How to Read the Road
the world was a little darker
I am waiting to hear if my employment will continue into 2021. It does not look positive. The anxiety makes me particularly attuned to the strangely tinny two-tone notification that accompanies the arrival of an email, a sound like the pocketing of a coin in Mario’s universe. Another message has arrived. There is no news regarding the future of my employment. The email, from G, has the subject And On A Much More Fun Topic…
before it was blue
G, who will be participating in the ‘voluntary separation’ program offered by our employer – a program I do not qualify for – writes:
I discovered yesterday in Campsie there are five parallel streets named: Shakespeare, Browning, Dryden, Burns and Cowper. And then three others near them called Shelley, Tennyson and Byron. And then off Cowper are three more parallel streets named Adam, Lindsay and Gordon!!
It’s crying out for a Poet’s Walk…or at the very least, a plaque to Adam Lindsay Gordon.
I reply instantly:
I wonder who the poet was in council when they were naming streets?
It also suggests a great potential cartographic cento!
Not yet knowing what I mean.
brilliant as nowhere special to go
I learn that I have not made the interview stage for the role I had been performing for years prior. I walk to Campsie to meet with J, a former housemate, for a sauna, to sweat and swear. Like G, J has taken a ‘voluntary separation package’ from a different institution, and seems transformed since absconding from the academy. We strip off and I vent my spleen in the steam.
you could try double blinds
After, feeling lighter, I walk the streets of Campsie, stumbling onto and along the names from G’s email. She’d forgotten to include Moore.
Free time does not feel like it when the end of short term contracts are in sight and there is once again no certainty regarding teaching loads for a semester that is months away. A pandemic makes it easier to be holed up at home, blinds drawn (doubly if they could be), reading poetry you otherwise would not have. Dead and English. Make a cheese sandwich heavy on mustard.
machines parody all future empires
I had accrued some of the necessary texts for the preliminary work the way any would-be-writer would have: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare on biblically thin pages in tiny font, purchased from Basement Books beneath Central Station (RIP); a Penguin anthology, The Portable Romantic Poets, edited by W. H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson, salvaged from a pile of discarded books outside the office of a soon-to-be-gone academic (Robert Burns, Thomas Moore, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley); and a Dover Thrift Editions anthology of English Victorian Poetry edited by Paul Negri, salvaged from a similar pile, the paper shadow of yet another voluntary separation (Lord Tennyson, and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning).
Truth told I’d never even heard of Adam Lindsay Gordon. I google the names absent from the hardcopies incidentally already assembled. The gaps and absences in my reading start to feel like justification for my unemployment – you can’t recite from memory ‘The Swimmer’? It’s no wonder you’re out on yours…
say goodbye to the supermarket.
I start reading the Victorians, pencil in hand, underlining lines that grab and hold the eye and mind for one reason or another, amassing dogs’ ears and fragments. In the forever-young Peter Panning of Tennyson’s ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ I recognize some reflection of the way time shapes itself for me now, languid/languished, as they come unto a land ‘In which it seemed always afternoon,’ and underline the line.
Admonished by a line in Browning’s ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’, mark it, too, as a reminder, ‘Water your damned flower-pots, do!’ Wet the houseplants, dry from a concerted effort not to when my aimless wandering of the house in the preceding weeks had nearly drowned them with frequent sips and visits. In wanting their growth to stimulate my own I’d smothered them. Gather more fragments from Browning, muse them, to paraphrase a line from the other Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, addressed, in love, to the former, in his antique tongue.
unbearable authority makes me dizzy
Move from these poems of love to the Romantics. Still ambling, lightheaded, as I had along the streets named for them, through the pages. Try to contort my mouth and find the sounds to read Burns’ Scots dialect aloud, feeling as though I’m breathing too much into the storm of apostrophes, capsizing the rhythm amid the missing letters. Still, there’s a few paper pinna, ‘A burning and a shining light’ from ‘Holly Willie’s Prayer’. And later, in the Shelley section, a line from those ‘…Written Among The Euganean Hills’ in October 1818:
And the dim low line before
shocked by faultless mathematics
Lockdown continues. On government sanctioned walks within the radius of the day I note the names on signs about the suburbs and mentally cross check them with poets whose work I’ve read. I start hoping to see streets I know don’t exist. Lorange Lane onto Albiston Avenue.
technicolour pesticides and diesel slops,
I am reading through dead poet’s poems ‘masochistic enough to want to read the book in order’ to quote S quoting Bruce Covey’s ‘Flat: Sentences from 14 Science Books’ in his ‘Shy Riot’ cento. I email S enquiring about the form, hoping that in needing to articulate my proposed project it might become a little clearer to me. I say:
The immediate idea that suggested itself was some sort of Campsie Centos that borrows the framework of the map, and I’ve been fumbling about trying a few things to that effect.
