Whilst he published poetry and short fiction for close to two decades from the mid-1980s, Blair French has primarily worked in the visual arts in NZ, the UK and since 1995 Australia as a writer, teacher and curator. As a writer he has published extensively on contemporary art and photography. His publications include a number of edited or co-edited artist monographs and catalogues; the books Out of Time: Essays Between Photography and Art, and Twelve Australian Photo Artists (co-authored with Daniel Palmer); and as editor, Photo Files: An Australian Photography Reader. He ran Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney (2006 – 2013) and was involved in curating two iterations of the SCAPE Public Art: Christchurch Biennial through and following the period of the major Christchurch earthquakes 2010 and 2011. He is now Assistant Director, Curatorial & Digital at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.
Take a Picture Here
For most of my adult life I’ve been fascinated by photography – but never from the position of being behind the camera. The act of photography seems to me, from the outside, to be one of simultaneously reflecting, speculating and levering oneself into place – an apparently simple affirmation of being here now, a positioning statement. It’s what folds back into the world from that moment – that act – that is a constant source of fascination for me as now a critic and curator. But my process of self-placement and reflection has always been through language. It took a long time for me to recognise what now appears so obvious, that poetry for me over the time of these poems (late-1980s to early 2000s) was a fundamentally pictorial act as much as it was linguistic, whether in attempts at distillations of visual impressions or in narrative strands recalling filmic passages. From formative times in New Zealand to travels through Asia, Europe and the Americas to my more recent life in Australia, these are my acts of shoring up memory, my attempts at making sense of place and of my presence in place, however fleeting.
At the Lake
look Debra, trees on the far bank
as topographical pen and ink
and this I can understand
dragonflies chase their own
shadows over the surface
and in the shallows baby fish
pull headstands, tails flicking
air as they burrow for food
we could wade in
amongst this colourless weed
each step a new displacement
we could walk right across
into that background
without even getting our heads wet
turn and see back here
this same view awaiting
us over again
She lent away
from the angel,
away on the music
of spring afternoons
in the Tuscan light –
the touch of pollen
No, she said –
no, I am deeply
but I would prefer
to dance this life
away, dance under
the touch of this
There they go again,
brown shoes discussing cases
beneath the curtains,
the two of us
left to play hangman
beneath beige coverings.
The exit sign
in the doorway.
to a woman
across the way
wonder if that’s Greek
for I’m dying here
in an apricot cubicle
with green diamante curtains.
here at the feet
the neighbouring range –
at a glance.
passes itself by –
fades opposite edges
of sheer sky.
I often stood on the
balcony above finest
southern colours –
gold, green, red
skinning each leaf
and eyed faintest outlines,
blue tracing frames
for the hills. I listened
to a town stripped bare
on the edge of a wind
slicing its way around
stone corners, through
bodies. A certain music.
I used to look out
at the peninsula each
morning through rain
dropped glass and notice
spaces, calm spaces
trailing those mists
which slid up the harbour.
The harbour’s surface
still and reflective,
the light, translucent.
Shifting and settling,
shifting and settling,
I was a person
measuring the odds.
twist the wing
by your eyes,
as fractured colour
grip the wheel
with such urgency.
Soaking Up Those Radiation Waves
Extending to this hill
above this empty beach
below a mocking sky
we express our yen
and avidly consume each other.
I can see
on the sea’s surface
through our bodies.
We hold on
for the duration.
under our weight
achievement in New Zealand poetry’
smudging the retail price.
An unnerving surface calm
glosses this molten body of water.
Throws of blue-white light
question moon and crescent graves
clustered on the shore.
May we make
something of this?
Or simply do as we do?
Michael drives. The engine running
just so and those softened tyres
loosening tight corners.
We cleave space
at that edge between land and air,
this parting of the world to our passage.
Compass-needle pylons swing south
across the plateau. To the west shadow
slices sulphur-poisoned sunlight,
transparent sheets of tissue.
The mountain slips
shades of almost colour,
the smoke-hardened pelt
of animal skin
and all this stuns words breathless
like never before –
all our talk of distances travelled,
a country folding us back
upon ourselves again,
this perpetual re-tracing
of a cooling highway.
