We launched Robyn Maree Pickens’ wonderful debut poetry collection, Tung, in Dunedin at the University Book Shop on 16 August. We had some great kai from The Tart Tin and Precinct Catering, and the book was launched for us by David Eggleton. Thank you to everyone who came and celebrated with us! And thank you to our friends at the University Book Shop for hosting us.
Here's David's wonderful launch speech:
What is a poet? It is someone with quivering antennae. The quivering antennae of an ant or the delicate horns of a snail, who feels the way forward and leaves behind a glistening trail, a silvery carpet of words.
It’s been a pleasure remaking my acquaintance with this collection, which I first encountered in manuscript form some time ago. Then, I thought these poems were estranged notations, seeking to express empathy with the planet through various acts of identification and affirmation, while also offering addresses jeremiads to the liars and deniers about climate change. The poems offered sparking, buzzing, fizzing language circuits that emitted warning beeps about the state of the planet. Now I see them as more nuanced, poems that, while keeping the message, also reveal that Robyn is a kind of nature mystic, searching for communion, searching for immersion, dissolution, or at least camouflage, as in her poem, 'The importance of process':
A human is a hole
for the sun (and a ball of
breath for trees)
without the assemblages of other cells
a human could not be compared
to a chameleon
So, Robyn's a poet of transcendent connection, of the chanted, oracular incantation.
As I wrote when I short-listed Tung for the 2021 Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry: ‘this is a collection that teases with its hermetic lyricism as the poet listens at grass-seed height’ to things as they are, and skilfully registers linguistic mutation, words under pressure, language that’s slippery and gnomic and infolded.
These are poems dealing with the world's interconnectedness, but they are also baroque in language and image, and sometimes deconstructed — or at least they display an ironic awareness of the twists and permutations contained in the ordinary talk of everyday discourse.
Pushing at the limitations and limits of language, seeking to suggest something of its ambivalences, Robyn resorts to metaphors, suggesting for example enclosures that, while in one way fertile with possibility, in another way are imprisoning enclosures. Cells are both places where growth begins and chambers of entrapment. In the poem ‘Falling into water’, Robyn writes: 'The diver takes underwater/ notes in the warming shoals /tracks fatigue cracking in the /dilapidated architectural /structure'.
As the book's one-word title indicates, Tung, or 'tongue', with its phonetic reductiveness, is pointing towards notions of truth-telling, and suggesting how words can slip and slide as we roll them round in our mouths, or seek to persuade others with them: using them to tell about our feelings, about our experiences, about our ideas. Can we trust language as we trust our senses the way we make the world as much out of the resonances of language, as out of how we touch, or taste, or hear the world around us? 'Tung' might almost be the sound of a temple bell. Just as the title-word 'Tung' resonates like a tuning fork, so the whole collection sings or hums harmoniously, as if to blend the sounds of the sacred with the secular. Robyn wants to expand the ways we experience language with its sonic implications, drawing our attention to the reverberations of words.
Beyond this, her preoccupation is the delicate ecology of place under threat, with 'the long-term consequence of short-term /policies of deregulation/ inaugurated by the neoliberal /turn ...'
How can or could or should poets portray or write about our world when it is in a state of environmental crisis, of climate emergency? How should they respond to the threatened dissolution of the traditional structures we use to navigate and maintain our place in it?
In Tung, Robyn travels to places around the globe, searching, questioning and finding. Many of these poems are in dialogue with other poems by other poets, and with other modes of writing, and indeed with other modes of expression – most clearly in poems like ‘Blessings on Joanna’, a poem based on her response to the poetry, painting and short films of the former Dunedin artist Joanna Paul.
Moving across what might be gigantic (and tragic) landscapes in terms of scale, she gives voice to evanescent beings and essences drawn from the natural world who speak through her small creatures, especially: the fur seal, the bat, the frog, bees are all at risk from the looming environmental apocalypse.
Offering observations drawn from nature, she is a poet of keening repetitions, of injuries, of hurt. She is also capable, though, of getting phrases and lines to dance ecstatically, eurythmically to make them bend and sway like kelp in surge, or else they hedge-hop and hover, part airborne-drone, part dragon-fly; or they drill down into geology, into deep time and visit fossilised pollen, tree growth rings, carbonised seeds.
And at this point — I will hand over to Robyn herself to read from her collection. Kia ora; thank you.