Said The Rat : Jennifer Harrison & Phil Ilton
The readings at the Water Rat Hotel at the edge of the city in South Melbourne lived in interesting times. They broke the lull. Writers responded to September 11, Tampa and paused to watch Cathy Freeman run. Audience and readers came from all over: country Victoria, interstate and overseas. Said the Rat! celebrates those nights.
Andrew Zawacki, Maurice Wirth, Lauren Williams, Sean Whelan, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Dimitris Tsaloumas, Hugo Toonen, Hugh Tolhurst, Patricia Sykes, Jennifer Strauss, Maurice Strandgard, alicia sometimes, Sarndra Smith, Steve Smart, Alex Skovron, Jean Sietzema, Michael Sharkey, Andrew Sant, Philip Salom, Brendan Ryan, Robyn Rowland, Jacob G. Rosenberg, Judith Rodriguez, Pauline Reeve, Ron Pretty, Peter Porter, Dorothy Porter, Melissa Petrakis, K.F. Pearson, Geoff Page, Barbara Orlowska-Westwood, Suniti Namjoshi, Les Murray, Peter Murk, Ashlley Morgan-Shae, Alex Miller, Tim Metcalf, Meg McNena, Sandon McLeod, Lorraine McGuigan, Patrick McCauley, Ian McBryde, Chris Mansell, Garth Madsen, Myron Lysenko, Earl Livings, Ray Liversidge, Lish, Sheridan Linnell, Emma Lew, Joyce Lee, Phil Leask, Doris Leadbetter, Alana Kelsall, Manfred Jurgensen, John Jenkins & Ken Bolton, Janet Howie, Jillene Hone, Nguyen Tien Hoang, Sandra Hill, Matt Hetherington, Kristin Henry, Kevin Hart, Susan Hampton, Philip Hammial, Kathryn Hamann, Katherine Gallagher, Adrea Fox, Lesley Fowler, Lorin Ford, Wendy Fleming, Tony Fairbridge, Diane Fahey, Ross Donlon, Carla de Goede, Glenda de Bont, Charles D’Anastasi, Fred Curtis, James Cristina, Annie Condon, Sherryl Clark, Helen Cerne, Edward Caruso, John Muk Muk Burke, Pam Brown, Megan Brown, Kevin Brophy, Gillian Bouras, Rory Barnes, Connie Barber, Ali Alizadeh, Jordie Albiston, Adam Aitken
One of me stuttered and one
of me broke, and one of me tried
to fasten a line to one of
me untying it from me.
One of me watched a fisherman haul
a sand shark from the breaker,
while another was already years later,
returned to where a local man
baited for striper but landed a shark.
One of me sat under olivine clouds,
clouds of cerise, a courtesan sky,
and one of me sunned himself
as a child, imagining a fish-rod
turned fermata. One waved a sash
of cornflower blue, one heard
a windmill, one heard the wind,
one waved goodbye to an imminent
leftover love. And one strolled
barefoot and sunburnt across
the nickel inhibitions of afternoon,
tossing amber bottles at a smoke tree,
the gun lake, swimming toward
his family on the dock as twilight fell,
as the same boy stayed behind
to look at him swim. One believed
a father could be killed by falling rock,
and one woke up to find he’d only
dreamt, although his father was dead,
and one believed in a beautiful house
not built by any hand. One promised
nothing would break, and nothing did,
and one saw breaking everywhere
and could not say what he saw.
Last Dinner In Winter
Tonight we die together for the last time
alone in our long-shared dying chairs
outside the window
the fireflies flare
float and spiral up
the pinewood stairs...
through a dark split
in the moon’s scars
we re-enter the indifferent stars.
What the trees stand for
The night bus to Minyip leaves Ballarat
through a ceremonial arch,
enters the Avenue of Honour.
Flanking the straight black line of bitumen,
evenly spaced trees, shoulder to shoulder
loom in the headlights’ spill,
are swallowed by the following dark.
Each stands for a soldier who fell
far from this hometown earth.
The trunks flick by in hypnotic rhythm,
upright as young men’s backs.
