzas and lines, formal quatrains, even a Harwood-seeming sonnet.

And the narratives are as beguiling as the structures they appear in. We meet William Blake, in a chat with the writer. Elsewhere, a Towradgi girl dreaming of Hollywood travels there, comes back and lives in a drama more real and poignant than fancy can supply. Poems that draw on American actuality imprint fresh images on us – displacing whatever half-recognised scenes we might conjure from locations in road movies and others of rural and city life. Julie moves through then and now visions of what it was like to be in such places as a child, a young woman, or a returning visitor. A brief poem called ‘the fall’, grounded in some American couple’s experience, has all the poignancy and possible tragedy of living with deluding dreams of romance that occur anywhere.

I don’t like launches where the launcher steals all the thunder by reading from the poems; that’s better done by the poet. Here I’ll say I’m captivated by many images, and I’ll leave you to reflect at your own pace on many pleasant discoveries. The

poetry is non-skimmable. I doubt that anyone can take in everything at a single reading. I took my time, leaving many poems for following days, and thinking of the ways she contrived to maintain so much good sense and tact in her character portraits of people we can admire, sympathise with or simply recognise and understand. She looks coolly and unflinchingly on the less attractive or downright repulsive characters – and she has a memorable collection of everyday grotesques and monsters.

I am more impressed by this collection that builds in intensity as it proceeds, than I have been with many volumes by longer established poets. It confirms my first impression of Julie’s poetry when I met her years ago at a Five Islands poetry workshop. I wish all new poetry I read could offer such freshness and variety.

If memorable poetry demands intelligent readers to turn with the surprises, take stock and wonder how they have been so pleasantly shocked into seeing the world another way, then this poetry has resounding depth and clarity of expression.

Puncher and Wattmann should also be congratulated for producing a book that looks good to the eye and is good in the hand. In every way, I think this book is a winning collection, and I’m sure you’ll think so too. I’m honoured to have asked to launch the book; it gives me pleasure to do so, and I wish it a welcome from everyone here and their friends.

Michael Sharkey

8 February 2012

(for book launch on 11 February 2012)

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1 Response to Linen tough as history

  1. RhiannonHall says:

    Such a great book. I love the experimentation with line breaks, social media and online language references and thoroughly enjoyed the ekphrastic poems as well as the political and social commentary. I have written a short review of three of the poems within this book on my blog.

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