New Poets 1

The imaginary and the actual distance between the west and east coast of this huge country throws up interesting anthologies. A couple of years ago, on the east coast there was Harbour City Poems, a selection from two centuries of poems set in Sydney. Now Fremantle Press is publishing new poetry by Western Australian poets. New Poets 1 is a collection of first book-length publications by three poets. In each case though the poetry is never as specifically provincial as the book’s locating concept. And, anyway, poets are likely to relocate at any time – seeking work, academic scholarships, romance, adventure, a change of place for a stimulating change of outlook, a creative jolt and so on. These days poetry resides in a digital realm that often negates identity pinned to locale.

Tracy Ryan’s choice of three different yet strong ‘new’ poets is commendable. Her introduction to the book shows that she clearly enjoyed the process of editing New Poets 1.

Emma Rooksby, originally from Perth, now “divides her time between Canberra and Wollongong”. In an interview on the Fremantle Press website she answers the inevitable question “What makes you a Western Australian poet?” with “I have spent much of my life in Perth, and I identify strongly with elements of the natural landscape in that part of the world. Western Australian themes (the beach and the port at Fremantle, the local trees and plants) often recur in my poems, although the focus of the poems in Time Will Tell [the section title] tends to be on memory and self-knowledge rather than on place.”

Her poems are an odd mixture of understatement and the occasionally ornate, and what Tracy Ryan calls “an apparent directness” is disrupted by overwritten phrases that create an unsettling reading experience. “Self-knowledge” seems to be protectively distanced by description.

Emma Rooksby’s dry understatedness approaches litote in the poem, ‘Winter’ –

It is winter. We are waiting for cold weather.

Often, a strange discord seems to attempt a loosening and lifting of a persistently deflated tone via the colloquial. This technique seems unrefined and, it can become, unintentionally, almost comical -

Summer’s coming in and cockatoos
are arriving by the busload, their raucous shrieks
so many calls for rain
(‘Summer’)

The seventh poem in this sequence, ‘Reading’, is straightforward, without language-play. Its concern is the poet’s ailing father and this poem is where, for me, Time Will Tell actually begins. The poem engages emotionally in a way that only a few others here do. Her father reads to her from Tennyson’s wracked poem ‘Maud’ until his carer is due to arrive: ‘she’ll bathe him if he doesn’t bathe himself’- the final line mitigates any lyrical impulse that the setting might provoke.

Some poems like ‘Garbage’ and ‘South from Belconnen’ use irony (yes, it is irony, as clichéd as it might be to say so) to get into the grit of suburban life (in an idyllic place without water restrictions) and the mundane grind that makes an everyday life possible, and these types of poems are when I find Emma Rooksby most assured.

The whir of dawn sprinklers is drowned
by the song of the garbo, as he stubs the knob
that lifts the Otto bins.

…Garbage sacks split and crack;
household flows mingle indiscriminate
in the dark tank. The truck starts, stops,
on erratic communion through the streets

The impression given by this selection is that the poet, thus far in her writing life, is comfortable using conventional literary tropes to embellish description in her mostly flat-toned poems. ‘Magpie’ looks at first as if it’s going to be a poetic rendition of the bird’s impossible-to-describe call, but becomes, through simile, an abstracted warbling, like the birdsong. It’s a kind of mimesis-

a magpie’s lachrymose
arpeggio tritone
breaks the day’s glaze
like forcing love
with a love song
or curing a hurt with labour.
There’s no resolution,
just the interrupted
cadence repeated
and then silence.

Some poems, like ‘Walk’, which is just that, a three stanza description of a walk through the bush to a view, are so measured, so comme il faut, that they might evoke Heaven – ‘a place where nothing ever happens’.

*

J.P. Quinton ‘was born and grew up in Perth’s “rich and romantic country” near Bassendean.” He works, the bio note continues, “for an environmental company as a landscape architect” and “the Swan River and rivers in general are a preoccupation in his writing”. His selection of poems is called Little River.

James Quinton brings an analytical slant to nature writing and ecopoetry. He is not simply writing ‘about’ the natural sphere and human infringement’s well-chronicled destruction of it. His work is situated, genuinely, in it, in a river and on its banks – swimming, wading in mud, remembering a drowning, noting the water’s gradual advancement and appraising human relationship with ecology. His poems are philosophical, postmodern and direct, angry, serious and troubled, yet never dire.

In the pessimistic title poem Quinton knows that he can’t alter nature’s course -

What effect will little river’s
Encroaching waters descend upon us?
Us non-believers
Us realists who discrdeit
Its sparkling leaves
Resenting the sharp sky screen.

Because of each other’s thoughts
We lapse to think less of you, little river.

Still, you remain still
And quiet, in the stillness of unrest.
(‘Little River’)

Elsewhere, his lines are reminiscent of Gig Ryan’s metaphoric warp -

Solitude is like Bali:
Vacant and full of Aussie tourists.

and

… Your teardrop
In my hand and the hills ablaze
With sickness that could be love
Or a new haircut
(‘Self Portrait in Perth’)

There are further Ryanesque lines like

If we’re movies in italics,
how much of this scene is habit?

J.P. Quinton is reading Theodor Adorno, listening to Beethoven and thinking about Friedrich Engels. The poem, ‘You Will Go Through Nothing We Won’t’, is systematic in couplet form though its unrestrained content lurches on –


Or too busy looking for a low-end

abode, evicted from the last by the
middle class, we’re armoured stinkbugs.

When the puzzling structures of meta-
physics die, reality rerepresents itself. e.g.:

skjfnb;sirjnb.zmnfb z,jnbw;otnbsmj x.

The poet’s mildly insouciant intellect and deliberate artifice alter as a dozen or so poems almost painfully and directly pore over loss and mourning (uncannily echoing an earlier poem relating the tragedy of his sister’s drowning) towards the end of the section.

To be
Closed off from all
Everyone who might
Share the load

But it’s the white light
You turn to,
When people turn away.

Is it you
Your deadness
Or me
My unforgiveness?
(‘All the Albums We Listened to Together’)

Throughout this frank and sombre sequence J.P. Quinton doesn’t lose touch with his innate knowledge of poetics and John Forbes’ poems’ influence on his writing. Literally. The final italicised line in ‘The Lookout’ uses one of Forbes’ famous celebratory lines ‘a total, fucking, gas’ as a powerfully sad refrain. Just before this closing quote the poem’s last stanza has revealed the poet’s brother’s suicide in a kombi van by exhaust gas.

The final poem is filled with grief as James Quinton relates his love for his nephews and laments his brother’s absence –

The river never stops flowing
because no matter how hard I try
you remain underground.
(‘Out Over the Brown Water’)

*

Sandwiched between more normative pursuits in New Poets 1, Scott-Patrick Mitchell is the daring and playful experimenter of the trio. He lives in Perth. Earlier this year, at the ‘Poetry and the Contemporary’ conference in Melbourne, Scott-Patrick Mitchell introduced himself as having ‘the unfortunate pleasure of being a performance poet’. The poems in {Where N Equals}: A Determinacy of Poetry are page-performative.

His poems can seem, momentarily, like e.e. cummings’ cryptogrammatic poems from 80 odd years ago

,mean-
hum
a)now

(nit
y unb
uria

ble fore (hurry
into
heads are
legs think wrists
(e.e.cummings’ ‘I’, from VIVA)

Compare this with:

have long legs
, glide gazelle-like

, fish as though
casting

strange shapes
across a lake

. coy rocks
ripple

, rake arousal as
flock

slipstreams up, their
wait startled
(S-P. Mitchell, ‘from HERE on in, cranes …’)

Scott-Patrick Mitchell uses punctuated enjambment and parataxis throughout. Remarkably, although extraordinarily innovative, his poems are also ‘romantic’, appreciative of traditional beauty, personable, lighthearted and are often yearning, intimate, sensual and sensory or erotic. Flowers are a motif from which to begin -

you will not bury me
beneath this earth
,cover me with dirt
,smudge me out
beneath a surface

. for I will speak

: through flowers
: through petal & stem & thorn
(‘from the margin’)

This opening one is followed by a group of brief flower poems. Nature and a river, the Swan River that runs through Perth, are, as for the other two poets here, recurring concerns. Mitchell’s approach though, because of his use of fracturing and slightly eccentric lineation, is to assemble a concentrated abstraction that displaces and redistributes the conventional or usually-expected power of morally ethical ‘nature writing’. But there is no doubting his respect for nature.

These poems can work like a musical score, for singing, or, in Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s case, performing. Formally and somatically the breath and pauses are emphasised or dropped as indicated by punctuation. There is also plenty of space on the pages.

