Praise for The Pentridge Trilogy

I'll be adding to this from time to time, as new accolades come in.


On the books collectively:

You have made a real contribution to justice and empathy and Australian poetry with these 3 books. On Monday my writers' group discussed your books and writing on prison in general and current prison reform. The consensus is that you are a brave woman and your trilogy is an important addition to literature on the topic.


– KS, poet, film maker and historian.



I just finished both the memoir and the chapbook! Reading Breaking into Pentridge Prison in book-form was a whole other experience and even though I knew the broad story, I found myself in tears at the end. 

Letters to a Dead Man was even more moving, especially when I saw the date on some of the poems. Time stays still and we just pretend it moves by writing different poems. 


– RR, poet and podcaster.



Oh my lord! Letters to a Dead Man! Masterful poetry, marvellous mistress of the way you put the words together. 


Could not put Breaking Into Pentridge Prison down either – did not turn out the light until 11.30pm!!! One thing I enjoyed was your clear, straightforward and unencumbered prose. The short chapters carried the narrative along without drag or mystery. 10/10.


– JF, poet and teacher.



I read the poems first and then finished the biography last night and just wanted to say that I was really moved. The poetry itself was powerful and there’s just so much depth, emotion and wisdom throughout them and your story. It really struck me how you’d had an amazing, unique experience that few people would ever encounter and I loved the way that you told your story with such unflinching honesty and compassion. 


I felt I’d experienced something important and interesting, and also learned a lot: a reader can’t ask for more!  And as well as the sadness and wisdom, your sense of humour came through too – lots of fun and interesting observations about people and life would pop up in your biography. Overall they were a really good read. 


– MM, accountant.



Your Pentridge books are so good and so important. I have enjoyed reading your wise, observant and poignant words.


– ML, poet, publisher, convenor.



I found the memoir, and the new poems, so very moving. I hope it's widely read, and the prisoners' reprinted poetry was also very worthwhile revisiting.


It's a brave and honest account of an antiquated system that harmed people. And how just a small amount of humanity can change everything for the powerless. Thank you for writing it.


– LH, poet and musician.




On Breaking into Pentridge Prison:


Your Breaking into Pentridge Prison (brilliant title) is a fascinating and moving memoir. 


– CB, author.



I read it in a day. Although it’s profound, it’s an easy read. 


– ST, poet and educator.



You capture the soul of prisoners and life ‘inside.’ 


– MS, poet and psychologist.



It’s an important piece of social history, a story that needed to be told, and a story only Rosemary could tell. 

– HS, author.



I found it very readable.

– WT, aerodynamicist.



Up to page 39 of your book which I started last night and absolutely loving it. It's such an engaging and interesting read. Makes me think of all the people I know, and those I don't, who have done time and wonder things about them that I haven't thought about before. I'm getting to know you better too. Well done girl.


– MM, disability pensioner.



On Blood from Stone 


One of my favourite works of poetry. 


– DN, coder.



The collection is an eye-opener. The quality of the writing stands the test of time.


– KS, poet, film maker and historian.



I agree with [a reviewer's] remark that it should be used in schools to educate young people about crime and its consequences. I also think that the poems in their own right are funny and "coruscating." For enjoyment as well as education.


– DG, retired.


On Letters to a Dead Man


I would place this book beside The Prophet on my bookshelf. Skilful. I am transported into my private place. Glad you made the effort to publish and launch and make the world a little richer. 


– KJ, author and artist.



Although love poetry can be cloying [this book] contained love poems that are interesting, well written and enriched with literary devices. There is not sentimentality but authentic emotions that touch the reader. 


– BC, poet and psychologist.

A new review of 'The Pentridge Trilogy'

 

By Rajani Radhakrishnan, reposted with permission from her Thought Purge blog



Rosemary Nissen-Wade has published a trilogy that absolutely must find a place in your reading list for 2024. Rosemary is an excellent poet as many of you on the poetry trail know, she is also a dear friend and source of inspiration. Here’s a 13-point review of two very special books from that set.