Standing to attention they grow
on through the years not lived
by the boys whose names they bear.
There is no end to them,
flaring into light, dropping into darkness –
dead man dead man dead man
The bus presses on
through the long grief, the great wrong.
Minutes become miles of silent witness,
symbolic horror we pass through
unscathed, shamed by this long thin forest
– European, deciduous,
donning and doffing its green uniform
every year-long day.
At some missed point of transition
the Avenue of Honour ends.
They’re native trees now,
standing less formally,
scattered along the verge like refugees
in their own land, uncounted.
You reach over to turn on the windscreen wipers but she touches you on the hand and says, ‘No, don’t. I like the water. I like the way it ripples over the glass. It makes everything soft. Like we’re underwater, and the lights of the other cars are the eyes of other fish. Besides, we’re parked. We’re not going anywhere, are we?’
‘No,’ you say. ‘We’re not going anywhere.’
She takes her hand back and it occurs to you that it’s the first time she’s touched you in weeks.
The first time since you told her how you felt.
Outside it’s getting heavier, the street light above casts its weepy fluorescent gaze over the car like a net. You watch her lit fingers nervously pinching at the fabric of her dress.
You see a light come on in her house and you wonder whether it’s one of her flatmates or if it’s somebody else, waiting for her to come inside.
‘Elvis tears,’ she says suddenly.
‘What?’ you say.
‘Whenever it would storm like this my mother would say here comes more Elvis tears. That man will never stop crying.’
‘She must have liked Elvis a lot,’ you say.
‘She hated him,’ she says. ‘She hated him for dying on the toilet reading a porno mag. I think it kinda took the polish off his romantic image for her. I don’t think she ever trusted men again after that. She always said, A man like that isn’t supposed to die that way.’
‘What do you think Elvis is crying about tonight then?’ You say and you turn back to her and there’s one of Elvis’ tears right now forming in the corner of her eye, swelling into a tiny pool and sparkling like a silver sequin.
You wonder how it got into the car.
You feel suddenly dizzy. She has never looked so real before.
You reach out to touch it, but she scrubs it away with the back of her hand and suddenly she’s opened the door and she’s standing out in the storm and Elvis is weeping all over her.
‘This is killing me,’ she says.
In seconds she’s so wet that you can’t tell the difference between Elvis’ tears and hers.
‘I hate Elvis,’ she says. ‘And I don’t even have a fucking umbrella,’ and she slams the door.
And she’s gone.
You stare at where she once was.
Elvis keeps crying.
And your electric heaven is rusting all around you.
Reading Smoke With Orpheus
Tranquillity. It can be painted, but
it’s very much like reading smoke
or seeing a snake as mobile typography.
Gods ruling the dark and wordless world,
everyone born of woman comes to you;
you are the debtors we have to pay,
even a musician must in time
Orpheus lolled in his deckchair, strumming the lute.
His wife screamed, but music does not hear
the sound of lesser sounds
and so the venom struck,
the bud was plucked
before her flower so much as came to flower
since everything arrives
and goes too soon.
What is the use of grief? It’s only
a blind wind sowing the sand with sand;
and so is music, if it comes to that,
which it always does,
since even Wolfgang Mozart’s long ravishing harmonies
are beaten up by destiny.
Yet the underworld
is not an overlord,
more like your shadow on the well-mown
The towers burn, the paysage is perfection:
art for a while, after all,
keeps fingernails of the maenads well away
and a head on your shoulders.
How still the waters,
unshaken those neoclassical trees.
Strange that your image should occur to me
as I beat the grass for snakes in this
forsaken patch. It doesn’t seem right to me.
I have always thought your manner somewhat
too correct, but your business dealings
are of good report. Or is it the woman
who shares my bed? She burns in the flesh
of many a man and I find it galling, I confess,
that you should never look at her that way.
It kind of blunts the sting of my pleasure.
Nor does the splendour of my house and fame
move you much. Yet there you are, my friend,
flushed out of grass by the scouting stick
amid the knotted vines, pleasant as ever,
tall in the haze a cut above the likes of me.