‘it is what IT is what it isn’t what it is’ reads as a kind of Gertrude Steinian declaration of love and sexuality -

. to give it a noun
- to say it is [name]
& [name] & [name]
- is to pin it down …

.it is a verb
, a commodity
, an action
, an overrated word
mentioned
in every radio pop song

. it is a moment
, a compound caused
between
two people

Sensuality and desire appear often in this work, including in the longer poem ‘ dew’–


. it is morning &
you twitch at each
kiss from these lips
place ethereal on
ridge & slope of
body i dote …

. exposed tone of bone
spining from neck to
buttock & cleft

. arc of rib &
apple of adam
. thigh & shin

. forehead

. loll & roll in
whichever direction
pleases them

There is a playfulness in Mitchell’s writing that judiciously stops short of leg-pulling but also keeps his readers amused. In a parody of the Christian Lord’s Prayer, the celebratory homosexual poem ‘him’ for jim, he even uses the guise of couplets -

out farther, stars are the
art in heaven. hollow be the

sky that does not contain
them. hello be the aim of

an introduction. thine
winged one, my heart is

undone. you are worthy every
penny from above. give in

& say let us go to bed
, for we need to undress

, for we need to undress
& press us against us

. it will lead to temptation
, which will quiver an

upheaval. for I am
your winged one

& our love will flower
song in the face of the

eternal. forever
endeavour to be a

lover, a partner, a boy
, a man

In 2009, US poet Adam Fieled, wanting to figure out what the term ‘post-avant’ meant, defined it as “the diasporic movement of Language poetry towards a new synthesis with narrative and erotic elements.” And later, he came to simply call it poetry that is “anything with an edge”. Of course, a lively discussion ensued and ‘post-avant’ continues to be argued by critically thinking poets. However, I’d say that Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s edgy poems fit the category.

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6 am in the Universe

Trying to keep up with the Ben Frater of 6 am in the Universe is a difficult thing. As soon as he lets you see where you are in any one of his poems, he picks at the words he used to mark your bearings, masticates them into nonsensical gibberish, and spits them back in your face. He gallops across the page, scattering letters, words, meaning, and it feels, very often, like he doesn’t really give a damn if you’re keeping up, or left re-reading the first stanza, trying to work out where the hell you are.

If you keep up, you’ll still occasionally have no idea where you are, and you might get lost in the joy of tearing language up and throwing it around, simply because it can be done, but you’ll also see flashes of Frater’s life in the South-West of Sydney, get snagged on the sharp black wit of his one liners, meet toothless barflies, experience the elasticity of time on the inside of a psych ward, fall in love with a social worker at Centrelink, see hallucinatory dragons in the kitchen floor and get jabbed in the gut by the severe loneliness that sends a person like Frater hurtling into an obsession with poetry.

6am in the Universe is not of the tea-and-biscuits school of Australian poetry. Nor is it of the waterfowl and rural landscapes variety. More in tune with the American Beats, or the French Symbolists and Surrealists than he is with any identifiable Australian schools of poetry, 6am in the Universe still firmly owns its ‘Australianness’.

Frater doesn’t often waste much time painting pictures for his reader, but when he does, he does it with a quick ripping open of the eyelids. Sometimes, landscape and location is directly referred to as in, ‘In Back of Airds’, which is described as a:

wasteland scorched
by bored Aboriginies
who entered the thoughtless void of petrol.

Minto is similarly brutally pointed to on the map:

As an adolescent
in the ghetto of Minto
we lived next-door to
a murder,
regular wife thrashing,
a dead baby up a jumper

and the Oval is always on fire. (‘Orizen, Prelude’)

But his particularly masculine, subjective view of the Australian landscape is also present in Frater’s turn of phrase, or choice of adjective. In ‘Ourizen’ the sky is ‘muscular’, and in the final poem, Frater’s black, wry, and undeniably Australian sense of humour comes though in lines such as, ‘This place is brighter than a bat’s arsehole.’ And while location is not explicitly stated in the following, anyone who has ever spent longer than five dry minutes in an empty pub on the sweltering fringes of an Australian city will be able to know exactly how to picture a moment like this:

Two matches drop on an open page
dead things blown against the mesh
and that is all there is
to thrash consciousness in
the celestial boredom of this afternoon. (‘iii. Paying: Win or Loss, Coming off the Cross’)

Perhaps it’s his inheritance from the French Symbolists and Surrealists, but Frater often blurs the line between landscape and psyche. In the following passage, the ‘motherless daughters’ of Campbelltown not only prowl, like the sickly cats and dogs they hold under their arms, but even the rain is ‘flea-bitten’:

Campbelltown
my hometown
where motherless daughters prowl
ugly streets
beyond the sun, through labyrinth of ghettos
with similarly motherless litters of sickly cat and
dog
clutched under arm
through night of endless dark
and flea-bitten rain. (‘Ourizen, Prelude’)

This melding of the landscape with the subject is not necessarily a result of any overt solipsism on Frater’s part, but a way of using his external surroundings as a playground for his imagination, or as a template for his own emotional topography.

Frater has no problem with taking a setting and mutating it or evaporating it when you least expect, as might happen in a dream. In ‘Treason and Betting’, ‘Old Guildford Rd just dissolved’, and in the school-syllabus-worthy ‘To Kill the Prime Minister’, Frater effortlessly fixes a moving bug and shifts the world around it, in the line, ‘to kill the Prime Minister, show him the wall crawling up a bug.’ Occasionally Frater even reclaims pieces of the empirically observable world as the exclusive property of the subconscious, for instance with the lines, ‘The moon/ was and always will be dream/ in the finger-snapping palace of Dahmer.’

This blurring of the line between what is ‘outside’ and what is ‘inside’ is also true of Frater as a persona with porous ‘personal’ boundaries. As Frater perceptively reveals in ‘Maw Raw Mind’:

If these things aren’t out
they’re in
and if they’re in,
they’re in big trouble;

And again in ‘Ourizen’:

they have often said
that it was foolish of me
to indulge in fantasies of this nature
- instead you
must bury yourself.

Frater has no problems flashing intensely personal scenes, and his darkest hallucinations, throughout his poems. The second poem in the book, ‘Maw Raw Mind’, and the last sequence, ‘Ourizen’, are particularly confessional of his years in and out of psych wards. Knowing this, I’m not entirely sure how much the blurring between what’s ‘out’ and ‘in’ is a literary device, or is sincerely documented as fact-as-experienced-by-Frater. This has the added effect of grounding what would otherwise be quite a ridiculous, over-the-top tirade of fire and brimstone, and making it quite sincerely terrifying, as in ‘Sparrow Interlude’,

from giant shofar womb:

radiant discharge, infernal spasm, almighty fire
ejaculation pushing rabid angels out of the lack
womb.

The unshakable thing about Frater’s poetry, is that despite passages which stand out as classic examples of teenage angst, there is an honesty and urgency to them which makes them hard to dismiss. Frater seems to be quite literally obeying the favourite mantra of writing teachers and ‘writing what he knows’. There is a sense, when reading Frater’s poetry, that you have to listen, no matter how melodramatic or shambolic his rantings might be, because this person is preaching a kind of raw, intimate capital T-truth. Frater ingests the landscape around him, synthesises it with the mythologies of his self-selected poet heroes and Catholic upbringing, before using the whole shambolic mess to animate what can’t be seen, but is sincerely felt within him.

This passage from Kenneth Rexroth’s introduction to Philip Lamantia’s 1946 collection Erotic Poems, shouts down the 65 years as if they were 65 minutes and written specifically in reference to Frater’s urgent poetic voice:

‘What is wrong with most modern poetry, of whatever school, is that it is unmotivated, and it is contrived. There is really no reason why most of it should ever have been written. Further, it is fishy, passionless stuff, much of it, for all its noise. Your poetry so obviously is none of these things, and so positively their opposites. It has a great drive and excitement that only comes with conviction that what one has to say is of great importance and people ought to listen… The thing that counts is the intense passion. Not some vague amorphous ‘feeling,’ but a sort of fire power of the whole personality, will, intellect, emotion, etc, all organised and focused at maximum intensity.’

Although Frater undeniably writes with the ‘fire power’ Rexroth refers to, many of his poems aren’t as ‘organised and focused at maximum intensity’ as they could be. The most focused and organised of Frater’s poems are placed earlier on in the collection. The ‘Selected Short Poems’ are examples of Frater at his most witty, coherent and playful, but they are also more derivative and self-conscious of their influences. Ginsberg’s incantations and Blake’s complicated mythologies are unashamedly referenced, and his poet heroes – including his teachers at Wollongong University – make cameo appearances. Well aware of his own romanticisation, in classic wry Frater style he declares: Glory be this hideous idolatry!

But it’s precisely what Frater has stolen from his influences which is used to focus these earlier poems. He steals the literary architectures of highbrow avante guardists like Pound and Zukofsky, but these references do not come across as a kind of literary pretension. Throughout the collection, Frater is obsessed with shapes, with arcs, and with poems within poems within poems, and there is a sense – particularly in the earlier poems, that Frater believes these shapes might help him trace the tangled patterns of his own felt experience.

