Tender Machines

Tender MachinesinvitationOUP-1

The image on the cover of this new collection is called ‘Panel Parrot’, and it’s a response from 13-year-old Abe Baillie to the title phrase. I wanted something that fused the childlike with the futuristic; and I love the way it manages to suggest something animal and something manufactured.

To my own mind, Tender Machines refers to the cogs and pistons of a poem: a machine that helps us with the psychological work of surviving ourselves. Tender Machines are also the tools of our digital age; devices that help to keep us alive; they are also vulnerable physical human forms we love. I hope the phrase also suggests the repetitions we have to shoulder as caregivers.

Although the two small epigraphs quote William Carlos Williams and Don Patterson, who both refer to poems as machines, the title was seeded by a phrase of Annie Dillard’s. In her work The Writing Life, there is a passage about a writer’s routine, so resonant because it distills the grit and commitment any large task demands.

Dillard writes

Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of the maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.

The Writing Life, HarperCollins, 1989.

That phrase ‘the engine of belief’ slipped into the poem ‘Suburban Story’, where I wanted it to conduct, among other things, the persistent work of love; the sharp relief of being pulled back from the precipice of loss. Echoes of Dillard’s snippet helped press out the book’s title phrase, and it started to run a current that other poems could plug in to.

Fuller publisher information is available here:


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Spectrum Poem

I’ve had a couple of new subscribers to this very erratic blog over the past week and it’s made me feel remiss for not adding new content. So I’m posting a link to the recent Transtasman issue of Cordite.

Having two sons reteaches me about how broad the spectrum of masculinity is; it also teaches me how every new generation has to address questions about gender and equality in their own terms.

Poetry, as ever, seems to have more room for slide and sway, for the tidal shifts of response, that are truer to the beautiful ambiguity of personality, the process of making a self (if that ever ends before death?) than, well, a prose blog entry dashed off before work.

Thanks for the new subs out there in the cyberwhirl: now that I’m inching ever closer to the final draft of the is-it-a-novel, I hope I’ll be able to post more often.


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my mother in this way mixing me wings and tongue

my mother in this way mixing me wings and tongue.

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Adverb-tising Break

It’s a new draft, and a new editing season! Our adverbs have been slashed — and now we want to give away the excess stock — for free!

We cater for all tastes and sizes. The following adverbs come in small, medium, large and super-size fonts, and in a wide range of colours. (We are over-supplied with purple.)

Abruptly x 3, abstractedly x2, actually, accusingly, anxiously, awkwardly x 5, bleakly, blithely, bravely, casually, cheekily, cheerfully, cooly, completely, deliberately, dourly, easily, ebulliently, energetically, fiercely, finally, flatly x 2, flippantly, funkily, gently x 6, gingerly, girlishly, goofily, goonishly, greedily, happily, heroically, husbandly, insinuatingly, intially, immediately, immorally, inhumanly, intensely x 2, lightly x 3, maddeningly, nuttily, nervously, overtly, patiently, perversely, physically, pointedly, precariously, protectively, questioningly, quickly, quietly x 5, rapidly, ravingly, readily x 2, rhythmically, scientifically, seriously, significantly, silently x2, skeptically, slightly x 6, slowly x 6, spontaneously x 2, stertorously, surreptitiously, swiftly, thoroughly, tightly x 2, uncharacteristically, unsuccessfully, uselessly, usually, vigorously, wearily, wryly

CONSUMER WARNING: Apply to manuscript in thin layer only. Always seek a professional editor’s advice.


