Distinguished Australian poet, Paul Hetherington, was on hand to launch Maggie Shapley’s first collection Proof. The speech was a wonderful way to bring Maggie’s book into the world. The full transcript of the speech is below:
Proof by Maggie Shapley
Launch speech by Paul Hetherington
I’m delighted to be launching Proof by Maggie Shapley this evening. I have known Maggie for more than twenty years—we met when we were both publishers for national cultural institutions—and I’ve been reading Maggie’s poems from time to time ever since. I’ll talk more about the poems in a moment.
Before I do I wish to acknowledge the work of Shane Strange and Recent Work Press, the publisher of this volume. The ACT needs a good poetry publisher and now we have one. Recent Work Press is providing important publishing opportunities for a wide variety of ACT poets and I’d like to congratulate Shane on his enterprise.
We value poetry for many reasons, including for its capacity to speak pithily about important public and private matters, and because it is able to do so unobtrusively and with considerable subtlety and persuasive force. When poets say “I” they frequently speak for their readers as well as themselves, inviting readers into their poems and providing words that resonate long after poems have been read and a book closed.
Poetry is, I suspect, one of the few remaining places in which we will find a genuine and compelling magic. Poems conjure worlds that, upon reading about them, we suddenly know and understand; they bring obscure issues to light; they are canny and often seem to know us. And they frequently spring from surprising places within the imagination, challenging our daily assumptions, and even our sense of who we might be.
Maggie Shapley’s Proof has all of these qualities. The book travels artfully and often unobtrusively in and around a wide variety of subjects, over considerable distances and across time zones.
The volume begins with a prose poem dedicated to Sigrid McCausland. It is characteristic of a good deal of Maggie Shapley’s work in that it takes us speedily into a particular location—in this case La Rambla in Barcelona—and unfolds a lyrical narrative that is freighted by a beautifully understated emotional current. Poems like this one are moving when they are read, and even more moving in retrospect as their full import works its way into the mind and body.
The first main section of the volume, entitled ‘Evidence’, contains a number of poems that explore ideas around what we know, how we know it and what the import of what we know might be. The section begins with the poem ‘New Year’s Eve’ and with the suggestive lines ‘Google Earth obscures the numberplate / of my husband’s Toyota, perpetually / blocking the driveway of the house we used to share’. It concludes with a poem about an Alzheimer sufferer who ‘wanders off, switches on the television— / sometimes she sees her daughter on the news.’
It is difficult to write of life’s various changes, puzzles and estrangements with the lucidity you will find in these poems. They take the reader into a consideration of potentially challenging issues, and they do so with clear-sightedness and truthfulness. One can believe in such poems, and learn a great deal from reading them.
There is a quiet, sometimes ironic humour in this book, too. In one poem a ‘single strand of hair’ provides significant DNA evidence, while another hair lying on an ensuite floor tells ‘just the age-old truth’.
The second section contains a number of complex and subtle poems about human intimacy. Convincing poems on this topic are relatively rare and I admire Maggie Shapley’s capacity to tease out fine-grained emotions connected to belonging and separation. In these poems, a full recognition of individual identity goes hand in hand with human affection. For example ‘Reunion’ begins: ‘Rehearse an anxious scan of waiting faces / before recognition throws its shaft / of light eye-to-eye in electric focus, / laughing, you turn your head as I feign surprise’.
A number of poems in this book understand childhood and its transactions with the adult world with tenderness and a quizzical, questioning eye. The poem ‘Scar Tissue’ says: ‘A lesson learnt: when you lie, you spin / your own web’. The poem is about how children have to negotiate their way through various intricacies of experience as they grow, and it beautifully captures how problematic such negotiations can become. As children, we have all found ourselves in awkward situations and this beautifully precise poem speaks eloquently for such occasions.
There’s even a poem about childhood and cricket—which remarks on how ‘Mum planted the spindly / camphor laurel against the western sun’ and how the tree ‘did for cricket stumps except she’d water / and muddy the crease, where we’d mark our line’; a poem about riding bikes after school—in which ‘back gates opened to private spaces’; and a poem about choosing hymns on Saturday night for the next day’s congregation, in which we hear the poet’s mother’s ‘contralto clear above my father’s baritone / reverberating through the warmth of the kitchen’.
As these brief examples demonstrate, and notwithstanding the fine restraint of much of Maggie Shapley’s writing, this is richly evocative poetry. It understands the sometimes confused boundaries between childhood and adulthood; it conjures poignant and intimate moments; it explores ways in which lyric narratives may speak succinctly for large issues. And, as imaginative as these poems are, they also possess a powerful sense of authentic lived experience.
The section called ‘Time Zones’ extends this book’s preoccupations into ideas of travel and the crossing of borders. These are not simply about traversing the borders of different countries but about the kinds of transformations that travel, and different modes of being, demand of us. We encounter ‘the night air’ as ‘the promise of tomorrow’s snow’; and ‘forty years since we were lovers—your voice / is just the same, your words familiar’; and ‘I raise a single finger to my lips / to say conspiratorially “it’s our secret”’; and ‘In the secret garden the king provided / pavilions for poets, straddling land and lake / to contemplate the maples’ changing light’. These shifting tones and nuances are beguiling.
The book’s final section, ‘Relics’ explores ideas around death, loss and other kinds of parting. These are eloquent and sometimes salutary poems, and I’ll leave you all to acquaint yourself with them when you buy a copy of this very accomplished book. I’d like to finish by reading one poem from this section:
It’s only vaguely orange, not the blood
the ancients saw, the wrath of Saxon gods,
or is it my perception that has paled,
eroded by spectacle and neon light?
Still an irresistible power tugs,
the thin silver slice of moon succumbs,
dims to the rusty light, and then despite
everything I know and commonsense,
I raise my chardonnay and make a wish
to the round orange moon-god, disregard
the neighbours’ nosy curtains, and moon-struck,
dance a tarantella, traitor to my age.
It is with great pleasure that I declare Maggie Shapley’s Proof launched.