A Slow-Combusting Hymn: Poetry from and about the Hunter Region offers anthology of Newcastle's identity

HOME: Editors Kit Kelen and Jean Kent with A Slow Combusting Hymn. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
HOME: Editors Kit Kelen and Jean Kent with A Slow Combusting Hymn. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

IT is ironic that I am launching a collection of poetry from and about the Hunter Region because not too long ago I would have described myself as a reluctant Novocastrian.

I have moved here for family reasons twice and I resisted both - though my rebellion was far more melodramatic as a 17-year-old.

Then, my mother sold the city to me using its beaches as the drawcard, but her tactic wasn't very effective. Wasn't the city just one big factory?

That was the predominant view of anyone I spoke to.

Six years ago when I returned once more from Sydney, 36 weeks pregnant with my second child, I spent two years looking over my shoulder to the south.

There was a tidal pull, luring me back to my life in the thick of hustle and bustle, which had also included some of my happiest moments, personally and professionally.

I saw Newcastle as a big country town and I have always lacked those influential childhood links that seem tattooed on people who are born and bred here.

It is very easy to feel like an outsider in this city, which boasts of its friendliness.

But fast forward a few years and I have become anchored. Yes, there are postcard-perfect beaches and industry, but there is much, much more, which is why I have relished reading A Slow Combusting Hymn. As only poetry can do, the diverse and plentiful offerings in this lovely anthology have triggered in me moments of recognition, but also of discovery.

Given that I live in Mayfield, I know well the "bellied wagon's protest at one hundred tonnes of coal", mentioned in Steve Armstrong's Sleeping More or Less, and I also connect with Julian Croft's After Shock as I was living on Beaumont Street with my family anxiously awaiting my HSC results, my passport to an adult life, when the earthquake struck.

"Goodbye to childhood and kids games," he writes,

"the sand has moved, the tide come in

and our castles must be left for the night

and the clean bare sand of the dawn."

Throughout the anthology, industry and its fallout looms, but the natural world with its milky-tea river, mud, pretty beaches, birdlife and trees, becomes a vehicle to explore universal themes of love, loss and longing.

Kathryn Fry's Notes from Barrington evokes the earthy other-worldliness of this precious, hard-fought for wilderness area:

"We stop under Antarctic Beach,

relics leaf-dot a grey sky and tower over

fiddleheads on the edge of the escarpment,

their fallen logs covered by moss."

In The Halflife of Coal, Mark Tredinnick responds to three historical sites hidden in Newcastle, including the Map of the World ocean baths:

"The map of the world is full of water today -

Of language and silvergulls and promise and girls

Who don't care what you think their bikinis

Are trying to say to you. There's an onshore breeze

And a chop on the afternoon water and a green rind

On the breakwater that used to keep the pink

empire afloat,

And pretty soon, you can tell, the sun's going to set on

all of it."

Carol Jenkins captures the grape harvest in January, Off Broke Road: The Winery:

"January grapes

hum into ripeness,

the sun-blistered golden

ones, culled, feed the vines."

History, domesticity, and identity are other threads in the vibrant texture of this anthology and editors Jean Kent and Kit Kelen have included poems that don't explicitly reflect the Hunter, but rather the provenance and talent of their creators.

Robin Loftus explores the impact of the death of her father when she was a child in Mapping Grief:

"I learned nothing from his death

nor understood my mother's tears;

only a childish, wan anxiety

puckered the edges of my sleep"

Judy Johnson's Wherever You Go, There is Always a Mother, begins powerfully and does not let up:

"There are those days when I abandon the ship

of myself, kick the crew overboard

and leave me anchored and forgotten

like the Mary Celeste, (sails flapping

like a butterfly pinned to a lily pad)."

An intimidating, brilliant editor I once worked with took me aside early in my career and pinpointed a sentence in a lengthy feature I had written about a famous fashion designer: "Is that how she truly was, or are you just being lazy? Your job is to pinpoint more than the superficial."

After 15 years, I can recall her brief lesson like it was yesterday. Poets capture these moments of truthfulness and pinpoint them economically and potently.

A Slow Combusting Hymn brings the region to life and explores the breadth of human experience. It also reflects the depth of talent here. I have often joked that it seems as though there is a poet on every street in Newcastle, but there is some substance in it. And how lucky we are.

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing Jeanette Winterson speak about the importance of stories at the Byron Bay Writers Festival.

"We are meaning-seeking creatures," she told the packed marquee. "Who am I? What is love? How do I cope with death, with children, with myself? The great thing about novels and poetry," she continued, "is they find a language to reveal ourselves to ourselves."

A Slow Combusting Hymn does just this. One of my favourite poems, In the Hour of Silvered Mullet, which happens to have been written by Jean Kent, is an insightful portrait of Kilaben Bay at dusk, nature and domesticity merging. It is not hard to imagine yourself strolling quietly,

"Past the street's open houses,

past its kitchens, garages and lake-edge

gardens mutating

in television's swamp . . .

in this hour of silvered mullet, small moments

billow our sails. Before the last cloud, discreet

as an usher,

can muff its torch, hope gusts us home."

The Hunter is now my home and it has become so through words and art and friendship.

As Richard Tipping, another featured poet, writes, "Welcome to Newcastle".

And I encourage you to grab hold of this far-ranging, gem-filled anthology and let it be your guide.

This is an edited version of Rosemarie Milsom's speech at the launch of A Slow Combusting Hymn: Poetry From and About the Hunter Region, which is edited by Jean Kent and Kit Keien and published by ASM and Cerberus Press, $30.

The book is available at Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery and MacLean's Booksellers in Hamilton.


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