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How to rekindle the spark with a disastrous first draft

Take it out to dinner? See a writer’s biopic movie with it? Buy it surprise airline tickets for a tropical holiday? Turn up at its office unexpectedly; say you thought you’d buy it a drink? Over daytime wine, in a crowded café, read it a poem written by someone else? Arrange a near death experience — stand in the road and give the fingers to a scaffolding truck — then return to the manuscript, shaky with gratitude that you are still alive, delirious over how screeny its screens are, how inky its ink is, how pagey its pages? Watch it at a distance while it leans its head in close enough to feel the warm touch of a rival’s breath at a party? Stage a flash mob of one at a spot you know it’s going to turn up (e.g. your desk)? Hire a mariachi band to come to its door? Tell it you think you’re pregnant — or that you think you got someone else pregnant? Buy it irises from a street vendor; present them to it even though it’s in a meeting with someone else far smarter, and clearly more charismatic than you? Wait at home looking after the children, grinding through the homework and the toileting accidents, cooking it a good healthy meal, having the laundry done and the table set in plenty of time? And when it walks in late (don’t mention the late) looking haggard and strained, be ready with a cheerful, “Hi, First Draft, how was the back-burner?” Ask the same thing, but recently moisturized (maybe even lipsticked and perfumed, if that’s your kind of thing), in a fresh outfit, when it walks in late with beer on its breath and a sly, wild animation in its eye, its eye that just — can’t — quite — meet yours? Announce you’ve had a promotion, a demotion, you’re up for relocation? Start seeing another project behind its back, then feel the searing shame and regret that make you reform and ask its forgiveness? Go on a diet, give up alcohol, start a night class in something entirely unlikely then present it with the New You? Take a break? Oh, you have. Take a longer break? Look it straight on and ask it what it’s really feeling, and is there something it has to tell you? Take it into the bush with only a pen knife, a pen light, and a water bottle; tell it to shred itself into crumbs and follow itself out? Discover someone else is writing exactly the same book, but they’ve only just started, so you might get there first if you would just snap out of this accidie, anomie, this very non X-factor je ne sais quoi? Let the self-loathing build up to the point where anything, anything would feel better than this, even getting back together with the disastrous first draft?

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Bewilderment and Wonder

I don’t envy literary editors in the shrinking print industry, no siree. Here is another review of poetry which was commissioned by a magazine, paid for and then fell victim to the passage of time, space constraints, job changes and other mysteries. Perhaps it was just spiked because it lacked verve? It’s a very hard call, writing about three dense and clever collections within a limit of 300 words… I think perhaps I held my fire too cautiously when I re-read this now. Oh well, what do you think? I’m willing to call this review an honourable failure. Fail again, fail better, as Beckett said…

Gathering Evidence Caoilinn Hughes VUP $28

The Limits Alice Miller AUP $24.99

Horse with Hat Marty Smith VUP $30

In densely packed poems bristling with knowledge, Hughes’s first collection shows a gift for delineating the empirical while simultaneously winnowing metaphorical value from it. Praised elsewhere for her precision, Hughes seems to me also a richly allusive poet. The span of her vocabulary, her ease with abstractions, metonymy, near-neologisms and heightened poetic rhetoric — (e.g. the “luciferean abdomen” of a firefly) — show a poet who both layers and layers, and tries to burrow ever deeper into her material, to really isolate its inner workings.

The book holds everything from an impish look at a game of Scrabble to narratives of scientific experiment and discovery. These in turn range from humanity’s first successful effort to begin and arrest a nuclear reaction, to the legal case taken up by the family of Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells were cultivated without her permission into the ‘immortal’ HeLa line.

Hughes’s work manages to seem both compendious and yet compressed; each piece pulls in considerable, closely observed data, and yet avoids the prosey feel of Wikipedia entries, with spry, punning, psychologically apt metaphors, or the frequent tang of prosody: ‘slipping into the bullring of incandescence’; ‘launching Glory Bes/into the gluey hives and trenches of her head’; ‘plays chess with the evening’s reticence’.