It bothers me. This is my brother’s vineyard.
To The Poet
Your gestures have precision, yet they conflict
with the manner of your speech. Your words
are wine-purple islands that drift below the bars
of sunset cloud, when the heron leaves
the autumn shore and night’s only a mile away.
I bend on them and try to pin their meaning
on to some place or thing but still they shift
and in the star-lit dark they loom ambiguous,
move into the very vagueness of my sleeping.
Why can’t you say what you mean
so that a busy man can get it straight and clear?
What business of yours is my dreaming?
The other day I read you again, out of spite,
and laughed, yet I lay all night on thorns.
Those quirky characters are but the creatures
of your spleen, the brood of failure. O.K.,
I’m rich. So what? I worked for it hard,
but you will have it sound like a sin.
Or doesn’t it take some effort to be poor
these days? Fuck off! I bought your book
to see where my taxes go and feel like starting
a revolution. You are no use to this city.
Said the Rat! - Writers at the Water Rat 2000-2002
Famous Reporter, No. 29, June 2004
Black Pepper’s 221 page collection of poetry from the readings at Melbourne’s Water Rat Hotel encapsulates the work of local, interstate and international writers... a veritable who’s who of writers including Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Jennifer Strauss, Maurice Strandgard, alicia sometimes, Alex Skovron, Michael Sharkey, Andrew Sant, Philip Salom, Brendan Ryan, Judith Rodriguez, Peter Porter, Ron Pretty, Dorothy Porter, Les Murray, Kevin Hart, Lesley Fowler, Kevin Brophy, Adam Aitken, Myron Lysenko, Jordie Albiston... and many, many more. The Water Rat’s monthly Monday evening readings quickly became a meeting place for Melbourne’s writers, remarks Jennifer Harrison, with memorable nights too many to single out, adding:
Certain images remain strong. Philip Salom under the spotlight in his baseball cap reading the mesmerising poems from his book a creative life; Les Murray and Doris Leadbetter in high spirits rocking the house, Hugh Tolhurst reading his marvelous poem ‘Rockling King’ and Jordie Albiston stunning the room with her poem ‘The Fall’... I particularly loved the reading shared by the US Navajo poet Rex Lee Jim and Melbourne’s Gig Ryan. Gig’s sharp urban fables and Rex’s epic folk lyrics shimmered off each other into a profound listening silence, the reading the best I’ve ever heard.
Past the Itch
Australian Book Review, No. 264, September 2004
This new anthology commemorates monthly readings conducted at The Water Rat Hotel, South Melbourne, from March 2000 to December 2002, each of which presented a guest writer from overseas or interstate together with a featured local writer and an open section. The rich variety of the exchanges is immediately evident in this collection, which is notable not only for its diversity but also for the general assurance and interest of the selections. In all, there are 123 pieces of writing, from ninety-three writers.
In ‘The Beekeeper’s Directory’, Andrew Sant presents a discontinuous history through the figure of the bee-keeper, a link across countries and time that is suggested in the common busyness of bees and the golden nourishment of honey. It is a tracery of family, generations and inheritance, an act of mnemonic retrieval that Philip Salom addresses in terms not of honey but of figs (‘these metaphors which took me past the itch / metaphors stand in for’). In ‘The Family Fig Trees’, fig trees are displaced by family trees in an act of recovery of ‘the old Sephardic bloodline’ denied by claims ‘we were English, and Spanish married into Welsh’, designations that, ‘like watermarks’, cannot efface others.
Represented here by three poems, Emma Lew’s writing is hauntingly suggestive. Her spare diction plays between the literal and the symbolic as she explores the unreality of realities - a man struggling with words, a speaker demonstrating her selves, and a traveller in other people’s lives. In Lorraine McGuigan’s ‘Husk’, the metaphor is literalised as ‘she’, reduced, bound in hospital sheets and then unravelled, ‘begins to crumble / to collapse to fall inward / until she is nothing / but powder’. Her poem ‘Cocktail Hour’ is also sharp in feeling as it evokes in carefully measured language a woman’s (‘the poet’s’) loving attention to a suffering man, ‘washing him young again’ with a sponge and with words.