1. Breaking into Pentridge Prison tells of her experience, in the eighties, conducting workshops for prisoners in the Northern and Maximum-Security units of Melbourne’s Pentridge prison. “If you’re not mad when you get there, you will be by the time you leave” – public view on Pentridge.


2. Describing poetry discussions in that oppressive environment, monitored by armed guards, with people incarcerated for serious crimes, Rosemary reinforces our faith in art as a medium, if not of healing, of reprieve, of light, albeit a tiny, ephemeral sliver of sunshine. “Looking back, I think I was perfect for those prison workshops. Anyway, after the first, I was hooked.


3. The text is dotted with poetry written by the prisoners and fellow-poets and her own verses, telling their own stories in words that are at once, strange and familiar. Some of those poems found their way into an anthology published from the prison, “Blood from Stone” (the third book in the trilogy, now in a new edition). “…what price a poet / in the all-seeing / in-the-round panopticon / what price the poet’s visitor / with only that way out…” (Untitled poem – Linda Stevenson). “…There is no wish for the pool of youth, immortality / rather time’s end and be / old, dead, anything! / but be free” (Nothing – Dallas Duncan)


4. Rosemary talks of her friendship with some of those who attended the workshops, highlighting the person inside the prisoner, the poet inside the inmate. From “I’ve got these poems here. They’re not very good.” to years of affection, correspondence and meetings even after release.


5. And then she talks of love. An impossible, forbidden, enduring love. The honesty is striking as she bares details of heart and crime, leaving the reader in no doubt about the complex twists of human relationships.


6. More tellingly, she talks of how the pressure of an intimidating environment and all that the world of crime and punishment contains behind its stone walls, affects the people who dare to enter it. What happens when the ‘outside’ is forced to intersect with the ‘inside’, poetry and love are forced to interact with threats and mind-games and secrets. And how does it affect families and children? “…I taste my ageing. / All my years / you’ll go on being dead.


7. “Apprentice on the tightrope / I juggle half-a-dozen balancing acts” – Rosemary writes of the growing unease “If they distract me, I’ll trip /A fall would be real: / There is no net.


8. Should we look at crime as a binary? How should we think of redemption? What is the axis of social acceptance? The story of John — prisoner, poet, friend, criminal, lover — is instructive in its violent sadness. Then, should we look at love as a binary? And people? “What sad contradictory world / shuts loving men in jail — / and leaves the many others / free to walk?”


9. In the end, is this an overwhelming story about life or love or poetry? The reader wonders if there is a difference. “…I stare new darkness/ down its depth / forget too slowly / other faces trapped / in blood and stone…


10. Letters to a Dead Man is a companion book to Breaking into Pentridge Prison. As the opening note says, the poems in it can stand alone, but become more poignant when you know the back story.


11. There are poems from last year and some that go back to 1981, with haunting lines and verses like this one: “Always / is too long a word for love” or this “A poem/ on a page you’ll never see. / Flights / impossible / even for sparrows.


12. A memoir always struggles with what not to say, how much to say and yet there are things that can and will never be shared. But these books have enough, more than enough, to do the one thing good books do, leave the reader wiser and yet with more introspective questions than before they started.


13. “As public as a headline / Private as a night in a cell” – Rosemary has put together a one-of-a-kind memoir set that simply needs to be read. Get it from http://www.nissen-wade.com


(Photo by Rajani Radhakrishnan)

Note from Rosemary

When I first started writing my Pentridge memoir, I posted episodes to a blog as I wrote them, and shared them with members of the online community, Poets and Storytellers United. Many were very interested and left encouraging comments – no-one more so than Rajani, whose own poetry I've admired for years, and whose own books I've been delighted to acquire. She read every episode I posted, made insightful comments, and followed them up in email discussions full of both poetic and emotional wisdom, which deepened and consolidated our friendship. As I say in the Acknowledgments in the memoir, her 'unfailing interest and deeply understanding feedback on both the writing and the content were crucial to my continuing.'

And now, having received copies of the books of the trilogy, she has written this review for her blog and given me permission to quote it. Which I have gladly done in full.


Launching the 'Pentridge Trilogy'

(or trifecta, as some of my friends are calling it!)