As the poems progress, these borrowed architectures gradually disappear, and what is left is a more original, yet less focused and harder to decipher, Frater Form. Many of these later poems read like a radio being tuned in and out of clear reception, and as the book progresses, more and more white noise interferes. While the clarity of lines such as

I need a winter bullet and one summer gun,
I am alone in this foxless morning,
all our Aramaic hearts and tongues
are frozen in the grave (‘Ourizen’)

often save the poems from losing the reader entirely, the poems soon dissolve into a scattering of abstracts across the page. During these moments, sound verbs intensify to ‘screaming’ and ‘roaring’, and the finesse of the earlier images is lost. Take for example:

And you have Hooked
Dragged and
dragged
from this
now existant Skull-King
Emerald eye
behind the mind
behind the eye
which you have Hooked
DRAGGED
& HUNG
Through and over and through and
O’ existant Apocalypse;
Ourizen!

But Frater is aware of this falling apart of structure, and tells us so: ‘I have attempted to build a new Emerald city/ and wound up instead/ “hissing”‘

If you had to squeeze all poetry into a greyscale ranging from freeform word-vomit to a strangulated hyper-edited kind of rhyming formalism, Frater would definitely be found sprinting past the Romantics, the Beats, the Symbolists, the Surrealists into the sloppy arms of the Dadaists, screaming Sense, be damned! But a close read, and re-read of the book reveals that there is cohesion, even to the most chaotic splurges, and an arc to the collection as a whole.

Some of that cohesion is provided by the sheer force of Frater’s personality, and the largess of spirit he invests in the performance of his work. The decision to include a DVD – featuring video footage and audio tracks of a few of Frater’s performances – was an excellent one, and adds a dimension to the collection that will help many readers hear how some of the harder poems really are examples of what Auden meant when he said that good poetry is ‘memorable speech’.

Ben Frater passed away in 2007 at the age of 28, after an overdose of the medication used to treat his schizophrenia. 6am in the Universe was compiled posthumously by his best friend, colleague and editor Rob Wilson and his publisher and teacher Alan Wearne. While Wilson and Wearne were no doubt the most intimate with Frater’s poetry, and therefore the best men for the job, it’s probably important to remember Frater himself never got the chance to sign off on the published manuscript. And while the tragedy of Frater’s early death shouldn’t be used as a pity-card when engaging with his poetry on the page, on the screen, or through the headphones, it’s still a forceful reminder that the stakes of Frater’s poetry were those of life, sanity, and death.

John Berryman, whose own poems read like tight, sharp seizures on the page, might have written this line about Ben Frater: ‘One man, wide/ in the mind, and tendoned like a grizzly, pried/ to his trigger-digit, pal.’ 6am in the Universe is definitely the work of a man wide in the mind, but also always one thought shy of losing it completely. Frater’s poems are honest, urgent notations, desperate attempts to evaporate out of ‘the ghetto of Minto’ via his own divergent imagination, and energetic evocations of a future he might have wanted to live in.

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Burning Bright

Caroline Caddy’s ninth collection of poetry, Burning Bright, brings together acutely observant poems that often centre on an experience; each experience holds the speaker’s intense attention and is turned this way and that until all its angles are illuminated. The poems focus on image and, in something of an homage to this focus, a number are set in China, perhaps a thematic echo of the fact that the development of such poetry in the English language owes much to early-twentieth-century translations of Classical Chinese poems. Yet the tone is conversational, making even more potent the poems’ sometimes arresting imagery.

A central theme of the collection is the intersection of culture and environment, as well as the way human beings are shaped by the places we inhabit. Typographically, the poems have great breadth, travelling almost as much across the page as down it, aware of a sense of space and of the kind of far-reaching horizons of the Australian landscape that many of the poems depict. The speaker is often an outsider in these (sub)cultures and places, at least initially; the first ten poems depict Western Australia’s rural south-west and the next thirteen are set in China. Following this, the speaker moves from the city to a country olive farm, and most of the remaining poems turn then to a depiction of life in that place – the settling in, the adjustments, the hazards, the neighbours – often with a focus on connections among people.

In the poems set in the South-West, expansiveness and distance are emphasised to evoke a strong sense of place. The motif of the car is often present, and takes the reader through country ‘where life is thinly spread’. In ‘The Commercial Hotel’, the settlements are ‘Small towns with emptiness / at the ends of their wide gravel streets’; fields are ‘endless’; the landscape is ‘vast’ and presses in on the manmade dwellings: with the coming of the night, ‘the pale stubble fields began to push / lightly against the windows’. In this there is sometimes a sense of the uncanny, which is both heightened and curbed in ‘Wheat Bins’; on the one hand, that there are townships in the immense landscape is depicted as an almost fantastical fact – ‘Such a big feeling to arrive in such a small place / realising not so much we’re here / but that it’s here’ – and on the other, ‘But there’s nothing strange out here no lights / nothing that has landed or will take off / no need for any “other”’.

The China poems also focus on the environment, one which is often, but not always, built. Such poems as ‘Butter’ and ‘Confucian Temple An Shun’ are impressionistic and, along with many of the other China poems, evoke the sense of bewilderment, wonder and discovery that is tied to being in the thick of a place that is home to people of another culture. They also underscore the possibilities for writing when the world being observed is so different and its people’s languages are not understood. In ‘None the Wiser’ the mundane becomes charged with meaning because the speaker can’t understand it: a nightly megaphone announcement is an intriguing enigma because it is unintelligible and thus its purpose is obscure. Its hypnotic repetition is such that the speaker can ‘say along in total synchronicity / the sound of a dialect / in total ignorance’.

Interestingly, the outsider perspective, while explored in the China poems, is perhaps most highlighted in ‘Great Southern’ when the speaker’s vocation is the focus for what might most set her apart, or might make her feel at least a certain otherness. Here there is a delightful mutual gaze of difference, one of poet and farmer contemplating each other, the process of which is perhaps unexpected: ‘They are the ones who when I say what I do don’t flinch / but turn the idea over / like an oil sheened tool’. The speaker’s expectation seems to be that Australians do flinch, and yet in this place, far from the urban centres where making a living means performing the most pragmatic of tasks, her vocation is assessed carefully and accepted (‘I feel I’ve been given a kind of permission’) because it’s country where ‘words must work’. The fact that the speaker’s automatic disposition towards what she does is almost apologetic, or is at least prepared for – what? incredulity? disapproval? – says something about Australian poets’ sense of marginalisation in their home country while poets elsewhere occupy a more central, visible role.

These places where environment and culture intersect are often sites for contemplation and discovery. In ‘Great Southern’, the poet draws attention to the (necessary) resourcefulness of the country people, while making use of a rhythm that, together with the mostly monosyllabic vocabulary, reflects the offhanded pragmatism of their outlook: ‘I’ve met blokes out here / who will attempt anything and it’s nothing / fix a gate with a piece of wire kill a beast for the table / build a boat’. Some men’s interaction with others – both their presence and their manner of communicating – is shaped by the land: ‘They are the ones who turn to speak in a roadhouse / and bring those paddocks / right up to the counter’; their rural culture is described succinctly in ‘Neighbours’ with the observation that they inhabit ‘the land of self-reliance’.

This way that place affects people is also depicted in ‘Confucian Temple An Shun’. The artistry of the craftsman and patron responsible for the titular temple is emphasised, as is the way that the place they have created affects its visitors:

and if we knew nothing of the great sage
and if our hands on the braille balustrades
couldn’t tell the difference
between alabaster and cement
there would still be a transmission a civilising
not of palaces or tombs
but the adequate and charming bones of dwelling
the few good actions the few good words
that last
what you say to me what I say to you.

The second half of this extract highlights another of the speaker’s concerns: the way that words also build, also fashion an environment in which to subsist, and how they, like place, shape us, just as the speaker’s words are at this moment guiding and moulding the reader’s focus and perception.

The idealism of the poet moving to the country is tempered by recognition of the sometimes difficult reality of living there, which creates an interesting tension and counterpoint, as well as a sense of variety throughout the collection. There is the enthusiasm and impatience of ‘Planting Olive Trees’  – ‘hurry hurry / I want to see the flames / of the little trees’ – but there is also the moving, acutely observed ‘Tambellup’, a poem that, through finely tuned images, both narrates a story and says something about humanity (or, at least, about humanity of the sedentary kind). This poem’s protagonists, general-store owners in ‘their flat land of persevere and make-do’, have ‘this urge that sets itself up in our brain / let’s play house we say as kids / and it stays with us’. Despite ‘the tastefully tumbledown verandah’ and the owners’ ‘good sense of colour and design’, outside circumstances – the 7/11, for example – have made theirs an unprofitable venture, one that has caused ‘the light gone out of their eyes’. Yet, emphasising how compelling and deep-seated this drive, the speaker ends with:

I think of them
but still lie wide eyed in the dark
my hands reaching out instinctively
to stack and restack shelves
move the cash point
keep the candy close.

