Dennis Greene, ‘Here Be Dragons’ launch by Dr Marcella Polain

Launch speech for Dennis Greene’s Here Be Dragons. Reviewer: Dr Marcella Polain

Here Be Dragons was launched on 22 Feb 2015, Tropical Grove, UWA, as part of Perth Writers’ Festival

How wonderful to be here this afternoon to celebrate this new collection, Here Be dragons, by Dennis Greene.

To me, the title suggests myth, and myth is in abundance. It suggests encounters, and there are these, also – but not with dragons as the creatures of childhood fantasy. Rather, there are encounters with dragons as memory, longing, love, loss, change. To me the title also suggests whimsy – and yes, there is whimsical humour here, and, in keeping with Dennis’s personality, much very dry wit. But, above all, in poem after poem, there is fine technical judgment, great restraint and relentless courage, both artistic and personal.  These things, after all, are what we need when we find ourselves face to face with dragons.

The poem from which the title comes, the first of the eight-poem sequence ‘The Map is not the Territory’, does more than simply unmake that colonialist analogy, and neither does it lean too heavily upon it. In this poem, dragons are conjured not only from the imagination but from the world, and from every part of it; they are ferocious; they ‘burn the air’. And all the map’s ‘margins, edges, rubbed out bits…have slipped between eye and brain’. The map is not the territory, no – but it is the body, it is embodied. The map and the body wear as they endure; the fragile softness of worn paper is also the fragile softness of worn skin.

 This collection has been 20 years or more in the making. And it shows: in exquisite judgment of the world, judgment of ideas, and of what it is to be human, judgment of rhythm and image. About 15 years ago, some of us here this afternoon were also together for a reading and performance under a full moon at a property called Quaraluna, a property that was once a derelict farm but has steadily been transformed into an outstanding model of sustainable living and sound dryland ecology. (Michael and Jenny are ….) Dennis’ poems were part of that evening, and that is where my son, then aged about 12 (and who is here this afternoon) first encountered the final stanza of  ‘Preparing the way’, lines which have stayed with him so clearly that he was able to recite them, now as a man, unprompted, this summer. As it happens, the poem begins with lines I have always loved, lines that evoke the religious/mythic in the contemporary world: ‘I will take the locusts / and the wild honey / to the vacant lot’ and ends with those lines that lodged so many years ago in a child and remain with him as an adult: ‘A man gets lonely // talking to strangers / eating grasshoppers  / waiting for God.’ My hunch is that everyone who loves poetry has had one of those childhood moments in which poetry entered their ear, their mind, and resonated in their body, settled and took hold there. I think it is a remarkable thing that poetry is capable of this, that it strikes so deeply, travels with us - but especially remarkable that it can do this, as Dennis poems has done, for children – can remain with them as a touchstone, perhaps, or a portal to the possibilities of language. Or as comfort – that each of us is not so alone as we may feel, that others have the same longings and hopes, exhilarations and disappointments, must make the same compromises, the same difficult choices, the same adventures, the same mistakes.

 Here be Dragons is full of such humanity – of clear sight, quiet observation, gratitude, compassion and forgiveness. Reading it opens such spaces within us.

Those who know me will not be surprised that I am intrigued by Dennis’s poem about Ophelia, Shakespeare’s unhappy fiction who has become so romanticised that it is too often her face I believe we see when we think about, even look at, troubled young women. As many of us know first hand, there is nothing romantic about depression – or, to paraphrase Dennis in this poem – ‘to drown in air, then drown again in sorrow’. Yet, despite my longstanding mistrust of the subject, I am drawn back and back to this poem.  I love its approach: the dividing into short phrases of a sentence clinically describing one aspect of the process of drowning so that each phrase acts as a subheading to a stanza, and each stanza explores a key word or idea in its title-phrase. And so, in total, what we are given is much more materiality (her body weight, her clothes, her lungs, the rain, the worms, the shovel used to dig her grave) as well as comment on the mythologising of women (mermaids, owls), references to the play (her dead father, her unhelpful brother, the songs and flowers she took to her death) and references to the famous Millais painting (the willow set symbolically to save her, her trailing fingers). The intelligence in this poem, the empathy, and the lightness of its touch, can be found everywhere we look in this collection.

There are many trees here: palms, pines, trees dead or fallen, forty metre trees, family trees, autumnal trees, trees become bridges – indeed, bridges are important here, too, as liminal space, as portals. Antarctica makes more than one appearance – or, rather, doesn’t quite appear but crouches out of sight and is felt, its vastness, its menace called up like a spirit. We meet houses and explorers, painters and statesmen, the biblical and mythological, sculptors and musicians, and a number animals – dogs, swans, panthers, crows, finches, camels – and love, complicated love, love or its loss in the stirring of a teaspoon, in the sweep of a broom, in tins and scrapings of paint, variously coloured. To paraphrase again: ‘Such little things hold the world in place.’ And in page after page, insistently, is God, ubiquitous, elusive, and with a good sense of humour. (I come from a family in which the hymn ‘Jerusalem! Jerusalem!’ was much-loved, so I’ve lost count of how many times I have read Dennis’s satirical version in here with a wicked astonishment and delight.)

As with all the best writing, there is a life’s work on these pages, a life always moving towards having much to say and saying it beautifully. ‘The map is not the territory’, no; the map – this map - is as complex and loving and sad as our minds and our bodies; ‘the word is not the thing’ but sometimes it is.

Scheherazade, that consummate, tortured storyteller who lives in all who write…knows, as Dennis tells us, that words are powerful,  ‘that words/ spoken at breakfast/ can eat you for lunch’ but I don’t fear this for Dennis or this collection. Here Be Dragons shows us all just where we stand: we stand upon the shore where ‘the waves break on a narrow beach, ‘ and, although ‘we wonder if tomorrow…we’ll have the strength and will to brave / the leap of faith from wave to breaking wave’ ,  whether that is to write another poem or to live, this collection shows us how to do just that.

Congratulations, Dennis and all involved at Puncher and Wattmann for this wonderful book. I urge all of you here to buy it and read it.