Prof Ross Bennett

The following speech was attributed to Prof Ross but maybe he’s a heteronym too.

I have a couple of apologies to announce. (Reading piece of paper) From um let’s see…. Oh, it’s Alan Fish… Fish has left a message which reads: I would love to be there but I’m here at my desk writing a review of The Keeper of Fish… because Peter Rose won’t. And there’s one more, it’s from M A Carter. He says: I should be there, but it’s my turn to wash the cats.

Fish has suggested Carter stand in for him. Curiously, Carter has suggested Fish stand in for him.
Well, bugger them for being … standoffish. We won’t be missing much. I’m going to launch their books regardless.

In fact, Philip Salom has suggested that the best way to think about these two poets is that they are: language masquerading as men. Of course, this is an old dodge, but a good one, like Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, which Pessoa established not as mere name changes but as the expression of different personalities. They are, and these two are. I happen to know Salom is a huge fan of Flann O’Brien, too, the man who says: Porter’s your man. Or is that Brian O’Nolan, or Miles na Gopaleen…? etc. I can see Borges in this, too, and Italo Calvino is in there, too, with his novel The Non-Existent Knight, a knight in armour who is very eloquent, who has a real personality – but inside his armour, he is not there. As Rimbaud said: I is another. But who knows what he was taking at the time. All these literary quotations, it’s very academic, isn’t it? It’s just as well I’m a Professor.

So, Salom doesn’t believe that any one poet has only one sound to make. I don’t know if any of you have ever studied Creative Writing … or taught Creative Writing? Yes? There seems to be a lot of it about…. But when they teach it, teachers are always banging on about student poets having to find your own voice! Salom says, if there is one voice, then his voice in response to that is – and I think I’ve got this right – Phzzzzz! You can tell he’s not very academic. I’m glad Melbourne University kicked him out.

One of the reviewers of Keepers, described the character who lives under each page, the man in the basement of the art school, Alan Fish that is, described Fish as an ornate failure of a man. Very perceptive of him, that, and what a lovely phrase, getting some crucial aspect of Fish right: Fish is as he says. But he is much else. Fish is a true literary character: he has escaped from Salom’s book Keepers into his own poetry. Let me quote from his bio…

For most of his life Alan Fish has lived in Melbourne and though he spent several years on a small orchard in rural Victoria he doesn’t go in for the “I have two dogs and live on the coast in a corrugated-iron beach-shack” kind of bio. His poems have appeared in print but he isn’t widely published in journals or on avant garde websites and he hasn’t won numerous literary awards in obscure towns or at small agricultural shows. He does keep fish and realises this sounds silly.

That reviewer, by the way, was Peter Kenneally, writing in The Age. Amazing – a reviewer who can write… and read! When he reads The Keeper of Fish he will realise how ornate Fish really is, how much Fish enjoys private, introverted pleasures, such as the Japanese board-game Go, and walking through the city like a post-modern flaneur. In the act of flanerie he is turned outwards, escaping himself; but Fish has private griefs, his lost lover, his lyrical intuitions; he lives more truly inwards, it is the inner country here… And so he is a lyric poet, this is his life we are reading. Even if his armour is empty. His poems are deeply emotional but carry a sharply observant kind of stillness. From his poem of a female window-cleaner abseiling on an office block, the people inside:

They see her and feel dangerous with work

out in the overcast air turned mother-of-pearl
on the city. She drops out of sight her recurrence
a floor lower, leaving her flourish there on their
glass, signed to the right: a transparent cheque.

Sometimes Alan Fish is almost Zen-like, in a poem about ambition, or lack of it:

I am free of drive, I have no need

of success and success’s sordid preparations.
I am perhaps a kind of nun. A nun of kind.

This might even be poise. But he is all the time haunted by the memory of his late wife. His poems shift from the above, to this: a poem where he describes bleaching his wife’s hair, as she had requested, in the weeks before she died of cancer, handling the powerful and painful bleaching cream:

                                   I was more than careful.

Sacs of chemo, tubes of bleach, too much can snap
the hair. I was scared enough to brush bleach on

and not risk foils, not risk the smallest break slip
unnoticed past me, as it had before. My fingers

whitened in the bleach but the pain was nothing
I wouldn’t take ten times of to defeat her death.

Oh Death, you and I plucked hookfuls of her hair
through the mad-cap. Love and work. Oh Death,

here is thy sting.

So if that is his failure, then it’s a universal one. As the blurb says: His work is seriously beautiful, or beautifully serious, in its imagery and shadows; he is in some ways lost, but he is no push-over. Another reviewer thought the moderate and leisurely pace of Keepers was best described as a headlong rush – which is a rather grey opinion, and a very Canberra opinion. Perhaps he will enjoy The Keeper of Fish slightly more. Not that Fish ever wrote a poem with a reviewer in mind. And his title is after all a direct reference to Pessoa or should I say, to Alberto Caeiro, The Keeper of Sheep. But Fish likes fish, the small swimming variety, I mean, hence his punning self-referentiality, and he doesn’t like sheep. To quote from one of his fish poems:

But fish… Sink, and rise, and pole dance, cichlids
bite out the sides of other fish. No, fish are very far

from model citizens, like us, even if they’re named
like pets: Midas, Adolfos, Rainbow, Oriental Spot.