On a technical level, Caddy has a knack for transmitting her observations through distinctive images, often metaphors, to create atmosphere and meaning – take this in ‘Shanghai Renga’: ‘my awareness of the leaves tingling in me like sap’. Often these metaphors deftly create a sense of dehabitualisation, as is the case in ‘Neighbours’: ‘if an oily rag could give light without burning / that’s the time of evening’. Likewise, Caddy’s opting to substitute commas with greater-than-usual spaces is a fitting way of representing visually – and, indeed, of forcing the reader to enact – the kind of pauses and breaths that her poetry requires. In poems that privilege the horizontal, it’s an appropriate understatement, a kind of stripping away of distractions.

Another oft-used device is repetition, which is employed on the word- and phrase-level to create a kind of lulling rhythm but sometimes feels a little overstated. In ‘Away’, for example, the repetition of ‘the quiet and the dark’ among interspersing lines of new material creates an effective dynamic, until the final three lines, which I feel are wielded a little heavy-handedly. Likewise, ‘About the Songs’ is a moving, layered poem, but I don’t think its mention of the songs, along with their pre-eminence in the title, warrants their (this time, thematic) repetition in the closing lines, which seems to be a lack of trust in the reader’s capacity to intuit the poet’s regret at not telling her neighbour about them.

But these few quibbles are finicky when considering the collection as a whole. Caddy writes with such grace and precision, and reading her new collection, I felt like I’d been offered – quietly, discreetly – a kind of gift.

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Gig Ryan New & Selected Poems

Gig Ryan has been a considerable force in Australian poetry since the early 1980s. In its taxonomy, however, it is hard to know where to place her. Clearly she shares something of the dry wit and verbal ingenuity of her good friend, the late John Forbes. Her knowledge of, and ironic attitude towards, popular culture could situate her quite close to John Tranter. These allegiances, however, take no account of her feminism (especially in early works such as ‘If I Had A Gun’).

Some other female poets of her own generation, such as Judith Beveridge, Jennifer Harrison and MTC Cronin, have arguably been more influential on the remarkable generation of Australian young women poets (such as Sarah Holland-Batt and Petra White, to name just two) who are currently emerging. Some might argue, however, that the emphasis of this generation on metaphorical density at the risk of literal meaning may owe something to Gig Ryan as a precursor.

For a poet whose technique has been so consistently ‘experimental’, Gig Ryan has had a remarkably favourable press. In The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1994) William H. Wilde talks of her poetry as ‘difficult, intense and pain-filled’ and argues that she is also ‘a lyricist with an outstanding linguistic ability to create aesthetically exciting moments from what is emotionally painful’. In Poetry International Michael Brennan points to the ‘truncation, tautness and drama’ of Ryan’s poetry and celebrates how her ‘humour, insight and music test and engage the reader’.

Bearing all this in mind, we can now conveniently, using her recently-released New & Selected Poems, begin at the beginning and trace (or re-trace) the continuities and developments in Ryan’s poetry from her first collection, The Division of Anger (1981) through to the recent poems which conclude the present book.

From the late 1970s to the mid-1980, Ryan’s main concern was with sexual politics and, to a lesser extent, the unintended side effects of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’. Her most famous (some would say ‘infamous’) poem of that period is the one that finishes this selection from her first book, namely, ‘If I Had A Gun’. A few randomly chosen lines are enough to establish the tone: ‘I’d shoot the man who can’t look me in the eye / who stares at my boobs when we’re talking / who rips me off in the milk-bar and smiles his wet purple smile’. Some of the complaints are even more explicit and include the man who ‘wrenches me into position / like a meccano set’ and another who ‘shoves it up like a nail’.

While the understandable, even violent, feminism of these lines brought Ryan considerable celebrity at the time (and later) ‘If I Had A Gun’ is not especially typical of her work as a whole, even in those early days. Less aggressive perhaps, but no less sexually political, are lines like those which close her early poem, ‘Not Like A Wife’: ‘The sink’s blocked in Darlinghurst. / I never could eat spaghetti effectively, / too unmarried or something.’ Ryan, it seems, did not always have to ‘carry a gun’.

It’s in Ryan’s second book, Manners of an Astronaut, that the relative directness of her first collection starts to evolve into something more opaque and we see the interest shift somewhat from politics to poetry itself. Many of these later poems are not vehicles for outrage (or disappointment) but abstract, almost sculptural, constructions. They may have moral implications but they are abstractions nonetheless. Take, for instance, the opening lines of the title poem, ‘Manners of an Astronaut’: ‘Come out from the shower, singing and glorious. / Red light vanishing in the mauve trees. / Gladly enough, your head was only swimming, not president. / The lake with wrath is heavy / and decisions also have made it stop like a screen. / The lake through the white door isn’t normal.’

A number of things about this stanza foreshadow the rest of Ryan’s career so far: the sense of a line as a unit of meaning; the slightly strange verbal jokiness of ‘your head was only swimming, not president’; the occasional, deliberate archaism of syntax or vocabulary (‘the lake with wrath was heavy’) and visual descriptions that frustrate the reader’s imagination even as they stimulate it (in what way precisely isn’t the ‘lake through the white door’ ‘normal’?).

At this stage the social satire and sexual politics (‘It’s party time in Darlinghurst. But he’s sick of hairstyles…’) are still there but so too is a growing density of texture and an intentional disruption of traditional syntax. The next section, from Ryan’s chapbook, The Last Interior, (1986) is something of a transition between her two main periods. Most of its poems are monologues, several very insightful, especially those spoken by women of different ages.’ 22 years’ is perhaps the most moving, spoken by a girl who can’t quite find a line between self-destructive promiscuity and wanting ‘to flee out the window’. ‘25 years Always’ is more difficult to interpret but is almost certainly as a young woman’s lament after a series of abortions. It’s complete in five lines: ‘The children I cradled in my curled body, / their shiny limbs dropping into sleep. / Dream, repair. I protect you with watching. / These arms support a head / I carry them to bed, one by one.’

In Excavation (1990) we see Australian and international (as opposed to sexual) politics entering Ryan’s work. The process starts almost abruptly with a free verse sonnet, ‘On first looking into Fairfax’s Herald’ and the poem, ‘1965’, the latter being a subtle but effective account of the bloody events in Indonesia in that year. ‘Disinformation’ has a shot at what we take to be American ‘sailors (who) strut through town / adored by skint women who, for a job, will cheer their garish flag’ and a swipe at the PM of the day (Bob Hawke presumably) ‘unable to not be loved by Indonesia, France, Chile, China’. At other times the satire (or straight denunciation) is more socially oriented. In the next section, ‘Pure and Applied’, a Londoner is quoted as saying: ‘I put away about 50 a week double-shifts married to the pub / She shivered I listen to their diminishing brain cells / and the sloppy histrionic music like a church’. The simile at the end of this is typically ambiguous. Is the narrator listening ‘like a church’ or is the music ‘like a church’?

The church reference is no accident, however. Numerous poems throughout the book display traces of what seems to have been a Catholic education – and a continuing interest in, if not preoccupation with, some of the issues it must have raised. In ‘Venerdi Santo’, for instance, she notes that: ‘Keen on profit, shops stay open through the hours of agony’. Titles such as ‘The Global Rewards Redemption Centre’ and ‘La Penserosa’ are also indicative, the latter talking of a ‘truncated simile / swathed in religion’s cold abstract love’. Sometimes single lines can leave an indelible spiritual impression: ‘The dead enrich the soil with their ruin. (‘Rostra’). At other times there are witty adaptations: ‘Your true self has left / the square halo of a living saint’. (‘Oh Anachronism’).

In the second half of this New and Selected Ryan also begins to travel beyond the confines of inner-city Sydney and Melbourne. In ‘Travellers from the New World’, she attempts almost a mini-version of her friend John Forbes’ classic, ‘Europe: A Guide for Ken Searle’. (‘England was antipodean must / Switzerland was grouse We stayed with friends’). Vietnam gets a mention, even if only a satirical one, via the mouth of a returning Aussie tourist. ‘This restaurant’s divine They’re refugees / Asians are beautiful don’t you think, quite hairless / She wore apricot chiffon There were kids everywhere / So demanding. Am I missing? / I guess you’re going soon…’ (‘Eating Vietnamese’).

Another feature of the book’s second half is Ryan’s increasing use of traditional forms, especially sonnets (and, in one case, a sestina). Here the poet often uses a steady iambic pentameter and regular rhyme scheme which make the poems seem more timeless than contemporary (as much of the rest of Ryan’s work so clearly is). The last two lines of ‘When I consider’ show something of this effect: ‘and chafing through the cars I fall to think / how sorrows lift and pleasures cauterise’, the last line a paradox even Shakespeare or Donne might have been proud of.