He is generous with his time, offers not only advice for composing centos, but another site for me to consider. S mentions points out that although the poem ‘Shy Riot’ only once mentions history, embedded in the borrowed lines are:
‘sophistication’, ‘a-historical’, ‘schist’, ‘whist’, ‘hysterical’ etc
In the similarly anagrammatically titled long cento ‘C (note)’ the 50-odd sampled lines mention:
‘length’, ‘longing’, ‘oblong’ etc
i turn away ekphrastic
‘Sidelong’ amongst the etc. A line pickpocketed from Kevin Killian’s ‘Pickpocket’. Reading now as though with a sidelong glance, casting the poems into the company of their neighbours, waiting to find themes by which to group or hunt these lines.
Tired of turning to the same few anthologized poems, I search for and locate ‘complete works’ PDFs of unwieldy proportions to pore over poetry. In the absence of employment the crash course in the history of my craft continues. There are word docs that grow longer with lines copy-pasted from Byron, Burns, the Brownings.
I group lines with obvious themes – poets across the world and time are besotted with the moon. Shelley, in ‘Alastor; or, the spirit of solitude’ observes ‘As ocean’s moon looks on the moon in heaven’, and in Burns’ ‘A Vision’ the speaker is ‘by the moonbeam, shook to see’.
Almost as universally appreciated by the poetically-inclined are birds. Shakespeare’s ‘Bridal Song’ mentions ‘The crow, the slanderous cuckoo’; Tennyson’s ‘Come Down, O Maid’ ‘The moan of doves in immemorial elms’; in Cowper’s ‘The Task: Book V – The Winter Morning Walk’ ‘The sparrows peep, and quit the sheltering eaves’.
The earliest drafts littered lines in a chaotic and complex ordering that looked nothing like the spaces that ushered them into being. What road would make the first line of the poem? Unsure how to render different dimensions of the map on the page of the poem the lines arranged traditionally along the left margin felt lifeless, the interceptions and enticing wrong turns eradicated.
into a new present
Turn the laptop into a lightbox. Press a page to the screen and try to scrawl the lines along the lanes. A lightbulb.
of geometry and truth, neo-conservative1
precision, anachronisms make truth
Now knowing how such a map might be constructed, I return to S’s email:
St Kilda’s Acland St, off which runs Shakespeare Grove, off which runs Spenser St & Chaucer St. on the other side of Barkly St there’s Dickens St, Milton St & *drumroll* Tennyson St etc
Unable to walk there, unable to enter the state, I pull up Google maps and find that the streets mostly surround the Peanut Farm Reserve in St Kilda. There a some new names, which strikes me, strangely, as a Blessing(ton St). In the neighbouring suburb of Elwood is a clustered and familiar roll call (Milton, Gordon, Byron, Tennyson, Browning, Dryden, Moore), which I steer clear of.
Within the boundary of St Kilda I trace out Shakespeare Grove, Chaucer Street, Spenser Street, Wordsworth Street, and Mitford Street and Place. And in the lines of these poets, an image of the town.
a panacea for ego, and the gesture2
troubles me, still asking
I receive a book from P in the mail, and compose an email of thanks. I attach a poem, a sestina I have written using anagrams of two lines taken from her poem ‘Susceptibility Song’:
a spot of time.
The full fragment reads:
a spot of time
An allusion to when the world was ending in a different way, perhaps. P replies to the email with a confession:
I stole or rewrote that line from William Wordsworth – you’ve taken it from me – thoroughly used goods!
