Ron Pretty — 101 poems

Wollongong poet, publisher and Australian poetry legend Ron Pretty has published a collection of his work over 50 years of writing.

Poetry shifts so quickly it can be hard to keep up. Sometimes I imagine it as a wave, its front rising up full of new exciting voices; voices that have been ignored or silenced; sassy angry voices talking back to the blandness of popular culture and late stage capitalism; urgent voices insisting we act on environmental destruction now.  

Consider this year’s winner of the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry, Andy Jackson’s Human Looking. To quote the judges:

“Jackson’s book is an extraordinary poetic exploration of his own disability – Marfan’s syndrome, which is disfiguring and distorts the shape of his face and body. His poems are blistering in their power, wonderfully subtle, objective and with no self-pity. “

Similarly, this year I listened to readings from a new anthology Admissions from Red Room Poetry, poems written from the lived experience of mental illness. My warmest memory of that night is as one of the poets came to the critical point in the poem he was struck dumb, overcome with emotion. And we, a room of 80 fans and friends, held our breath as the poet found his composure and courage to keep reading. Powerful words indeed.

So what to make of a collection of someone who’s been writing poetry for over 50 years, has published eight full collections and six chapbooks of poetry? To continue the surf metaphor, this poetry is from the green water out beyond the breakers, it’s deep and cool and collected and exhilarating in its own way. Yes, there are experiments in form, in voice and subject but it also points to the evolution of a writer over time. 

Recently, I voiced Ron’s words for a program on Radio 3CR in which two of his poetry colleagues — Kevin Brophy and Alex Skovron — read from 101 poems. It’s a terrific program put together by Tina Ginannoukos from the Spoken Word team at 3CR and gives you an introduction to Ron Pretty’s work (a longer extended version is also available). 

After listening to this, you’re going to want to immediately order a copy from Ron’s publisher Pitt Street Poetry. 

3CR spoken-word program: The work of Ron Pretty, December 22, 2022.

And for music this afternoon (where it’s raining on newly mown summer grass) here’s American composer Caroline Shaw with the Attacca quartet playing Orange (Youtube)

Hooray for the small

Leaves: tanka anthology of Nature, edited Amelia Fielden, Ginninderra Press, 2022, 43pp. 

This beautiful little volume edited by Amelia Fielden and assisted by Liz Lanagan collects the work of 35 poets. Wrapped in a glorious colour photo of winter blooming wattle by poet photographer Neva Kastellic, this B5 volume sits comfortably in your hand, in your pocket or on your bookshelf. Each poet presents two tanka (except for Fielden who, as editor, has three) so that’s 10 lines per poet. But there’s never a sense of poets clamouring or competing for attention. Instead, Leaves presents a diversity of voices and a kaleidoscope of views.

The poets are mostly Australian, along with Japanese-Australian poet Saeko Ogi and a guest poet from California, Neal Whitman.

In the preface, Fielden tells us that the expression meaning ‘leaves’ in Japanese kotonoha is a homonym for ‘words’ which also alludes (in the way that everything connects to everything else) to the tanka form itself. A form, she continues, that can be traced back to 10th Century poet, Ki no Tsurayuki who begins his seminal work thus:

‘Japanese poetry has the human heart as seed
and myriads of words as leaves.’ 

Generally, the poems are not of pristine idealised nature but rather nature in urban settings, nature exposing our foibles or nature butting up against us such as, for example, a currawong competing with poet/grower for an olive crop or a caterpillar rescued from being blended into pesto. Nature also provokes, as in this witty piece by Jenny Stewart

cut a little
says a wispy native shrub,
but not too much ...
make a decision
you with the rusty shears

There are references to popular culture: my own piece on Elvis  (which I’m delighted to have included in this volume) and Kate King’s tanka referencing May Gibbs’ children’s tales of the gumnut babes Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and the scary gang that stalk them 

knobbly seed pods
pounce from spiky bushes —
we still recoil
from those gumnut tales
of Big Banksia Men 

There’s also the achingly contemporary, in Rachel Colombo’s tanka

lonely cherry tree
in the wintry Kyiv street
a bomb explodes
days later buds burst
showering pink blossom.

And of course, poets talk about the craft of poetry, as in Amelia Fielden’s tanka

in full thrum
cicadas emphasising
the summer days —
less is more, I tell
my tanka students

At the launch of Leaves, one of the poets quipped that tanka was ideal for our times: small, memorable, a poem you can hold in your hand, perfect for the short-attention-span days of twitter and instagram. Yet these poems have depths that you will want to return to as each ‘leaf’ offers a different insight to nature and the human condition in these challenging times.

Leaves, tanka anthology of Nature is available from Australia’s finest small press, Ginninderra Press

the memorial, National Gallery, Canberra

Already on this winter’s weekday morning the National Gallery is crowded. Students hurry to tick off their learning assignments for their visit to the 4th Indigenous Triennial; a couple are carefully negotiating the concrete of the gallery’s halls one with a splayed gait and stick; an outdoorsy trio stare hard at their brochure, looking for landmarks, waypoints in their journey; restless security guards murmur into their lapels. 

The art competes for our attention: slogans in neon tubing, whooshing soundscapes, tvs of a muddy hand signing in Auslan while off-screen the artist shouts something. Other works are monumental in their silence. Here a three-metre-long dot painting is timeless, vast — a waterhole, another, a mountain range, there the spirit path. 

Label says: Uta Uta Tjangala, Pintupi people, 1920-1990 Australia, ‘Untitled’ 1987, Papunya, Northern Territory, polymer paint on canvas. Google adds: Tjangala was one of the founders of the Western Desert Art movement; that his home, Kintore, is a remote township 500 km west of Alice Springs; and in the 2016 census the town had a population of 410 people, of whom 93.7 percent identified as Aboriginal. 

the space between us
fills with facts
great databases
in splits of a second
as if my ignorance….   