Real or imagined, places are always important, and in this collection they vary from the effective detail of Katherine Gallagher’s ‘My Mother’s Garden’, with its notion of talking to mother ‘through the soles of my feet’ and Doris Leadbetter’s sensuous hymn to the Yorkshire moors in ‘Northern Summer’, to Kevin Hart’s ‘Finland’ as a place ‘I can do without’.
In Edward Caruso’s ‘Walls’ and Ron Pretty’s ‘Epiphany Perhaps’, place expands to incorporate vastnesses of space and time and, in the latter, contemplation of signal moments in the sweep from creation to apocalypse. Kevin Brophy’s ‘Morning’ presents markers of place in a short narrative of family routine that becomes also a meditation on life values and the threat of death.
Among various tributes to artists and to art, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, in ‘Reading Smoke with Orpheus’, acknowledges mortality, debts to the past and the power of art, which ‘for a while, after all, / keeps fingernails of the maenads well away / and a head on your shoulders’. Alex Skovron’s ‘Dreams of Dead Poets’ offers an ironic vision of fame obliterated by thoughts of inadequacy and of what must yet be discovered: ‘like a poet at night, in one last desperate quest: /I must find Milton, Botticelli, Bach. / There are some urgent things I need to know.’ Taking up the old association of madness and creativity, Hugh Tolhurst begins disarmingly: ‘Going crazy is quieter for me these days.’ His ‘Rockling King’ is witty, a well-controlled consideration of the interplay between Dionysiac excess and ideas of security, of ‘safe mooring’.
For humour, there is Michael Sharkey’s modulated satire of television soaps with characters ‘so / Gorgeous in their kitchens’, ‘beautiful in crisis’. Indeed, ‘Where do they all go, when the cameras / Are asleep?’ Given the precious banality of soaps, we can even begin to enjoy the ad breaks. There is a broader comedy in Myron Lysenko’s ‘Sex at the Poetry Workshop’, an amusing short narrative that interfuses workshop and playhouse as poets discuss their metaphors while awaiting the arrival of a love-starved woman who will select one of them ‘for a safe one-night stand’.
Amongst the considerable range of poetry, the collection also includes a number of prose pieces. In an extract from Journey to the Stone Country, Alex Miller presents a compelling short portrait of Annabelle Küen, forty-two, who arrives home to discover unexpectedly that her husband Steven has left her. Fifty, an academic working on biography, he is sometimes held to be dull. He has left a letter on the hallstand and we have only Annabelle’s point of view, her reaction shaped as self-criticism: ‘he would be admired, even envied, for his conquest. He would not need her again to defend him against the charge of dullness.’ It is an astute piece of writing built through an accumulation of deft touches. From Aphrodite and the Others, Gillian Bouras’s sympathetic portrait of Aphrodite depicts a life of routines constructed according to seasonal patterns, religious observations and family matters. She is Greek, old, daughter of a priest and wife of one, a stoic figure caught sharply in photographs.
Jennifer Harrison and Phil Ilton deserve congratulations for the readings and for the anthology. Those monthly readings continue, at Molly Bloom’s, in Port Melbourne.
Said the Rat! - Writers at The Water Rat 2000-2002
Malleable Jangle (online), No. 4
Beside the large number of poetry anthologies currently available it might be difficult to find one that makes a point of distinction, stands out from the others, or offers something else but Said the Rat! has done just that and much more. One of the problems with a collation that covers the history of Australian poetry is that it often will confine itself to periods of time and to particular styles of writing. Finding an anthology that showcases a wide range of contemporary Australian poetry has never been a simple thing, often complicated by a focus on established poets with little regard for the innovative and up-coming poets that surround their lives. Said the Rat! offers a mixture of emerging and established writing from all over the continent, providing readers with an opportunity to notice the diversity, originality, and intelligence of Australia’s poets. As with all anthologies there is always that stand out poem or peculiarity of image that captures the heart or the imagination. In this instance I was struck by the creativity of Sarndra Smith’s ‘Last Detail’, reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s writing in its use of the eye dropper filled with salt-water to bring the ocean life back to her ex-sailor father on his death bed. An oddity could have been a Geoff Page poem that was not a rhyming poem. I was disappointed in three contrived poems from Les Murray but was deeply moved by the integrity of Ray Liversidge’s elegy for his father called ‘Baudelaire the bricklayer’. Many of the poems from well-known poets come from current collections and, if read before, will not offer the surprise of reading; for those who have not read widely Said the Rat! will generate more than a few moments of excitement and many hours of enjoyable reading.
