Nathan Curnow took himself across Australia to spend a total of ten nights in the most haunted places he could find, an innovative approach to post-colonial interrogation of historical space if there ever was one. Places visited included Fremantle Arts Centre, once a lunatic asylum, Monte Cristo, the most haunted house in Australia, a parsonage at Port Arthur and an old store on Norfolk Island (one of the book’s most beautiful poems, 'Whaling Song', comes from this part of the book).
This poetry collection has not one, but two narrative frames, the most obvious being the travelogue through these spaces to collect raw material, crossbarred throughout by Curnow’s own history with childhood insomnia, night panics and hauntings, and his young daughter’s fear of bunyips. As Kevin Brophy writes, “this book must have the strangest ever provenance of any collection of poetry in Australia. Only a vampire or a Nathan Curnow could have done this…these poems come drenched with the bloody and violent deaths central to the history of European occupation in this country. But they are not ghoulish or sensational. They are the real thing, ‘both transparent and completely solid.”(Update: Kevin Brophy's launch speech can be read here at Famous Reporter.)
Highlights of this collection for me included the section on Picton, containing a ghastly incident with a ghost train in a tunnel, the Monte Cristo group and several poems from the lunatic asylum, including one about a love letter thrown over the wall.
The poems about the Richmond Bridge are evocative, the first a picture postcard, complete with ducks, lunches and cameras released from buses. This idyllic entry point, reminiscent of more famous poems about bridges, dissolves quickly to night inspections of the oldest bridge in Australia which may contain a body in its arches, with a passing, ghastly nod to Billy Joe McAllister. The haunted hearse from Sydney, Elvira the Cadillac, has only been slept in once before, by a ghost investigator: the poems in this section are cheekily underlined by Curnow’s claim that he fell asleep.
It is counterbalanced by deeply haunting, musically written pieces (especially ‘Whaling Song’, which is accompanied by a translation in Norfolk): most of the ghosts ‘come down to the pier at night/Their heads held high to the pines’ and
we know how to rise
asleep you gaolers will hear us filing
we remain behind you in church in irons
at the cemetery’s end, Hell on our shoulders
the ocean has washed us back up, damned
it could not flog us enough, we malinger
at your children’s beds, scrawl a pentagram
above your beds….
The series closing the book are set at the North Head quarantine station and at Port Arthur, where more recent ghosts only intrude briefly (‘Broad Arrow Café’.)
wait uponthe ever-changing name of the moon and creatures before dawn
turning memory in the shallows
scraping bellies upon the rocks of the shoreline (‘The dead’).
Not only is this is an intriguing way of approaching our not so distant history through poetry, but the book also provides an investigation of the process of creation, of waiting:
I have waited now among so many stories,(‘Pier Store (museum)’. )
all self-inflicted sores, rubbed powdered glass
and lime into my skin, watched the clock
tick down for hours. Enduring myself
at Slaughter Bay until morning lets me heal.
Curnow demonstrates throughout that allowing poetry to lead the investigation is indeed a highly practical method of capturing such slippery and vestigial manifestations of history’s traces, along with the writing process itself which is its own form of haunting.
These poems are never too careful, despite Kevin Brophy’s jest at the launch about them being neat, ‘wearing jeans and t-shirts’ (HEH, make that 'tight jeans and sporty t-shirts' to boot!), and I find him successful in his efforts to stretch out past beautiful articulation to give fitting space to the unspoken, though he speaks honestly of the difficulty of his search for expression: “poetry fits, I hammer it out, often/devoid of love”. Here he has considerable success in bringing us closer to things that refuse to show themselves unless coaxed by living language.Word is that he’s funded to produce a play on convicts in the near future, and I think that will be a great marriage of his poetic craft with his considerable mastery of performance. I can thoroughly recommend The Ghost Poetry Project.