Tuesday, December 20, 2011



Perrier Fever by Pete Spence
(Grand Parade Poets, Wollongong, 2011)
nothing’s clear
until i’ve had
my neutrinos
then the first
light loses
its blurrrrrrrr

the first sentence
becomes clear
though clearly
i misunderstand it

the next coffee
is understandably
useful when
you’re looking
for an interim
to boast
about how clear
things have become!

though clearly
this interim
is elusive

etched into recesses
beyond clarity
(from ‘An Adventure in Parodies’)

I heard about Pete Spence a decade before I had any contact with him. In the late 1990s until the first couple of years of this century when I was poetry editor for Overland magazine I published some of Pete’s graphics and poems. Then he had a bit of a row with the magazine over the pesky goods and services tax and Australian business numbers and our emails died off for a time.

As a child Pete had ‘Pink’s disease’—an appropriately coloured disease for a future experimental poet. Happily, he survived and is now very much ‘in the pink’. Pete published some poems in the 1970s and then he began a decade long hiatus from poetry where he was busy with earning a living and following other ventures, like sapphire mining. He returned to publishing poems in the 1980s.

He began making mail art around 1983 and had a visual poetry magazine called ‘Ligne’. His mail art and visual poetry activities thrived. He participated this year in Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art’s Secret Exchange, exchanging secrets between Sydney and Seoul, Korea. Pete had started sending me collaged postcards and other forms of collage in decorated envelopes, and small poetry pamphlets published under the auspices of his own Ministry of Zaum. I was always surprised and delighted to find them in the letter box.

In 1999 Pete’s imprint ‘Mighty Thin Books’ generously published, as a pamphlet, a poem of mine called ‘Retarded Pretensions’.

Pete Spence is an irrepressible art and poetry maker—always working on something—collage, montage, drawings, free form and formal poems, making booklets wherever, whenever. Driven, I’d say, by a good dose of ‘Perrier Fever’.

Perrier Fever—what a wonderful title. It has to be the bubbles!

Actually, you might remember when, horror of horrors, or des horreurs, des horreurs, Perrier water became contaminated with benzene back in 1990.

Pete mentions Badoit a lot in his poetry and I would agree with him that it is an acqua frizzante superior to Perrier, but much harder to find and more expensive here in Australia.

The word ‘exuberant’ is used twice on the book’s back cover and these poems are. Pete’s poetry has been described variously as surrealist, naïve, outsider, but although these descriptions nudge elements of his poetry it is not really any of them. I think Pete is a well read, well informed absurdist who is fluent in modernist poetry and lightly sidles up to it in his own poems. These poems are direct because poets perceive language directly and they appear to have been written effortlessly, an effect that’s actually quite difficult to achieve. They can seem naïve or like deliberate art brut, but Pete’s references are literary, traditional even. His poems are actually very well-behaved. He has an obvious, compulsive interest in language and can turn what he hears and reads into profoundly clear and surprising poems. For instance from ‘Conversing in Geelong’—
“skin the broccoli merger”
“the rates are adjust”
“almost mean time
and robust in the cube:

and then it becomes a nature poem—
“a drawing of breath erased
faces the sun”
“shouts very loudly
into and through the dust”

“a nodule rouses
the fulcrum of a cloud”
“a big compression
holds up the rocks”

“a string of useless elegance
diminished out on the flats”

those ribbons of mould
clutter the exit”

Pete’s poems are brimful with numerous references to people like architect Adolf Loos, artists Vlaminck, Jean Dubuffet, Louise Nevelson, Clarice Beckett, Giotto, Magritte, Titian, Francis Bacon, Milton Avery, Frida Kahlo, J.M.W. Turner, Brancusi, Karel Appel and others and musician-composers Wagner, Pachelbel’s Canon, Beethoven, Hasse - King Crimson! And seventeenth century poet Anne Bradstreet and Mayakovsky, O’Hara, Whitman, Hart Crane, Koch, Bolton, Duggan, Adam Aitken, Jack Collom—great fast-brained poet of the everyday. Good friends—Cornelis Vleeskens, filmmaker Dirk de Bruyn, Lee Smith, Pete’s partner Norma and son Perren.

Enthusiastic language play and comical punning are major components of Pete’s poetic repertoire—
‘you did a mobius strip
rite in front of my elbow’

‘Pacemaker’—the footpath’s/a walkover’

‘I thought the shop/was called SLIDE/until I walked into the door’

‘always thought Penumbra was a month
in a template climate’

He is likely to riff on other poets lines and titles. Laurie Duggan’s ‘Adventures in Paradise’ becomes ‘An Adventure in Parodies’.

John Forbes, who was, and still is, the most engaging poet of his generation, is remembered in Perrier Fever. As you know, the title of one of John’s books was ‘The Stunned Mullet’—Pete has ‘ the stained millet/ in an equidistant foment/clawing at a place/in the sun’ in ‘In Memory … John Forbes’ and in an acrostic formed by John’s name the last two lines are ‘Energy everywhere/Stuns the pullets’.

Then there are confounding moments when a line like ‘the dark ankles of memory’ will have you pondering where memory might sit, or where bad or sad memory might sit—and whether held by the ankles, some distance below the mind and feeling.

There are also longer poems in this philosophising line—a meditation on falling over and an ode to dust.

In a poem taking its title from Robert Duncan—‘The Weather is Wide Enough for Pastimes’—Pete’s captivating philosophical temperament is beautifully light
a short interval
between weathers

the wind gone
into a burrow

not a cough
to be heard
from the flowers

memory vanishes
in this stillness

beyond light
and beyond
light’s partner

one small thought
might untie
the moment
might determine
the closeness
of this instant

and convince
some new stirring
to emerge
from under
the stasis

Last year, New South Press published a small, square hand-sewn book of Pete’s sonnets, handsomely printed on a letterpress in Germany by Karl-Friedrich Hacker. Those ten sonnets are the final set of poems in this book. His sonnets are definitely influenced by the late New York poet Ted Berrigan, especially ‘The Sonnets to Joe Brainard’, Pete tells us in the Perrier Fever notes, and adds Laurie Duggan’s ‘In Memory of Ted Berrigan’ and Peter Schjehldahl’s ‘The Paris Sonnets’.

Here, there is also a series called ‘Orange Sonnets’, each one beginning with a letter from the word; O - R - A - N - G- E . Here are some random lines—
syringe rhymes with orange
so does “ oh home on our range’

please arrange some oranges in that bowl

            a tepid swill
of Orange Pekoe   the arrangement bowls
me over!   an orange surprise   o
orange shadow   my dream a giant Jaffa

squares of orange light are thrown about

a sonnet is not an orange   nothing rhymes
with lozenge

why don’t you stop   look around   revenge
is nothing if nothing rhymes with orange

Pete’s a well known poetry and vispo figure in Melbourne and has been tripping around on the perimeter of that particular poetry world for ages. Now that Alan Wearne’s Grand Parade Poets has published this book flaunting his talents, his reputation has begun to spread and is poised to capture Sydney’s and other cities’ poets and readers.


Pam Brown’s most recent title is ‘Authentic Local’ (soi3 modern poets, Papertiger Media 2010). She has published many books, chapbooks, and an e-book, over four decades. Pam is an associate editor of Jacket2, Polari and Rubric online journals. She lives in Alexandria in Sydney and blogs intermittently at http://thedeletions.blogspot.com

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