Cover of Midden Places
Midden Places
Kirsty Sangster

a real energy and cumulative impact, reminiscent of the psalms of the 1611 Bible where free verse in English started
Geoff Page, Radio National
refreshing openness, an empathy and compassion for humanity
Janet Upcher, Island
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 Erasmus. Philospher.
 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.

Kirsty Sangster lures us in by beguiling narratives. An artist recalls a Russian baroness who posed for her during the War. A black dog gives birth in the shadow of thousand year old temples. A mother’s ghost becomes halo and dust. A girl begs in Athens, cathedrals are built. Saints and sailors throw standing stones into the sea. Erasmus walks in the High Country and a tale is refashioned from Tolstoy. These stories occupy her midden places which are a dumping ground where / all graced and abandoned things gather. In such common locales, and to their folk, transformation happens. They experience change or a rare luminescence. This is quiet but disturbing religious poetry of a high order. Kirsty Sangster has, as Kevin Hart noted, ‘the spark that poets must have’.

Cover photograph: Pam McGrath, Old Gaol, Old Onslow, 2002
ISBN 9781876044473
10 DIGIT ISBN 1876044470
Published 2006
59 pgs
Midden Places book sample

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Funeral of Queen Mary
Life Models in Oxford
Munich: Lessons in Fragility
Little Highland Love Poem
Spring for the Missus
The Night Kitchen
Caledonian Forest
Two Friends
Cathedral Maker in the Manna Gum Forest
Letters to a Thai Friend
At the Dürer Exhibition
Erasmus in the High Country
Marriage Country
Photograph of the Old Marc Chagall
Hsay Plo
Puu Edwin
An Awful Wedding
Program about the Chilean Writer
A Lost Tolstoy Story:
    The Woman’s Amber Broach
Koonwak: Garden
In Memoriam – Fred Williams
    Beach: Princetown
Museum of Mankind
Australian in Iona
Sultan Suleyman amongst the Cows

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Midden Places
Janet Upcher
Island, No. 107, Summer 2006

Whereas Edgar’s collection [Other Summers] ends with a cemetery, Sangster’s begins in one: ‘the head 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 Australian in 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 Friend’). An 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’: ‘The most peaceful can be the most / full of rage.’ Two especially strong poems are ‘Caledonian Forest’ and ‘Marriage Country’, behind both of which is the notion that things which bring us together can also intensify our separateness. The imagery in ‘Marriage Country’ is unified, understated and vividly 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.’ The final poem, ‘Sultan Suleyman Amongst The Cows’ is a quirky 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 ‘midden places’, places where displacement can bring transformation. When things and people are abandoned, displaced (like ‘Mustafa’), perhaps they gain greater integrity, more authenticity.

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Midden Places
Geoff Page
Radio National’s The Book Show 2006

Erasmus. Philosopher.
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
monastic viridescence.

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.

‘Erasmus in the High Country’
I am weary of this wise man

That 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, imagination. 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 secular of readers. It’s significant, though, that we cannot tell to which religion, let alone denomination, Sangster belongs. Her poetry goes much deeper than that. The biographical notes speaks of her work for human rights and refugees and it is clear that her knowledge of such plights informs her work. In several poems of remarkable empathy she seems to know exactly what is going on in the minds 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 / grieving a 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’. Although Sangster 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 verse 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 the opening of ‘Agape’, for instance:

I see you kneeling on a street in Athens
veiled in black you spit from a face
that is all mouth, all hole and rag...

or the opening of ‘Laments’:

Our deep love started near the mountain
where the Three Sisters stare at the sea...

Sangster also has a feel for the dramatic and exactly how long a poem needs to be to have its effect. 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 become bogged-down or repetitive. She has quite a way with language, too, - not just with the descriptions that seem to combine the physical and metaphysical but also in her risky but effective occasional use of archaic or ‘out-of-register’ words and inversions of word order.  In ‘Koonwak: Garden’, for instance, she says:

Under the giving sway-back of the hills
a wattle-bird brings in singing the dark.
Chooks settle in their locked up shed.

There 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 Agammemnon’s Poppies, to name just two. Kirsty Sangster’s Midden Places also deserves a place in that distinguished company.

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