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Stripping Wallpaper from the Sky

Written over seven years, Jules Leigh Koch’s latest collection depicts people living between pension day and charity. Fringe dwellers whose lives are constructed like origami cranes: defiant, yet quite fragile. Staged in large Australian cities that kaleidoscope between dark back streets and sunlit harbours. With a blowtorch honesty that engages emotions and the ever challenging atmosphere of personal relationships.

ISBN 9781925231090 (PB, 128pp);
140mm x 216mm

AUD $25 USD $18 NZD $27 GBP £12 EUR €14
ISBN 9781925231106 (eBook) AUD $13 USD $10 NZD $15 GBP £6 EUR €7

Reviews

Koch’s poems shine with a clear and focused intelligence. Crafted with a keen yet sensitive eye, this is a collection of resonant studies of the connections and alienations that comprise modern life. Koch makes an art of distilling urban environments down to a series of spare, potent images, reminding us that each day we never walk out into the same world. These poems are concentrated observations of urban landscapes and human experience, generously seeded with images that have the energy of small detonations. Koch’s voice is lucid, modest and mature, revealing a poet with deep insight into modern existence.
– Rachael Mead

Thirteen years ago this is what I said about Jules Leigh Koch’s second book, each goldfish is hand-painted: “Jules Leigh Koch is a poet who, like the French and Australian Impressionists works en plein air. He is a colourist, a sketcher with words, who sets up his easel at the beach, in city streets, suburban back yards and gum forests. With affection he records the quotidian details of our suburbs because they are ours. This is the environment we have made. It’s where so many of us live. While not blind to their faults and disappointments, this poet takes on the function of celebrating our lives. His metaphors are full of cleverly inverted perspectives: the jetty has been cast out. The poems seem simple and modular like the suburbs themselves, but look a bit deeper and you’ll discover the playfulness of his language and real human warmth. Jules Leigh Koch works with quick dabs, bright splashes of colour and deftly caught feelings.”

I think this is still fundamentally true of his new collection Stripping Wallpaper from the Sky. After all, Koch has a recognisable style that he’s been honing for decades: short lines, compressed imagery, unpretentious language, and metaphor, metaphor, metaphor.

Now in some circles metaphor is out of fashion. But I still think it’s one of the key poetic tools. It builds connections between the world and us. It works against isolation. At its best it offers new views that refresh our ideas of the world. And Koch really loves metaphor. In fact, he has a poem that’s called ‘After Love-making I Think in Metaphors’ – and I’m wondering if he even thinks in metaphors during it!

He is a romantic, no doubt about it. I often think of Oscar Wilde’s quote “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” when I read Jules Leigh Koch’s work. The stars haunt his poems, as does the moon in various phases, the sunset, clouds, the sea, the romance of rain, but it’s not some naive retreat into nature or an easy escape into myth making. In fact, he’s simultaneously very grounded in urban and suburban reality, there’s an edge and an unease, juxtaposed with the starry. His poems talk about failed relationships, addiction, alienation, and suburban bleakness as well as the beauty around us and above us.

These are some of the metaphors from Stripping Wallpaper from the Sky: “the artificial lake is calm as a sedative”, “sunset is a blood clot” and insomnia is “a tap dripping against flesh and bone.” For a man alone in a bar his drinks go down “like flares with no landing ground.” Sunlight “tears itself along a wall”, bird sounds are “high voltage machinery” and daybreak is operated by “ropes and pulleys.” On the steps of the Salvation Army hostel a “chemically troubled” woman waits “as calmly as a getaway car” (and that’s not calmly at all.) Birds have had their flights cancelled by fog, a kettle has an umbilical cord, sunlight is electric shock therapy, windows are guillotines, and stars are screws that hold the night in place.

Now I’m starting to think I have to modify my earlier description of Koch’s poetry. Maybe the comparison isn’t so much with the impressionists but with the surrealists, because Jules Leigh Koch finds the surreal within the real in his coastal, suburban and urban settings. And here I’m thinking particularly of Rene Magritte. Even the title of this new collection Stripping Wallpaper from the Sky reminds me of one of those strange Magritte paintings where exterior becomes interior and vice versa.