Thing-fish: hatchets, and bettas, and guppys and gold,
there are angels and batfish and upside-down catfish.

Fish make me smile. Po-faced, horse-faced, intricate,
each moving by the merest of quaverings, coloured

breves on miscible staves, they make a post-modern

And later on another tack, about playing the game Go, symbol of much, about the past, and his renunciation of the world, I’d say. He says:

This stupid game I play in black and white,
as nothing ever is. My head is full of colours.

And so I love my little coloured fish: stunned
by their exactness, their speed, their stillness.

Now, if Fish is in-spoken, Carter is out-spoken. Out-rageous. God knows what reviewers will make of Carter. Carter couldn’t care less. He is even more ornate than Fish, but he is decorous and provocative. He is mannered and eccentric and indulgent. Carter seems to be a very refined man but his humour tends towards the tasteless. He thinks the world is full of fools and ridiculous behaviours. He tries to be referential but he’s no academic. I mean he has dared to written a line like this Another man’s Lacan is a motorbike… Now what’s that supposed to mean? He uses it twice! It’s the last line of the book! The man’s completely mad.

Before I became a Professor I used to write a bit of poetry. Yes, I did. The odd ditty or two… But I would never have written a line like that. Nor would Salom. I was not the Head who sacked Alan Fish from Keepers and who, by doing so, turned him into a poet. But I would have sacked Carter.

Fish came from Keepers but Carter came from nowhere, he is the cuckoo in the nest. Carter’s bio: ‘MA Carter resides in Melbourne and has the upper floor of an apartment to himself. He and his sister Mary keep two cats who often sit, as he notes, “like apostrophes” on either side of him. His work has been read in public very occasionally and there is a very brief publication online, but he hasn’t been published widely in journals, nor in haiku form all over the world, and nor has he been translated into twelve languages. This is his first major collection but won’t be his last if he can help it.’

And of course, he includes in his book some very in-your-face haiku just to stir the reader, well, they are senryu in fact, to be academically correct… He is very tongue-in-cheek, it has to said. His humour (yes, he is funny) and his musical oddities and his repetitions, in particular, are striking. eg: from a poem about conservative publishers, readers and novels:

                                     A novel is a novel is an entertainment.
The woman who wrote of roses as roses and was a woman

who wrote of words of words of roses, and these common
words and common roses, are uncommon ways of writing

and now such writing seems to frighten the common sense
of common readers. A reviewer says (sadly) X’s language

is too sophisticated for ‘the reader’. They can read, can they?
In Europe can you Dear Reader imagine telling a writer that

their writing is too ‘writerly’, too inventive, too metaphoric
and oh ‘literary’ – what does that mean exactly? – you know it

would be as crazy as telling an architect their building is too
architectural, bridge-makers too bridgey, sewage engineers too…

You can guess that he is not a sentimentalist and if you can’t he says so anyway, and he says this of its poetry:

                         …those of you thirsty for love in love
words, the beauty in beauty, face, let’s face it, cliché.

Who, Auden said, woo from love the love of poetry,
fibbing to make their art. I can think of many who.
If only the obvious was homeopathic, so much less
of it would do.

And this more approving nudge from a poem about a fellow complainer, Joan Rivers, the comedian:

I’m half in love with her bull-frog cheeks
and the sheer nerve of her changing looks
whole streets away from her daughter’s eyes
she’s unrecognisable. In the Who’s Who
she is both Whos. The owls of her face.

Carter’s blurb says: Carter is mordant, immoderate, opinionated and likely to offend. He writes in a style that is distinctly musical and even lyrical but his observations stray wildly and eccentrically from the expected. His poems don’t mind being rude, or chauvinistic, even a bit scary. He admits this will not make him popular or admired, but he doesn’t care for popular or admired.’

But here is Carter waxing lyrical – and he has another poem about waxing, literally, I mean, one of those senyru – but to quote from the beginning of this poem…

Tennis: Love and Deuce
It is not looking, it is the flesh looking.
It’s tennis, with cleavage: 40 love to deuce
in a room of women: their breasts turn to
us, then turn away, then turn to us again.
And she has the nicest deuce in town.
I meet her afterwards, and she mees me
for what she at least calls making love.
She is reserved, but she knows her mind,
and I know this: between her legs is her
parenthesis. And I incline towards it.

Carter is naughty, rude, bizarre. Both poets are strange. But enough! There are heteronyms and ghosts everywhere. Language masquerading as men… I don’t know what I am, a stand-in, a heteronym, someone having a masquerading-crisis? Who wrote me? Did they get paid? Who knows. But I do know this: these two dubious poets are launched.