An equally traditional development towards the end of the book is the increasingly frequent use of Greek myth, a strategy which has not been much in vogue since the nineteenth century but which Ryan employs either to evoke the detail and emotions of the original circumstance or to show its modern applications (sometimes both in the same poem). Not unlike the late Peter Porter, Gig Ryan also ranges freely across some interesting historical figures: Paganini, Mary Wollstonecraft, Pushkin, Cosima Wagner, Savonarola and Tchaikovsky, to name a few. These mainly short poems are often clearly articulated monologues. Several of them, for example ‘Paganini’ and ‘Pushkin’, are among Ryan’s most direct and forceful work.

Gig Ryan’s New & Selected will not, however, be an ‘easy read’ for everyone. It wasn’t for this reviewer. Some will feel the complexity of Ryan’s verse to be essential to its effect; others may argue that, at the very least, it blunts the impact of her more political poems. In this review I have discussed mainly poems which most readers will find accessible. A not unfair example of the many which are less so can be found in the opening stanza of the book’s closing poem, ‘Southern Aurora’: ‘You have to unclip the world to think it / from cloyed screen or scream words haste / their loot and return to her/his sleep-out / sucking troth’s lozenge / as the film waves magnolia / on brushed sky childhood seams / and a tinny cafe’s wine plaits the house languages and Euro-pop…’

‘Difficulty’ has been a feature of much good poetry for a long time. John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins are just two cases in point. Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are a couple more. Whether or not a poem like ‘Southern Aurora’ is ‘difficult’ in the same way, and for the same reasons, may ultimately be a matter of an individual reader’s taste and temperament.

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Ashes in the Air

2011 has been something of a boom year for Ali Alizadeh. To start things off, his nonfiction work, Iran: my grandfather (Transit Lounge, 2010), was shortlisted for a category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Following hot on the heels of Iran, Ashes in the Air was published earlier this year and looks set to garner considerable attention. An intriguing mixture of landscape and cognition, Ashes in the Air is an exploration of a young poet’s place in a confusing and disturbing world. Thematically, the poems cluster around a hesitant, conflicted sense of nomadism: Alizadeh is as concerned with returning to the Tehran of his childhood or the Australian coast of his teenage years as he is with meditating on observations made while travelling through China or the Middle East. He writes of his travels, and of xenophobia, falling in love and parenthood, as experiences that flare and recede along the trajectory of a life.

In the press release, Felicity Plunkett talks about the “muscularity” of these poems, and contrasts them with the “more delicate lyric poetry” that is currently prevalent in Australia. Bypassing altogether another discussion about whose work, exactly, represents this “delicate” Australian poetry (Alizadeh himself prompted one with his review of Petra White on this website), I can’t say that I’m sure of what makes Alizadeh’s own poetry particularly ‘muscular’. When I think of muscularity in poetry, I think of someone like Ernesto Cardenal; Ashes in the Air, on the other hand, is deeply intimate, confessional poetry, every bit as delicate as the poet’s sense of self. I emphasise this point because what is remarkable about many of these poems is their tremendous vulnerability: Ashes in the Air offers us countless admissions of frailty and doubt and insecurity. I cannot overstate how necessary this is in Australian poetry: Alizadeh seems to be one of only a small number of poets writing and publishing in this country who are willing to engage with the shocking horrors of the grossly unequal, destructive and oppressive world in which most humans (and, increasingly, other species) live. The voice of these poems doesn’t belong to some white, monolingual, complacent, bourgeois shell of a human being. This poet doesn’t simply ‘experience’, ‘enjoy’ or ‘grow’ from the world as if it were a theme park. Rather, the poems suggest that a wary, critical gaze is essential for navigation in the contemporary moment. I am delighted that this book exists.

The opening piece of the collection, ‘Marco Polo’, is one of the highlights. It is the first of many blooming confessions, and it is probably the most important. Simply, the poem sets out to explain “why // we travel” – why it is that Alizadeh and his wife are going to bring their son into a world bereft of the benefits of a “sedentary genesis” . There is no answer, either; that the poet “can only offer an image” of picture frames being removed from the walls of an apartment is a brilliant way of denying the very boundaries within which any answer might be enclosed. Note what is going on here: the primacy of the static image (in the frame) is giving way to something else; imagism is melting. What the poem does, in other words, is nomadically evade its own origins, focussing not on a mythical crystallisation of perception, but on the travel from one image to another:

It’s this

visible discrepancy between
what we were and what we’ve become,

the possibility to uncover
and see it. The nomads treasure

wisdom: the reality of ageing
towards death.

This is a wonderful poem because it establishes a dynamic, almost unstable foundation for the rest of the book. As a ‘Song of Myself’, it provides no single set of coordinates with which to locate the poet. Rather, the Alizadeh of Ashes in the Air is a trajectory; we can follow him, but we will never find him. A lyric about leaving a series of homes, instead of one that roots the self to a home place, strikes me as a particularly pertinent song for the twenty-first century.

From the long, scintillating streak of ‘Marco Polo’ (it runs for nearly three pages), things slow considerably in the second poem, ‘Aged’: from immanent child-birth, we leap to the lament of a “middle-ageing // X-Generationer”. This is the fresh, “sad, bemused poetry” for which I rejoice above. The poet isn’t smugly happy with himself or with his unique position in the world; he’s self-deprecating and quite open about his failings and limitations. Like ‘Marco Polo’ was important for establishing a moving geographical and cultural foundation for the book, ‘Aged’ is another crucial poem because it introduces the poet’s willingness to write self-reflexively; by page 4, the gaze of the poet has turned inwards, and here it will largely remain.

As the book continues, one starts to notice that a sustained process of self-mythologising has commenced. A few pages after ‘Aged’ we come to ‘The Suspect’, which is a litany of statements about who the poet is, and who he is not, in the eyes of Middle Eastern and/or Western structures of power:

There, in the Other land, I was
gharb-zadeh, Farsi to the effect of west-

smitten. Here, in Our Land, I am
Muslim immigrant…

While the poem on its own is a poignant and effective description of the manifestations of a self in different cultural contexts, within the course of the whole book it forms part of a lengthy proliferation and re-proliferation of the poet-as-character. I will talk more about this problem later on, but for now I will only say that such extended self-analysis and -description has strong links to those very modes of capitalist manufacturing, refinement and production that the poet is at such pains to critique.

In a formal sense, Ashes in the Air is a study of the couplet. Each poem in the book is written with the sleek, two-line stanza, but the poet knows how to work within and around the restrictions that the form imposes. Alizadeh is adept at modifying the relationships between line and syntax, using enjambments to skilfully alter rhythms, or to emphasise stresses:

Like the Italian one, my family’s rebirth
spawned masterpieces, caused a breakdown

like the civil wars of the Reformation
with few victors, countless casualties. Mine

a kind of persecution: bullied, beaten
at school for being a ‘dirty terrorist’

my resurrection stunted, my new
start delayed…

(from ‘A Familial Renaissance’,)

In poems like this one above, a couplet can be devoted to a discrete syntactical unit, or it can serve as a ‘lens’ that focuses on a stream of syntax as it flows over a number of lines.

At other times, however, Alizadeh’s adherence to form comes at the expense of poetic function, and the lines can become clunky and mechanical:

Religion? Not for us, thanks. Only
this hallowed democracy. Damn those

Muslim fundamentalists. Praise be
for beer and primitivism. We’ve revealed

the truth of everything. There is no God
but online porn and football. Never doubt

the omnipotence of the stock market
and cosmetic surgery.

(from ‘Our Democracy’)

Lines like these also signal another troubling aspect of a number of the poems: their didacticism can overwhelm them, weighing down the line to the point that the only thing distinguishing it from prose is the couplet into which it is squeezed. Indeed, after a poem like ‘The History of the Veil’ (replete with an epigraph from Foucault’s History of Sexuality) I find myself wondering if the poet hasn’t actually started writing an essay or a manifesto, but has forgotten to tell me:

Middle-class, democratic societies of the West confronted with

the dilemma of what to do with mysterious, inscrutable non-
Christian ethnics. Gas them? That was tried once, didn’t succeed

entirely. At any rate the West needs their oil more sincerely
than anti-racism activists could advocate tolerance, diversity,

etc. But fear of Islam – inter alia a pathological concern for
what women wear/shouldn’t wear – widespread in the West

as pursuit of cash, addiction to success, thirst for world
domination.

Such long, flat lines, and the awkward confusion of bland, multi-syllabic adjectives strung together with abstract nouns and syntactical interruptions, are sure signs that poems like this one are teetering on the very precipice into which all that poetry doesn’t name must fall. This is a shame, because there is little about this work which isn’t extremely important. There are many lines which work well, and Alizadeh is to be commended for writing at this most challenging intersection of poem and essay. It’s just that too often the content isn’t fulfilled by the form, or vice versa. The poet needed to ask the question, “What is a poem?” more frequently; then, perhaps some of these poems might have become essays, or parts of other, longer pieces of non-fiction.

