Thursday, August 29, 2013

Blair French

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
define country
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

Botticelli’s Annunciation

Her heart
was disturbed
within her.
She lent away
from the angel,
eyes closed,
floating herself
away on the music
of spring afternoons
in the Tuscan light –
the touch of pollen
on porcelain.
No, she said –
no, I am deeply
honoured, moved
even, really…
but I would prefer
to dance this life
away, dance under
the touch of this
horsehair brush.


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
reflects red
in the doorway.

We listen
to a woman
across the way

wonder if that’s Greek

for I’m dying here
in an apricot cubicle
with green diamante curtains.

Desert Coda

Perfect pitch
here at the feet
and there
the neighbouring range –

Distance collapsing
at a glance.

An aircraft
passes itself by –

fades opposite edges
of sheer sky.

Dunedin Sonnets


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.
Anxious. Clear.


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.

Leaving Town

Coastal winds
twist the wing

your face,
the road
by your eyes,

as fractured colour
slipping over
your forehead.

Your hands
grip the wheel
with such urgency.

Soaking Up Those Radiation Waves

Extending to this hill
above               this empty beach
            those waves
below a mocking sky
we express our yen
            within parentheses
and avidly consume each other.
            I can see
satellite reflections
on the sea’s surface
            bouncing network
            talkback power
through our bodies.
            We hold on
for                   the duration.
            Tussock stalks
                        under our weight
            and you
on some
            ‘extraordinarily fine
            achievement in New Zealand poetry’
smudging the retail price.

Same Road

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
yells ‘enough!’

Nothing visible.
Nothing… linguistic.

No white sky keening.
No scent of moisture.
Just a bruising of the nostrils,
a shift in the register
of silence.

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
                                                nothing else
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?

                                    forget them

                                                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
knock together
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.

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