Some of Koch’s surrealism is found in the ordinary everyday – like the lady bowlers who are sponsored by a funeral parlour. Other examples are a little more out there, like this one:

Funeral Flowers

today I will try
to defuse a bomb

the one ticking somewhere
between your heart and genitalia

I will do it blindfolded

not to see the damage
or fallout created,

outside your bedroom I wait
with a bunch of white lilies

and my mini screwdriver kit

White lilies, a screwdriver, a blindfold, a bomb – I leave you to play with that sexual symbolism, but I can almost see it as a Magritte painting, maybe entitled ‘Boudoir of the Assassin.’

In The Essential Rene Magritte, Todd Algren has written a very interesting chapter on the poetic strategies of Magritte. Juxtaposition, dislocation, hybridization, metamorphosis – all these strategies used by the painter could also be applied to several poems by Jules Leigh Koch. But Algren describes another Magritte poetic strategy called “elective affinities” that fits Koch especially well: “he juxtaposes two related objects based on affinities or associative relationships between them” for example “the painting of a giant egg inside a bird cage, the most obvious affinity between the two being a bird.”

That’s it! When Jules Leigh Koch talks about jetties casting themselves out, happy hours spilling into each other, a construction site shovelled in with shadows, a fogbound airport postponing the flights of birds, he’s using elective affinity as a poetic strategy. Now I think I’ve finally nailed down Koch’s technique. But wait a second. Magritte himself also said: “People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image. No doubt they sense this mystery, but they wish to get rid of it. They are afraid. By asking, ‘What does it mean?’ they express a wish that everything be understandable.”

So forget this analysis. Just let Jules Leigh Koch’s images ripple over you like one of his suburban beachscapes, enjoy a wander in his streets, and a patch of his sunlight.

– Mike Ladd, Rochford Street Review

Jules Leigh Koch

Jules Leigh Koch was born in Sydney and raised in Adelaide. He has conducted poetry workshops in schools, colleges and at the South Australia Writers Centre. He also works as a mentor with writers from the Richard Llewellyn Arts and Disability Trust.

He has been a recipient of two South Australian Literature Grants in 2008 and again in 2011.

Jules’ working life is shared between Forbes Primary School and Centacare, working with children and young adults with special needs in education and in the community.


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Sample


Waiting for Daybreak


the daybreak
is pulling itself up
over the suburbs

with one or two stars left
unpicked

about us the sunlight
is fine-tuning the shape and texture
of things

the courtyard is a bird cage
of sounds

while traffic lights
wait
for the screech of brakes
and the sky

for the bark of a dog

The New Estate

systems have collapsed
an electric light flickers
all over the pavement

the wind is bartering with trees
for the last leaves otherwise
the avenues are as featureless as a railway track

streets and parks
have Aboriginal names
only a few residents can pronounce

slowly the moon has dragged itself up
from behind the night
to be exactly where it should
while each star has been accounted for

the artificial lake is as calm
as a sedative

Port Melbourne

the blood clot of sunset
is fading

the sky is a spillage of ink
on blue carbon paper

along the esplanade
the wind

gives mouth
to mouth

to the Norfolk pines

against the wharf
waves rise and fall

then crash
a forklift load at a time

across the bay
stands
a steelwool mesh of cranes

while a half-formed moon
is tugging the night
behind it

Rachel’s Insomnia

she walks through room after room
with the artificial stars
of street lights
in each window

hypnotically
her eyes are unpicking the moon
from its black canvas

her every moment
is a vase on the edge
of a shelf
and her unsleep

is a
tap
dripping
against flesh and bone

along the hallway her cat
senses
the shallow breathing
of a mouse

while the second-hand refrigerator
p  u  r  r  s
all night

Fortitude Valley

the red light district
is becoming more and more blue with sirens

around an incident
pedestrians gather with the same detachment
as a police line up

the streetlights have fallen halos
and every window is a peep-show

the moon has blindfolded itself with clouds
and stars have closed their curtains

along Brunswick Street
sex workers
count the carloads of boys circling
their corner

two times… three times…. four times… five
to keep themselves awake

as night settles down
into its trenches
or becomes an all nude girl revue


 

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