My niggling concerns about this book are inflamed during the latter third of it. I have a strong feeling that Ashes in the Air is too long. Towards the end, the poet’s expanding self-mythology begins to assume too prominent a position; each poem is little more than an exhaust valve for various nodes of trauma or shock. From page 59 onwards, for example, poems begin with outbursts like: “I wanted to fight with you / against them”; “I don’t care about you”; “I’m sick of You”; “Let’s say my inferno began in the dark woods / of rejection”. The last of these comes from a poem entitled ‘My Divine Comedy’, which was written after John Kinsella. The link to Kinsella is another defining moment in the book, suggesting that the sheer quantity of poems about himself, and his willingness to write [endlessly?] about who he is and where he comes from, is a trait Alizadeh has learnt from the West Australian. If nothing else, Alizadeh certainly shares Kinsella’s astonishing prolificacy: only born in 1976, Ashes in the Air is already his sixth book (it’s enough to make me wonder at what I’ve been doing all these years). Yet the relationship between Alizadeh and Kinsella is deeper than this. Indeed, Alizadeh has worked closely with Kinsella on a number of projects, not least some wonderful translations of Persian poetry, part of which was featured in a recent issue of Southerly.

In an extremely insightful review of the issue, Sydney-based poet and critic Joel Scott raised a concern about “Kinsella’s front and centre self”, arguing that Kinsella’s long essay that accompanied the translations (‘Where I Sit in the Process: working with Ali Alizadeh to produce an anthology of Persian Poetry’) overshadowed the worlds of the poems themselves. For Scott, one of the great values of translation is that it pushes the writer’s self out of focus, and brings into the centre of the frame the Other (a culture, text, or writer) that is translated. Now, an obvious objection to the implication of these comments is that in Ashes in the Air Alizadeh is not translating poems, but writing them. Yet part of the mission of many of these poems is precisely a kind of translation – from other languages, or other locales. Alizadeh deserves attention because he radically disrupts the notion that a white/Anglo/English-speaking tradition is the basis of Australian poetry. In many ways, his poetry is all about attempts to produce Otherness. So, while the press release tells me that the concerns of Ashes in the Air are “international”, I am disappointed that so many of these concerns are blocked out by the overbearing presence of the poet’s own body – in all of its different guises and sizes.

An interesting example of this point is ‘Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran’, which Alizadeh wrote after Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran, 2008). Like many in Ashes in the Air, this poem recalls the poet’s childhood in “war-stricken Tehran”. It focuses on a young boy’s excitement at the thought that his “illegal and sacrilegious / cassette-tape of Thriller” might “unsettle the boring, Islamic world” of his fellow classmates, thereby elevating in status his “chubby, unpopular / self”. All is to end in disappointment, however, because after surreptitiously asking a boy next to him on the school bus if he’d like to know about ‘Beat It’ or ‘Billie Jean’, the mention of Michael Jackson ignites a wildfire; soon “[t]he bus / vibrated with the singer’s name”. It turns out that everyone already knew about Jackson, including the ‘Thriller’ video and everything else that made him the world’s first mega-star. Disconsolate, the young Alizadeh feels “robbed” of his “planned stardom”, and would later throw out his copy of Thriller, which has become “the fetish of Great Satan’s / useless, ubiquitous popular culture”.

I suppose this poem is quaint enough to draw many a chuckle at poetry readings and the like, but I can’t help but find it extremely disappointing. Once again, the problem seems to be with the overbearing presence of Alizadeh’s [young] self. I appreciate the disappointment of watching a special, intimate relationship with Jackson – and concomitant hopes for social prestige – become lost in a stupor of adoration for a pop idol who – even on the other side of a “fierce chasm” from the USA  – was almost omnipresent. However, what would have been more worthwhile, I think, would have been a poem exploring a more interesting question: why did the other kids like Michael Jackson so much? These other children are like little burls of energy in the poem’s environment, but the speaker is all but oblivious to them. Instead, the simpler path has been taken, and the complexities of the milieu are swept beneath the rubric of “ubiquitous popular culture”. Unfortunately, the overbearing presence of an anxious, insecure self prevents this poem from engaging in a real translation of listening to Jackson in 1980s Tehran.

Despite these concerns, I remain delighted. The unresolved tension, between a man who wants his poems to fly across the world and another man who can’t seem to look away from his own self for long enough to show us much of the world, is as interesting and memorable as it is unsatisfactory and tiresome. Perhaps it is precisely these obvious, persistent flaws that make the book so endearing. Besides, some of the greatest poets are some of the most confused; with so much raw language to offer, and with so many forms in which to offer it, Alizadeh might take longer than some of these dons to write a perfect book, but when he does it will ignite like a comet and shock us all to our bones. Ashes in the Air is the beginning of a profound trajectory. Zyban

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An Absence of Saints

Part One: Tara Mokhtari

An Absence of Saints is a collection of lyric poems based on poet Rosanna Licari’s family history, childhood and travels. Divided into three parts, Licari’s collection firstly retells stories passed down from relatives from Europe during World War II, then touches on memories of a childhood as the daughter of migrants in Australia, and finally brings the reader into the speaker’s present travels as an adult.

The poetry is finely structured lyric free verse, historic retelling, and present tense examinations of place and reverie. Licari has strong formal control, her poetic rhythms are musical rather than metric and her eloquence contributes to the polished lyric aesthetic of the poems.

A common criticism of contemporary Australian lyric poetry is that it lacks innovation and runs the risk of being overwritten. Throughout Part 1 of Licari’s collection, sections describing the cruelty of World War II on the young Sofia (Licari’s mother) are so delicately penned that the second-hand nature of the narrative is emphasised, creating a kind of distance between the reality of Sofia’s suffering and Licari’s poetic retelling of the experience:

The cell smells

of human sweat and waste

but swallows swoop

into the courtyard

when the prisoners walk round

inside its walls once a day. (‘The last weeks of the war, Istria, 1945’)

At midday after they soak

their bread with the remnants

of their watery soup,

the others stare at the serving

of pasta she gets in addition

because of her age. (‘Fiume’)

The alliteration and assonance within this section, for instance, softens the image of a young girl imprisoned during the war. The sound quality here evokes the prisoners’ tiredness near the cessation of the war and a serene setting that contrasts from the usual images evoked by mention of a prison. Concurrently, it could be argued, it represents the girl’s relative innocence, the diminishing effect of many years on memories of wartime and also the speaker’s emotional distance from the stories of her relatives.

This emotional distance is evident throughout many of the poems, to the exclusion of the poems on her beloved father. Sometimes this distance is spoken to directly:

Today neither Mother’s story

nor Lowell’s ‘Sailing Home from Rapallo’

brings the azure

of the Gulf of Genoa to mind (‘Mediterranean Mosaic’)

On Graham Nunn’s blog ‘Another Lost Shark’, Licari describes Lowell’s Life Studies as the first collection of poetry that captured her interest. The stanza above indicates just how separate the poem’s speaker sometimes appears to feel in relation to her family history, and how that distance manifests in the process of collecting these stories.

Part 2 is largely dedicated to Licari’s own memories of her childhood in Australia, and the struggles of being a child/teenager from a migrant family in this country. There is a dissatisfaction that emanates through many of these poems. The speaker expresses dissatisfaction with her surrounds, her peers, her possessions, and most fervently the clash between her home life and her social life at school:

One day I gave her a note for Geoffrey from Marist Brothers.

She returned it with the news that before he read it,

he took it by the corner and said let the grease drip off. (‘Two photographs: notes’)

I said nothing about him saying it or her telling me.

Nothing. Mother still tells me she regrets

not putting an extra ‘s’ in my name.

As if Rosanna wasn’t different enough. (‘Second Row’)

In these two stanzas feelings of rejection and resentment mirror many stories of anxiety suffered by teenage children of migrant parents. As a second-generation Iranian-Australian the problem of growing up with two very different sets of cultural norms resonated strongly with me. I was reminded my mother sending me to school at age 10 with my favourite Persian dessert shollehzard, a saffron rice pudding, bright yellow in colour, served in a little clear container for lunch – vastly different from the ham sandwiches of my classmates. Feeling too shy to eat the delicacy in front of everyone, my shollehzard remained in its container in the lunch basket, and I forgot about it. At the end of the day my teacher picked the container, dangled it in front of the class, asking to whom the horrible thing belonged. Humiliated, I didn’t say a word and it was thrown in the bin. All children of migrant parents have these types of stories and Licari touches on the experience of being the stranger at school and in social groups, and feelings of humiliation and isolation.