by Phil Ilton
When Jennifer Harrison suggested to the Executive Committee of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (Vic) in late 1999 that the FAW run a monthly poetry/literary reading, I was sceptical it would succeed. The idea was fine; a most worthy endeavour for a writers’ organisation. My concern was that in the immediately preceding years there had been a burgeoning of regular readings in Melbourne. Would there be room for another? My doubt was dispelled on a warm evening in March 2000 when I ambled from the office where I work in South Melbourne to the Water Rat Hotel. Inside, the Lounge was buzzing, packed with about seventy people, including many poets and writers I knew. The two featured readers, Peter Porter and Peter Rose, performed strong sets covering a broad range of styles, rich in metaphor and mood. The crowd loved it. Writers at the Water Rat was in liftoff.
Like many others, I became a regular reader in the Open Section. The blend of high quality featured readers and an opportunity for emerging writers to air their work consistently drew substantial and enthusiastic audiences. Jennifer introduced the innovation that every month one of the featured readers was from interstate or overseas, which was challenging to maintain – no other reading venue regularly included features from outside Victoria. Whereas other readings focussed on poetry, another distinctive feature of the Water Rat was Jennifer’s inclusion of both poetry and prose features and encouragement of all writing genres. Add the intimate atmosphere of the Water Rat Lounge and these readings were in a class of their own on Melbourne’s literary calendar.
About three months into the readings, feeling guilty I hadn’t to date offered to assist Jennifer and my fellow FAW Committee members on these nights, I asked was there anything I could do? I had in mind pitching in to share tasks like being on the door, bringing in more chairs, or whatever. To my pleasant surprise Jennifer suggested I introduce the first set of Open Readers. With her encouragement, this became my regular ‘slot.’ Later that year Jennifer indicated to the FAW that due to increasing hours in her job, she would not be able to continue as Convenor/MC of the readings after March 2001. I was once again chuffed when Jennifer and the FAW responded most affirmatively to my offer to take on the convenor’s role. I continued the traditions Jennifer had established: quality featured readers, one each month coming from interstate or overseas, an inclusive Open Section and encouragement of all writing genres. The readings’ success continued.
In mid 2002 the owners of the Water Rat purchased another hotel: Molly Blooms in Port Melbourne, the walls of its lounge covered with James Joyce memorabilia. This strong literary association, and a much larger room for our considerable audiences, tipped the scales in favour of moving the readings to Molly’s.
To capture a taste of the Water Rat Readings, I thought of producing an anthology of those who read there. The FAW embraced publication of the book and I was joyed by Jennifer’s acceptance of my invitation to be Co-editor, and her wonderful proposal for a title: Said The Rat! The project got another boost when Black Pepper agreed to become co-publisher. Jennifer and I are confident our selection of poetry and prose in this volume reflects the quality of Writers at the Water Rat. Although we both read our own poetry at The Rat (Jennifer when I was MC, myself when Jennifer was MC), neither of us are included here since we believe it’s not possible for one to objectively judge the merit of one’s own work.
I wish to thank Jennifer Harrison, the Fellowship of Australian Writers (Vic) and Black Pepper for their valuable support in producing this anthology. And the Said The Rat! contributors, the Water Rat readers and the audiences, who all made it possible.
