Funeral of Queen Mary
Life Models in Oxford
Munich: Lessons in Fragility
Little Highland Love Poem
Spring for the Missus
The Night Kitchen
Cathedral Maker in the Manna Gum Forest
Letters to a Thai Friend
At the Dürer Exhibition
Erasmus in the High Country
Photograph of the Old Marc Chagall
An Awful Wedding
Program about the Chilean Writer
A Lost Tolstoy Story:
Woman’s Amber Broach
In Memoriam – Fred Williams
Museum of Mankind
Australian in Iona
Sultan Suleyman amongst the Cows
No. 107, Summer 2006
Whereas Edgar’s collection [Other Summers
ends with a cemetery, Sangster’s begins in one:
stones grow wild here / ...this is a midden place...’ In her
debut collection, she confronts us with some unusual locations, unusual
experiences, emotional, physical and spiritual. We see, inter alia
through the eyes of an artist’s model in Oxford, an
Iona, a traveller in Thailand and Burma. Sangster takes us into places
where we sense not simply the gulfs between cultures, but also between
individuals. Her poems are bold and original, although sometimes not
fully realised: ‘We walk through the sanctuary of the mango
grove, / you mourn friends lost in the May massacre and I / do not know
how to comfort you’ (‘Letters To a Thai
overliteral recording of experience can limit the poetry, which
becomes, instead, prosaic and at times there is weak lineation.
Mostly, though, there’s a refreshing openness, an empathy and
compassion for humanity, as in ‘Hsay Plo’:
peaceful can be the most / full of rage.’ Two especially
poems are ‘Caledonian Forest’ and
Country’, behind both of which is the notion that things
bring us together can also intensify our separateness. The imagery in
‘Marriage Country’ is unified, understated and
evoked: the setting, old gold-mining territory, is a perfect metaphor
for a rejected marriage proposal, ‘The ground beneath us /
riddled with empty and ungilded chambers / Gold, all gone.’
final poem, ‘Sultan Suleyman Amongst The Cows’ is a
and imaginary blending of two cultures in a timeless cosmic vision:
‘Cow gods / pulling the sky along / a newly etched pigment /
amongst the milky breathings / the steam of dung.’
Sangster’s is a very individual voice speaking from
places’, places where displacement can bring transformation.
things and people are abandoned, displaced (like
‘Mustafa’), perhaps they gain greater integrity,
Goes walking in the high country
Below the line of snow gums.
It is summer and the world is huge
and hot amongst the granite boulders.
He stops by a tarn to watch a fish.
The pool is stained by the oil
of the blackwood wattle and its deep
still green holds a certain
The fish is alone but not tragic
about this, instead he is playing the fool
and catching insects in his mouth
and twisting his tail to see how the light
will break, refract, spin at the slightest move.
The water is his whirligig.
The fish delights; turning around and
trying to swim on his back will amuse for hours
and Erasmus can see immediately
the similarities; man standing in direct
relation to god and mucking around
under his gaze.
Like that daring, darling fish
the age spots on his skin. So irreverent.
Laughing and crude in the face of spirit.
Stirring the scum of skeletons and pods
up with his belly
just for fun, just to shock.
The fish knows he has an audience.
in the High Country’
I am weary of this wise man
poem, ‘Erasmus in the High Country’,
is one of several very memorable poems in Kirsty
Sangster’s first collection, Midden Places.
There are several
others that might have been equally well chosen but ‘Erasmus
in the High
Country’ makes more explicit the religious element which
seems to underly most
of her work. In some ways it is a poem of pure, even arbitrary,
How does the Dutch religious humanist philosopher get to be
‘walking in the
high country / below the line of snow gums’?
It’s not a question that disturbs us for long
however since we’re almost
immediately caught up in Sangster’s description of the single
fish in a tarn ‘stained
by the oil / of the blackwood wattle’. The wise philosopher,
rather like God,
looks down. The fish is ‘laughing and crude in the face of
spirit’. The fish is
‘Stirring the scum of skeletons and pods... just for fun,
just to shock’. Like
us naughty humans, Sangster implies, ‘The fish knows he has
an audience.’ It’s
a neat little parable - disturbing and charming, even for the most
readers. It’s significant, though, that we cannot tell to
which religion, let
alone denomination, Sangster belongs. Her poetry goes much deeper than
The biographical notes speaks of her work for human rights and refugees
is clear that her knowledge of such plights informs her work. In
of remarkable empathy she seems to know exactly what is going on in the
of people in such situations. At the end of her poem,
‘Mustafa’, for example,
she talks of how a Kurdish refugee in Scotland ‘looks / for
all the world like
some weird / partisan... pretty stunned, totally cool and yet /
grief so huge / it is tactile /held like that mug.’ In
‘Two Friends’ she has a
Burmese refugee talk ‘about the ten months crouched / with
knees against chest
getting weaker / and weaker in the crowded prison cells’.
clearly has a talent for the imaginative use of detail, she also has a
remarkable rhythmic skill. Unlike quite a lot of what passes for free
these days, Sangster’s has a real energy and cumulative
impact, reminiscent of
the psalms of the 1611 Bible where free verse in English started. Take
opening of ‘Agape’, for instance:
I see you
kneeling on a street in Athens
in black you spit from a face
that is all mouth, all hole and rag...
opening of ‘Laments’:
love started near the
where the Three Sisters stare at the sea...
also has a feel
for the dramatic and exactly how long a poem needs to be to have its
Most of the pieces in Midden
Places run for about a page and a half - long
enough to establish and examine a situation but short enough not to
bogged-down or repetitive. She has quite a way with language, too, -
with the descriptions that seem to combine the physical and
also in her risky but effective occasional use of archaic or
words and inversions of word order.
Garden’, for instance, she says:
giving sway-back of the hills
wattle-bird brings in singing the dark.
Chooks settle in their locked up shed.
have been several highly auspicious first books by female Australian
poets in the last few years - Bronwyn Lea’s Flight Animals and Adrienne Eberhard’s
just two. Kirsty Sangster’s
Places also deserves a place in that distinguished company.