Part 3 departs from retellings of the past and emphasises the significance of place in the speaker’s travels. In every way this final section was the most enjoyable read. Licari’s present tense lyricism is effortless in its presentation of her immediate surrounds, the atmosphere of the beach in different countries, of driving down a highway, of rooms and photographs, and most importantly, the subtle symbolism of everyday occurrences. She leaves behind the sometimes alienating distance involved in telling other peoples’ stories, although she retains the sombre tone of the poems on remembering her childhood and there is a sense that the speaker is being followed by the past. The visceral nature of this poetic undercurrent reveals Licari’s attachment to the subjects of the poems in Parts 1 and 2 despite the distance in the voice of those sections:

sitting on a hundred

white crosses on the roadside

I turn off the high beam

let the motorcycle pass

the black reappears

I feel a tug from the ghost hitchhiker

in the back seat

but the highway’s too strong

it pulls me forward (‘Drive’)

In this section reverie’s ghostly personification evokes the presence of the remnants of Parts 1 and 2, in the context of looking forward.

Stories about migrant experiences are extremely important. These narratives speak to migrants of many ethnic backgrounds lessening the sense that we are alone in our sometimes distressing displacement. Concurrently, these stories are a way of relating our unique experiences to mainstream Australia, for whom we are so often a source of amusement, frustration, even a thing to be feared when our cultural differences manifest themselves. It is not only post-migration experiences that should be shared, but also the experiences of our families that lead to migration, and the histories that make us unique. Licari addresses these themes and perspectives in the first and second parts of An Absence of Saints, contributing poetic micro-narratives to the deeper understanding of Italian migrants – what many suffered during WWII and the challenges of adapting to Australian culture.

Part Two: Fiona Wright

Migration is not only important to these poems, however, on a narrative level. Instead, migration forms the structural and symbolic core of An Absence of Saints. The three sections of the book are permeable and porous – family stories leak into poems about travel, and poems set in the present butt up against tales from the past. Tropes, especially those of food, bodies and story-telling, are continually brought into new surroundings and new relationships, in what can be seen as imaginative acts of migration. There are no firm categorisations of poems, no clear-cut narrative trajectory; instead, the collection is structured along resonances, memories, and moments of misunderstanding and cross-purposes. It is a bold construction, and a generous one as well, allowing the reader to make their own connections, and to find their own path through the poetry. Moreover, it is a structure that mirrors memory itself – the past is never finished or left behind, and history – both personal and familiar – will always leave its marks upon the present.

Perhaps this accounts in some way for the sense of distance and dissatisfaction within the poems. The poet inhabits a space of betweeness – between the stories of Europe and her experience in Australia, between the past, the present, and an imagined future, between memory and ‘real time.’ The continual structural eruptions of the book leave the speaker with little firm ground on which to stand, but with an receptivity to the symbolic, to heritage and to strange similarities. One of the most interesting – and informative – structural eruptions in the book, for example, is a small sequence of poems about historical explorers. ‘Bank’s Tattoo’, ‘Botany Bay I’ and ‘Hunters and Collectors’ re-imagine stories of national history, of the Endeavour’s encounter with Australia. Often drawing on quotes from Captain Cook’s journal, the poems are keenly interested with language and naming, of bodily experiences (such as tattooing, the sensations of sea travel and ‘the fragrance of coconut oil’) and of adaptation and renewal, here told through a botanical motif. ‘Hunters and Collectors’, for example, describes the collection of a banksia specimen by people who do not know how he seedpods open in fire, and includes the direct statement ‘To collect you have to/ understand regeneration.’

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The Simplified World

It would no longer be hyperbolic or wishful to say that, against all apparent odds, Australian poetry has survived and flourished over the last two decades. During the mid-late 1990s, as epitomised by Penguin Books Australia’s dramatic decision to terminate their poetry list, the future of Australian poetry looked rather grim; yet a number of crucial developments during and since that time have sustained and expanded poetry across the country. These can be exemplified in the appearance of many new small presses dedicated to publishing poetry; growth in the popularity of the so-called spoken word scene and the proliferation of online outlets. These advances have not only kept poetry alive, they have also – perhaps most importantly – provided the platform for the emergence of a great number of new and acclaimed younger voices, such as Petra White, whose second collection is under review here.

White’s first collection, The Incoming Tide (2009), was received very well indeed. It was dubbed a ‘superb debut’ by Martin Duwell, and ‘original and memorable’ by Geoff Page; it was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Prize and the ACT Poetry Prize. What most of the book’s reviewers seem to have agreed on was White’s keen attention to detail, her ability to depict her poems’ subject matters and themes with, according to one competition judge’s report, ‘acute observation’. Interestingly, the competition judge also praised the book for ‘eschew[ing] the seductions of self-referentiality and language games’; and, writing in Australian Book Review, Andrew Sant commended White for writing what ‘is not [an] attention-seeking poetry that endeavours to collar the reader’.

White’s second collection, The Simplified World, contains many instances of an incisive engagement with personal, biographical and physical images; and it also continues and intensifies the opposition to ‘language games’ that, supposedly, ‘collar the reader’. The book’s title immediately asserts the poet’s affinity with a discourse that yearns to be seen as the other of the complex and/or complicated worlds – of, say, the ‘attention-seeking’ ‘seductions of self-referentiality’ – associated with avant-gardism, experimentalism, etc. White’s insistent, and at times abundant, application of an avowedly Romantic poetics strikes this reviewer as her book’s dominant feature. Hers is an openly expressive lyric poetry that acts as a paean to a milieu in which, in the words of one of her most obvious influences, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’.

The book’s strengths reside, as per White’s previous collection, with the poems in which her sharp authorial gaze is turned toward the familial and the sociological. Here, a rather traditional belief in the possibility and desirability of representing one’s reality in a stylistically refined language is put to good use. ‘Trampolining’, for example, represents a memory of the poet’s childhood as a humorous satire of growing up in a religious lower middle class family in suburbia during the 1980s:

The grown-ups stamped their thonged

and sandalled feet on the carpet;

the mortgages and what they worked for,

the chip pan bubbling every night at six,

the hand-me-downs all forced to fit:

oh take it Satan, it’s all yours

Any day we’d be whooshed up to heaven;

and the kids at school, their parents,

cousins, dogs,

sucked up and funnelled

into hell’s gated suburb, far out

where no public transport would travel.

This merging of the mundane and the cosmological is seamless and, in its own subtle way, poignant, thanks to the poet’s application of time-honoured, Romantic tropes. The speaker of this poem is an inspired individual who has direct, uninterrupted access to the spirit of the past, and she also possesses the craft to capture and reanimate her childhood innocence – her and her brother’s casual urge to condemn the grown-ups, their classmates, and their classmates’ parents (as well as their pets) to eternal damnation – in a more or less versified language (as can be seen in, for example, assonance and internal rhyme in the first line of the quoted passage, or the somewhat regular application of half-rhymes throughout) that appears, nevertheless, naturalistic and pleasantly unadorned.

This approach is even more likeable in another one of the book’s autobiographical poems, ‘Imagination’, in which White revisits her childhood to once again gently mock and, at the same time, bring to life and commemorate the world of her childhood with its almost irrational religious convictions:

My family were new recruits (I was seven)

snapped from a life of sin to cancel beer

and swim in the crowd of converts

who called each other ‘Brother’

and ‘Sister’, ‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’

– their lie kept me spellbound.

What distinguishes this poem from a more modernist, ironic and/or deconstructionist criticism of religious belief and indoctrination is that its sardonic tone has been tempered by an affirmative thesis about the possibility of quasi-miraculous healing. As the poem’s first line informs the reader, in the poet’s childhood, ‘[t]he air was cramped with miracles’; and although, by the poem’s end, no ostentatiously supernatural force has been summoned by the worshippers to succour the speaker’s childhood friend Sarah who had a leg amputated due to ‘a cancer that was stronger / than faith’, Sarah’s ‘scarcely imaginable childhood bravery’ and her ‘imagining / how she’d learn to walk again’ ultimately transformed the sick girl into a ‘jaunty jagged figure in brazen health.’ In short, alongside and within White’s critique of organised religion, one can readily discern a classically Romantic belief in the Sublime powers of childhood innocence and, as this poem’s title would have it, imagination.

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The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems

Peter Porter was a dear friend of mine for some thirty-six years. He had grown into being a wonderful two-hemisphere poet, great talker, rolling wit, and yet all the time he might have quoted that poem  which opens, ‘It is the little stone of unhappiness/ which I keep with me. I had it as a child/ and put it in a drawer. But his inherent legerdemain with language continually transformed melancholy into an intellectual carnival of high spirits.

As Porter’s principal master, W. H. Auden, observed in the course of a famous elegy, ‘Time… worships language and forgives everyone by whom it lives.’ And the Australian poet lived in the well-watered savannahs of language, even in the gardens of grammar. To be bluntly literal, he lived mostly in Cleveland Square, W2, and in many libraries or concert halls. But I shall come back to the poet’s garden transactions.

In this sturdy voume we have a posthumous retrospect on Porter, surely our most brilliant expatriate poet and epigrammatist, who died early this year at the age of eighty-one. Someone mysterious – perhaps our old friend, Anon – has made a selection from all of Porter’s books, plus one poem ‘After Schiller’ for this welcome publication. It has been entitled The Rest on the Flight, a gracious implied tribute to the attractive non-Christian poet reflecting from  the book jacket. But then, Joseph wasn’t a Christian, either.