Smells Like Rain
A momentary swelling
the world inside out
like the moment just before
militia enter town
or the trapped gunman
No white sky keening.
No scent of moisture.
Just a bruising of the nostrils,
a shift in the register
Someone Else’s Spring
Light & air & water,
the warm embrace
of a perfect Renaissance
courtyard & the kiss
of an orange tree
placed exactly at its centre.
the trick is to trust your body’s
desire for imagination
and think of the invasions as a walk
taken to sweat out a fever –
choose a thunderously close afternoon
two headlands with steep, difficult approaches
and a long hesitant line of a coast between
where each step is muffled by a gush
of ocean mopping clean before and behind
listen to the ache of muscle talking back
and refuse the temptation to look inland
at buildings struggling for vantage
pace yourself, always pace yourself
only at the top of the cliff pause and relax, draw breath
lie down even on the sandstone overhang and shuffle legs
and buttocks on the rock until your sweat buffs that shape
from your own
see the horizon where sea and sky
sign their names?
let them be lost
to each other
Walker Evans in Redfern
The Qantas girl’s
taken a blow to the face.
Her silver coating lies in pixilated
piles on the pavement.
Her skin’s darker,
her smile ambivalent.
She’s trying to run
but her knees
like awkward first kisses.
She tries not to look
at the mid-morning drinkers
she bumps into.
She just wants out.
She’s that sick of the camera.
Wittgenstein and the Cat
In a casual sort of way Debra’s been seeking Wittgenstein
for years. Last trip to Cambridge she searched this churchyard
from stone wall to stone wall, prising each tomb open to inquire
within. A bookshop owner phoned an old woman once his nurse,
housekeeper or something, but memory proved as useless as
memory. Library inquiries drowned in a small storm of paper,
whilst Dons at a college dinner came up with three different
countries between them, to which later in New York
the American conceptualist added a fourth.
Now back at the churchyard there’s a footnote
to the notice of weekly service addressed specifically
to her. He’s out on the main road west in a churchyard annex.
It’s a twenty-minute trudge out there avoiding traffic wash
and those treacherous bits of chipped pavement.
Left after the hedgerow and down a lane that threatens
to narrow into nothing, as if the English landscape tradition
were drawing the curtains on winter and lying down
on the lounge sofa before a gas heater and satellite television.
At lane’s end a late model Japanese hatchback and a tiny
converted presbytery, electric light assisting day within.
Behind there’s an even smaller chapel for quick and quiet
dispatches, and rows of stone markers in requisite disorder.
We’re checking the plot map posted at the entry when he
saunters from behind the chapel porch and stops stock still
before Debra, coated ginger and eyes the grey of cathedral stone
before rain. His stare is fixed, his head, torso and haunches
so quiescent that all the world about – the drizzle fingering
unruly oaks, the dribbles of bird sound and distant lorry
drone – all positively quiver in comparison.
He moves. Stepping forward he brushes her leg like a lover
taking the lead, then strides ahead down the rows
all feline poise. He crosses two rows to the left, careful to
pad between not over the archived bodies, until he reaches
one ever so slightly raised slab, springs up, paws the incision
and turns to wink at Debra as she reads the name aloud.
When she takes out her camera he shuffles across to ensure
the chiselled appellation is kept in full view, then tilts his head
to offer his preferred profile as if auditioning for some lucrative
advertising contract. She begins to move silently, soliciting
his cooperation in the cycle of camera click and eased
shutter compressions – the sound of time wrapping
itself ever more tightly.
She’s almost done when he cracks the silence with a couple
of Germanic aphorisms over-pitched into the crappy English day.
Perhaps he’s bored. Perhaps no one visits any more. He stretches
and steps down, then offers to take a photo of us sitting at either edge
of the billet – a Ludwig memento of our long journey.
Then he asks are we hungry? Ready to escape this clawing rain?
He knows a little pub nearby so tiny you have to crouch
Over your beer to allow lapsed academic and farmers a clear shot
At the dartboard. But the fire’s always going,
The conversation’s good and the beer best for miles
around. Besides, he says, he’s been going there
for years – it might as well be home.