Alice Miller’s book acts as a cool ‘mental palate’ cleanser if read immediately after the Hughes. The Limits pushes for new archetypes through old. One poem, “Antarctica II”, reiterates ‘This is what we used to call a fairy tale’ — a gloss that could apply to many of the delicately wrought poems here. They read like fragments of cautionary tales, of psychodramas spun from love and fear, aspirations and disappointments. The poems offer intense, dreamlike evocations of mood and relationship dynamics through crisp, clean, yet elliptical and elusive phrasing. Each line is like a single drop of water sending out sonic and visual ripples, rather than the joyously hyperactive torrent of facts and analysis in the Hughes.

There is often a sense with Miller’s work that the reader’s version of the subject of the poem can only inch towards a partial translation from the eerie, haunting language of dream, which itself is a translation of the unspoken or inarticulate in the daily. The poems carry the psychological ‘fragrance’ of new foundation myths; of recent —or near-future — cultural crises whittled back down into the primal nouns of body, earth, apple, skin, fire, ocean. The slightly apocalyptic tremor along the skin of some of the poems can either return us to crises of the past (as in ‘After Battle’) or project us into eerie fusions of the now and the any-moment-now. There are the landscapes and mindscapes of city, trucks, forests, ATMS, border-crossings and terror that suggests a beleaguered present-day Europe; there are two ‘Waiata’ that seem to ventriloquise 19th century settler variations upon, or infusions, of the Maori form; ‘Ocean’ has idealism, fear and ecological crisis lapping at its edges: “point to lands that reach beyond the myth/but soon the water’s pouring up the hills/because we cannot map the ocean still”.

Good at finding metaphor and image for the nebulous, the inchoate, the shift and slide of emotional response to the relatively removed or abstract, Miller’s work embodies the idea that a poem should leave the world both a little more illuminated and a little more mysterious at its close. This reminds me of the surrealism of Michael Harlow in its sense of what we might call the accurate strangeness not just of language, but also of the workings of the subconscious.

The tonal range in Marty Smith’s Horse with Hat is, I think, the widest of all three collections reviewed here. This is alternately comic, wry, downbeat, vernacular, lyrical: yet it is also at times dark, plangent and moving in its use of narratives distilled from extended family relationships. The collection gathers small yet vivid dramatic moments from the routines of farm work and a lost pre-digital world, where the children remember that “TV arrived like a Martian” (‘reception’) and ‘You only made phone calls if someone was sick or dead or married’ (as one typically long and cheekily, tartly inverted title has it).

With its imagery of “quicksilver silvery birds” and “eel thoughts” that “slide along our sides” (‘A mile here, a mile there’) the poems are gorgeously evocative of landscape and the sensation of, say, early dawn on the farm – where one natural observation infuses another with both physicality and emotion: “those horses talk to themselves/low, and tender as the fat wetness of roses” (‘dawn horses’).

The collection builds up the sense of how the vulnerable, sensitive child still sits inside the adult, and the animal or primal lingers inside the human. ‘Creature’ is a compellingly simple poem about the fusion between self and animal;

“I make the glorious mouth./It is a heart-blossom red I choose./I leave teeth marks.[….] The sun in my lungs/I put my tail up and go.”

Other poems slide into the animal voice, showing how close contact with working animals deeply influences the child’s sense of identity, time, imagination and land. The book also runs its fingers over the history of civilisation’s relationship with the horse (‘Lot 165’). It’s impressive to realise how much ground is covered in what is also a tightly themed collection. From Crusaders to gambling nuns and the fiery, unpredictable character of the poet’s returned serviceman father, the book dips in and out of the human use of horses, and the strange attractions and repulsions of family.

The father’s character bristles on the page with frustration, fury, and yet love; the poems weave and bob with the sense of complex individuals, and tangled, ingrown, or estranged relationships. All the while, the long contrail of war trauma chokes the family atmosphere.

Brendan O’Brien’s illustrations for the book are a dreamlike bricolage, with tumbled perspective and collisions of genre (Biblical engravings, coloured cigarette cards). The air of bewilderment and wonder, and of bizarre within the familiar, plays deft visual accompaniment to the poetry’s side-winding snippets of family feud and rural life.

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