It was with sadness that I closed an era when I turned off the mike at the last Water Rat reading in December 2002. An era of first class evenings of literary performances when it was well known
The Water Rat
is Where It's At
by Jennifer Harrison
Melbourne is, without a doubt, a writer’s city. Poetry, prose, plays (on the rocks, hybridized, shaken or stirred) can be heard in bookstores, schools, universities, pubs, clubs, on boats, in galleries and in the marvelous La Mama and Trades Union Hall. Some years ago, there were fewer opportunities and, often, the same local poets were the only regular performers. The Writers at the Water Rat reading series began with clear objectives: that each event would feature an overseas or interstate guest writer with a local author in order to create dialogue, freshness, sometimes tension; that each event would have a short open section to provide opportunities for new writers; and that the space was to be intimate and attentive, an atmosphere in which authors and audience were mutually accessible.
The Fellowship of Australian Writers (Victoria) Inc. wanted something new to replace a lecture series that had dropped off in attendance. Clare Mendes and I successfully negotiated the space with the Water Rat Hotel’s co-publican, Tim Rayson, who subsequently remained an enthusiastic, at times bemused, supporter of the ‘rat readings.’ The room’s nautical, fishing décor was salt enough - and the Monday night, monthly event quickly became a meeting place for many of Melbourne’s writers who were assured of hearing the work of someone new in town.
The series kicked off with two of poetry’s finest Peters: Porter and Rose. The room was packed and the teething problems of the space added to the atmosphere. We’d forgotten to silence the bar phone and Chris Wallace-Crabbe obliged as a comic concierge answering the many, unexpected incoming calls. Through the stiff swing doors, the sounds of the pub patrons drifted in. Tiny square tables were crowded together allowing only thin alleys through which readers could reach the mike and lectern.
Although we learned how to manage the bar phone (and Chris was able to relinquish that duty for a superb reading later in the series), the atmosphere at the Rat remained one of conviviality, good humour and respect. Looking back, the memorable nights are too many to single out. Certain images remain strong: Philip Salom under the spotlight in his baseball cap reading the mesmerizing poems from his book a cretive life; Les Murray and Doris Leadbetter in high spirits rocking the house, Hugh Tolhurst reading his marvelous poem ‘Rockling King’ and Jordie Albiston stunning the room with her poem ‘The Fall.’
Others have different memories and many of the anthology’s contributors graciously sent in anecdotes: Meg McNena, for example, recalls the way the light fell on the windows’ wooden blinds. I particularly loved the reading shared by the US Navajo poet Rex Lee Jim and Melbourne’s Gig Ryan. Gig’s sharp urban fables and Rex’s epic folk lyrics shimmered off each other into a profound listening silence, the reading the best I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, I was unable to trace Rex for this anthology. Some other readers failed to submit work in time; this anthology is only a partial reflection of the period. It’s also important to point out that contributors were invited to preferentially submit work they might have read at the Water Rat. How has this affected the anthology? Certainly, the selected work reflects the spirit of the series: what you might have heard had you been there. The quality of the work speaks for itself. Poetry predominates and this too accurately reflects the breakdown of genres.
I am greatly indebted to the FAW’s Clare Mendes, Marcus Niski and Philip Rainford who helped sail the Water Rat boat throughout and to Phil Ilton who shared the MC role and eventually took over the series in 2001. I thank, also, poets such as K.F. Pearson, Robyn Rowland, John Jenkins, Lauren Williams, the always wonderful Judith Rodriguez and her students and the many more who so staunchly supported the Water Rat Readings. On March 26 2001, The Water Rat was privileged to represent Melbourne as part of the United Nations ‘Dialogue Among Civilizations Through Poetry,’ a week of poetry performances involving over one hundred cities and two hundred readings worldwide. Dimitris Tsaloumas and Jennifer Strauss featured on the night. Others attending wrote spontaneous poems based on the United Nations theme of ‘fostering tolerance, respect and cooperation among peoples.’ Reproduced here is what Judith Rodriguez penned that night
The Taliban rockets bring down rubble
The Buddha with a practised swiftness
but no hurry
leaps the valley where stories briefly
ricochet and tumble