A video loop on a wraparound screen shows the artist Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu grinding ochre on a stone, and then masking his forehead and arms in yellow. He next appears standing in the oncoming waves. We’re low on the sand, lying in the water, the on-coming waves about to submerge us. I’m holding my breath.

once, far over the breakers
I caught a glimpse
of a white bird
and fell in love
with this dream which obsesses me.  
                          Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) *

Having seen enough, I become like those students, pulling back each curtain for a moment, a quick scan, what’s the deal here? — a dark room with display cases, boxes of cow bones, tick; another cryptic video installation, tick again.

At last, the memorial room. Finally, I’m alone. It’s just me and the work. The memorial is 200 wooden poles. Some are waist high, others are over two metres tall. They’re tree trunks that have been hollowed out by termites, then cut and coloured in bands of white and ochre and red and black. Creatures turn around the poles: fish — lots  of fish, a long-necked tortoise, a climbing goanna, two jabiru , skeleton figures, a line of frogs. The creatures are drawn against a hatching of fine lines. Imagine the long thin brush that made these, the skilled movement, from paint bowl to wood again and again. 

Label says: 43 artists from northwest Arnhem land produced these poles. Also, these are funeral coffins.

The poles are arranged as a forest. There’s a path between them. Like a river they rise on each side, shift, clump together lean towards you, divide as you move through the memorial. 

there’s only task
and the doing: thoughtless 
the foot moves and again 
head forward, unbalanced
already in the future

Label says: the layout of the display follows the Glyde River as it makes its way to the Arafura Sea. The poles are arranged to approximate the artists’ home country — tortoise next to mangrove next to waterhole next to black snake. Boundaries overlap, intersections are everywhere. 

You could easily reach out and place your hand on a pole, trace the hollow, follow a goanna or water dragon (though I’m guessing that one of the guards might eventually look up from their phones and saunter over to ask you to stop). 

Label says: the work was commissioned for 1988, the bicentenary of the founding of the European colony in Australia. A pole for each year of dispossession, of frontier wars in a settler country that has yet to recognise through constitution or truth telling First Nations Australians’ rightful place in their own country. 32 years on from this first making, the colours are still vivid, the work as moving, and it still provokes questions.

artificial lake
Cook’s fountain blows snow
high into the grey
it’s hard being an optimist
in this austere chill.** 

Image: my photos of the memorial, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. There’s much more about the memorial online.

* Akiko, Y. in K. Rexroth (trans.), One hundred more poems from the Japanese. New Directions. 1979, p. 14;

** Cook’s fountain or more correctly The Captain Cook Memorial and Jet sends water up to 150 metres into the air over Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra. It was installed in 1970 to mark the bicentennial of James Cook’s first sighting of the east coast of Australia.

And for music this morning, here’s a piece by American composer Philip Glass – called Mad Rush – (Youtube) though it was un-named when performed for the first visit by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to North America in 1979. Here’s the composer performing live at St John the Divine Cathedral in New York. Spine-tingling stuff.

This piece was written on the land of the Wodi Wodi people who are the Aboriginal custodians of the Illawarra — and I pay my respects to Elders past and present.

Review: More Farewells

Amelia Fielden, Ginninderra Press, 2020

More Farewells is Amelia Fielden’s eighth book of original tanka poetry in English. She’s also collaborated with other poets in six volumes, translated or co-translated 28 volumes of Japanese poetry and edited or co-edited seven anthologies of tanka verse — all in the last twenty years or so. 

Continue reading

Review of ‘Shorely’ at Tao Talk

On Sunday, I finally had a chance to make time to spend with, “Shorely.” It felt like going to church.

Thrilled to have my chapbook reviewed by the wonderful Msjadeli over at her blog – Taotalk where you’ll find much nourishing poetry, musings and music from one of WordPress’ most prolific and creative writers.

Image: Men reading their newspapers on a ferry, Sydney, 22 October 1940, photographer unknown, c/- State Library of NSW on Flickr (I’m sure they’re reading the poetry section of the Herald).

And to celebrate International Women’s Day here’s Joan Baez with her rendition of Joe Hill

Friday favourites – It’s difficult (to hear what you’re writing)…


Currently, I’m reading the new edition of Cordite. The theme for this edition is ‘difficult’ and it includes some provocative poetry along with artworks from Paola Balla and Hoda Afshar, translations into English of Brazilian and Romanian writers and an interview with Bangladeshi writer Kaiser Haq. There’s also six essays including a piece on poetry on the radio by Prithvi Varatharajan and an essay by Lynn Davison,  What the Repetitions of Poetry Might Help Us Remember about Home, Belonging and the Self  where she discusses how poetry can…

’embed us in place and community …and is maybe why we turn to it at heightened, frightened times in our lives. It orients us, it gives us context. And what we hear is not the remnants of a seemingly separate and distant oral tradition, but the called notes for our ways of knowing and being…

Among 50 new poems, my favourite so far – is Jini Maxwell’s bay city plaza

…and the dock sits, sunk like an old dog.
They say a good body is hard to find.

It’s seven now. I’ve had braver days.
Last night, the sea tantrumed herself flat
now the shore creeps out from under waves
as if cringing away from a smack;

Cordite is well worth a read (if you can get away from the construction noise: the crew with the hammers and saws starts early next door). And if not, try something noisy like Sons of Kemet live from the Vortex Club (big hair, big tuba)

Image: Postcard of old St Georges Shopping Centre, Preston Victoria, Tony Worral Photography, Flickr