And a fragment from Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude XII’:
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence—depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse—our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
Later, punningly, P tells me that ‘wordsworth is worth it sometimes’.
opposite questions –
I should not be surprised to find so much dick on the street. The names of roads and streets are known as hodonyms, and while these are often named for people, or trees, the most common street name in the United States is Second Street. I wondered, then, if the underlying principles of centocartography that had been taking shape as I mapped Campsie and St Kilda with borrowed lines, might apply to hodonyms that were ordinal numbers, in regions where toponyms, intentional or otherwise, are the names of poets.
Bordered by Charles Village to the west, Abell to the north, Waverly to the east and Barclay to the South is the small north-central neighbourhood of Harwood, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. It is not named for the Australian poet Gwen Harwood, but the arrangement of 29th to 25 ½th Streets running through the suburb do propose a way of arranging a reading of her. Mapping the 29th line of a poem to 29th St, 28th line to 28th St, and so on, until the first half of the 25th line of a poem (as per the number of words, not letters)
talk less, mark slow time,3
draw inconclusive ends, hope resting
The Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Cartography states that a map ‘may involve the superimposition of political, cultural, or other nongeographical divisions onto the representation of a geographical area’.
So the culture is superimposed on the land, and on those who occupy it. But we can skew the system.
All subheadings taken from ‘Blue or White’ a cento composed by Pam Brown with lines taken from poems by Kate Fagan.
Adam Lindsay Gordon, ‘A Basket of Flowers’; Adam Lindsay Gordon, ‘Borrow’d Plumes’; Adam Lindsay Gordon, ‘Ye Wearie Wayfarer, hys Ballad In Eight Fyttes’; Lord Byron ‘Granta: A Medley’; Lord Alfred Tennyson ‘Lucretius’; Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’; William Cowper, ‘Watching Unto God In The Night Season’; Thomas Moore, ‘The Loves of The Angels’; Robert Burns, ‘A Bard’s Epitaph’; John Dryden, ‘Absalom and Achitophel’; Robert Browning, ‘Aurora Leigh’; William Shakespeare, ‘The Rape Of Lucrece’
William Shakespeare, ‘Sonnet CLIII’; Edmund Spenser, ‘Epigram IV’; Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Tale Of The Wyf Of Bath’; William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude, Book I, Childhood’; Mary Russell Mitford, ‘Antigone’; Mary Russell Mitford, ‘Sybille: a Tale’
Gwen Harwood, Flying Goddess; Midwinter Rainbow; Ganymede; 1945; The Sharpness of Death.
Henry Kendall, ‘Prefatory Sonnets’; Alice Crist, ‘Homesick’; Eve Langley, ‘Native Born’; Oodgeroo, ‘Last Of His Tribe’; Vicki Viidikas, ‘Going down. With no permanence’; Marie E. Pitt, ‘The Keening’
H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson, eds., The Portable Romantic Poets. Penguin: 1978.
Stuart Barnes, ‘C (note)’ in Jessica Wilkinson, ed., Rabbit 30: The Long Poem (II). Rabbit: 2020.
Stuart Barnes, ‘Shy Riot’ in Jake Goetz, ed., Marrickville Pause 8: History. Marrickville Pause: 2020.
Pam Brown, ‘Blue or White’, Cordite.
Pam Brown, ‘Susceptibility Song’ in Click Here For What We Do. Vagabond: 2018.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese I: I though once how Theocritus had sung’. Poetry Foundation.
Robert Browning ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’. Poets.org.
Robert Burns, ‘Holly Willie’s Prayer’. Scottish Poetry Library.
Robert Burns, ‘A Vision’. English Poetry.
William Cowper, ‘from The Task, Book V: The Winter Morning Walk’. Poetry Foundation.
Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘Cartography’. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Paul Negri, ed., English Victorian Poetry: an Anthology. Dover Publications, Inc.: 1999.
William Shakespeare, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Wordsworth Editions Limited: 2007
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Lines Written Among The Euganean Hills’. Poetry Foundation.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Alastor; or, the spirit of solitude’. Poetry Foundation.
Lord Alfred Tennyson, ‘The Lotos-Eaters’. Poetry Foundation.
Lord Alfred Tennyson, ‘Come Down, O Maid’. Poetry Foundation.
William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude XII’ in William Wordsworth Poems. Poemhunter.com: 2014.