I invited local award-winning poet and educator Sarah Temporal, the convenor of the very successful Poets Out Loud performances, to launch the books. I was thrilled with the things she said! 

Here she is making the speech:











And here is what she said:


My name is Sarah Temporal. I’m thrilled to be with you today to launch this wonderful trilogy from Rosemary Nissen-Wade. When Rosemary invited me, I had no idea how profound this work would be. As she declares: it’s a pilgrimage. And, what a privilege it is as a reader to walk that pilgrimage with her. 

 

'What is the story you have never told?' she ponders. 'The one that will free you to tell all the rest'. 

 

In the heyday of Melbourne's notorious Pentridge Prison in the 80s, Rosemary Nissen (as she was known then) introduced a series of poetry workshops for the inmates, including those in the high security division. She did not know that there she would encounter both love and tragedy.

This extraordinary trilogy comprises: the memoir of her life-changing experiences there, Breaking Into Pentridge Prison: Memories of Darkness and Light; the re-released anthology of prisoners' poetry created in those workshops, Blood From Stone; and a chapbook of Rosemary's own poems and prose-poems, revealing for the first time the most personal aspect of that story, Letters to a Dead Man

 

One of my catch-cries is: poetry is for everyone. As a poetry educator and community arts producer I know that the most incredible poetry does not belong to universities or libraries, that it flourishes anywhere there is a willing listener and permission to share what's most important. And when I first met Rosemary to chat about starting a poetry night here in Murwillumbah, I was thrilled to learn that she had been a key player in the Melbourne-based poetry movement that inscribed those values on Australian poetry. The Poets Union / 'rat bag school of poetry' as they called themselves insisted that poetry should reflect and be represented in the reality of people's lives, wherever that was. Behind the bluestone walls of Pentridge there were poets… Rosemary went in at their request.

 

And yet I was not prepared for this book. Breaking Into Pentridge Prison recounts with compelling honesty and stark precision the experiences of those workshops. The electric atmosphere of free expression, deepening conversation in an environment that prohibited any kind of vulnerability. Friendships developing with men she calls 'Youngest,' 'Tallest,' 'Sweet-face.' Navigating mind games, threats, stresses and strains; and the toxic atmosphere leaking into life outside. 'Pentridge would warp anyone.' 

 

Yet, most surprising, the central personal thread is a love story. Which I can't spoil for you now – I can tell you that I found it affirming and heartbreaking all at once. I was so invested I couldn't put it down. I don't think it could have been handled by any other writer. 

 

One of the remarkable achievements of this memoir is that Rosemary fastidiously avoids any sensationalism in her descriptions of the prison and its horror. It makes the work all the more impactful, I feel, to follow an author who deals in the utmost integrity with her subjects: placing humanity at the centre, even in a setting that denied these men humanity in some cases their entire adult lives. 

 

Although each of these works stands alone, they will make you hungry for more: dip into any one and you’ll start seeking and gathering threads of the other two. 

 

The prisoners' own works are anthologised in Blood from Stone, capturing the reality of life behind prison walls as only they can. These poems are a cry from the deepest parts of human experience; a cry to he heard. Included alongside the workshop participants' poetry, at their insistence, are also pieces from visiting poets who tutored there: Myron Lysenko, Linda Stevenson, Nicholas G Coleman, and Rosemary herself. 

 

Letters to a Dead Man, I read breathlessly. I have never before understood how vital the link between poetry and memory is: here is a whole personal history that is so alive and immediate, as if it happened yesterday. These poems vibrate, a mark of having been carried for half a lifetime. As poet Chris Mansell says, Rosemary has been able to make love walk through time although it cannot walk through walls.  

 

This is a body of work that gives voice to the most pivotal and profound experiences. Tenderly, poetically, and with unflinching directness, Rosemary brings to light an important social history that might otherwise lie forgotten. More importantly though, she shares with us the most intimate of human stories; one that, I hope, sets her free to tell all the rest. 

 

I am excited for all of you to delve into reading these books, to enjoy, discover, to witness and treasure these remarkable stories and poems. It is my pleasure to declare the Pentridge trilogy launched.