Porter’s lush works are edited down hard here and published in chronological order of their parent books. As a result of such mysterious rigour, the poems of his first book are absolutely striking, given that he had distilled the Carnaby Street years in London and the world of advertising Old Boys into cruel poetry that largely hides the pain of a young exile who:

sits alone in libraries, hideous and hairy of soul,

A beast again, waiting for a lustful kiss to bring

Back his human smell, the taste of woman on his tongue.

The early poems shuttled to and fro, yearning intermittently for the poet’s dead mother and lost, sepia Queensland, but also flaunting the brash voice that can assert, ‘Everyone tries to get as much sex as he can.’ This brittle jazz is frequently well done in the early books, even spilling over into characteristic titles like ‘Homage to Gaetano Donizetti’ and, a favourite of mine, ‘The Great Poet Comes Here in Winter’.

Every true poet knows that the title of a poem, its proper name, is also an extra flick of its potency, a bonus. But these also were the years of his finding London’s tone, amid the supportive pub-going cluster of ‘The Group’ –  but ever with our ‘sunlit plains extended’ haunting him in the background, in as much as he ever paid much attention to landscape. What is more, he loved intermittently to wallow in such bursts of Ocker hyperbole as:

Like a Taree smallholder splitting logs

and philosophising on his dangling billies,

the poet mixes hard agrarian instances

with sour sucks to his brother. (‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Hesiod’)

Many a reader will wonder whether that hypothetical smallholder was a cartoon version of another well-known poet. Porter’s imagination dealt in cartoon figures a great deal, whether of Grecian heroes, modern thinkers, Ralph the even-tempered Saxon, or even the whole animated cast jinking through ‘Copyright Universal Pictures’. His poems keep on courting fun, even when deep inside mortality:

Lacking the Virgin Mary, modern writers make do with sex as a subject. In general, Peter Porter’s world was erotic, as well as deeply musical. The selection here includes his well-known ‘Sex and the Over-Forties’ as well as the much later ‘Sex and the Over-Seventies’. In a pastoral piece in quatrains, he has written:

In the middle of The Children’s Crusade

you may put two adolescents under a tree

poking bits of bark down the other’s front,

music by Puccini, the sun declining

Having set the scene, you are in the Land

of afternoon. Sex, if it comes, will be late,

up some stairs following a nervous lunch,

her eyes like a Florentine postcard

The poems imply an artist who has always lived in the Land of Afternoon; although he started out pretty young in chronological fact, our poet seems never quite to have had a youth. It may be that he always intuited the truth of Beckett’s remark on Proust, that ‘the only paradise that is not the dream of a madman, the paradise that has been lost.’ He resembles his antetype, Les Murray, in having been wounded and driven by the early loss of his mother; but in his own case there are also Puccini and art postcards from Florence, for consolation; and gardens of course, where ‘we enact the opening of the world’, nicely balanced between civil  culture and rampant nature.

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the sonnet according to m

It can be difficult for a poet to exercise in public. What’s fun and, indeed, challenging for the poet is not necessarily an enjoyable ride for a reader or listener. The feat of Jordie Albiston’s The sonnet according to ‘m’ is that it invites us not just to observe but also to enjoy a writer setting an ongoing test for themselves and their form (in this case, the particular form of the sonnet); and that, on the whole, it succeeds.

A poet and editor recently told me that so much contemporary Australian poetry works by accretion; that is, you need a series of a poet’s work in order to get their voice and purpose. This was meant as an observation and, if anything else, praise for the possibilities of the writing; but you do have to wonder where the stand-alone (not necessarily long) poem is hiding. At present it seems to remain, unchallenged, in the hands of Kenneth Slessor, Gwen Harwood, Vincent Buckley and John Forbes. My suspicion is that it most often appears for prize entries rather than collections, and that some of us remain suspicious of the grand (misunderstood as grandiose) poetic attempt.

Important exceptions come to mind, of course: Judith Beveridge’s polished lyric windows; Robert Adamson’s winged sermons; the wry scenes of Andy Quan, among others. In The sonnet according to ‘m’, Albiston does not go in for highly finished views, visions or vignettes; what she does do, however, is to make the most of each poem’s moment, and then move on to the next without asking us to draw comparative lines or conclusions between them. To my mind, she is – and again this word seems the most apt – enjoying the containment of a single poem and yet experimenting with language until the single lyric voice is destabilised. Albiston’s poetry has frequently followed what we might call themes, in all their grandness or drama. This is most obvious in her poems that have been adapted for music-theatre with composer André Greenwell: Botany Bay Document (adapted and produced by Greenwell in 2003 as Dreaming Transportation) and The Hanging of Jean Lee (published in 1998, adapted to libretto by Albiston and first produced in 2009). Thematic unity is also a major component of her earlier sequences and long poems that explored the voices of Emily Dickinson and Frida Kahlo in Nervous Arcs (1995). In The sonnet according to ‘m’, Albiston turns from the unity and wholeness of a theme, to the more disparate and vague nature of a conceit. The book’s title clearly states its conceit: the poet’s essential materials of form and letter. Albiston’s poems repeatedly depart from that minimalist point.

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Part of the collection features a sequence in the voice, as we are told, of her grandmother Margaret ‘Marsi’ Tweddell and specifically her month-long journal. Another part interprets the published journal of her great-great grandmother, Emily ‘em’ Skinner. More generally, the journal form can be seen as the model for Albiston’s response to her conceit: it favours ‘miscellany’ – one of the poems’ titles – and disconnected threads. For example, there is a run of (certainly three, possibly five) sonnets that treat the concept of ‘nothing’ or ‘nought’ in differing literary voices: from ‘ths life’s 2 short 4 a hero / (methinx it all means 0)’, and ‘to combat th’ front of this ill I stand / for nought o! edgar I nothing am’, to ‘am. just. not. talking. / at the end of the day cos I! / have but nothing to say’. Other poems are connected by much less, such as recurring references to mathematics and embryo/egg/twins. Many of the sonnets, including ‘machine’ and ‘masticate’, exist alone within the collection and seem – unless I have missed some further links – to stand for nothing more than their own triumph over form and letter.

But Albiston does have something to say, and she opens the book by indicating as much: ‘the woman in photo “A” / is not me’ (‘me’). Continuing the concerns of her earlier writing, she extends the question of a female poetics: what women’s voices say and how they can be written, ‘securing a space in / this bustling language’, as she puts it in ‘Emily Dickinson: A Modern Fascicle’ in Nervous Arcs. She is one of the only contemporary poets in Australia who is still grappling with this concern since the work of Jennifer Strauss and others who shaped a local, postmodern feminist poetics. Evidently, Albiston considers that concern to be an ongoing, unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) one. She uses poetic voice as a mask or costume that allows her to inhabit other women’s awkwardness with language. As in earlier poems, in The sonnet according to ‘m’ she features women communing, either through dialogue, parallel monologue or self-address. While ‘Marsi’ is voiced in the first person, her poems contain banal snippets of conversation and of her own ‘jotting’ of other’s words:

kally told me yesterday some of her ideasabout ‘writing’: paper by bed jot anythingdown organise! simplify! be clear!!!she then lectured at length about polishing
the gem but does it ‘convey’ does it ‘say’what I mean (this is where I am now)

Tied to Albiston’s gendered poetics is her need to draw from history, to write or re-write representations of women – those who had the tools to express themselves (Dickinson, Kahlo) and those who did not, such as Jean Lee, the female settlers of early Sydney and, now, her ancestors. In Nervous Arcs and Botany Bay Document, Albiston’s female voices have power and sometimes dominion, even if it is only through command of language and expression. Her approach to female voices in The sonnet according to ‘m’ is less simplistic, more illusive and polyphonic. ‘Marsi’ and ‘em’ are nervous and sometimes (deliberately or naturally) vacuous. Albiston allows neither of them to claim the collection; sometimes their voices almost meet, but more often they are adrift from one another and from themselves. Rather than rhetorical, her approach to the task of speaking and speaking for other women is formal and structural. In this way she reminds me less of e e cummings and more of the female heirs to the modernist vers libre epigram, like Lyn Hejinian.

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Storm and Honey

Storm and Honey, Judith Beveridge’s fourth book of poems, is in some ways a recapitulation of many elements of the work that it follows on from. This, though, is too consistently powerful, vivid, various and viscerally persuasive a book to be seen simply as a consolidation. If some poems in the book revisit and reconsider earlier moments, they involve a deepening and broadening, both technically, and in terms of subject matter. As it seems with Judith Beveridge’s best work, there is always something more, there’s always a complication which comes simultaneously out of the meeting of non-attachment and a gentle if relentless certainty.

Storm and Honey is structured similarly to Beveridge’s previous book, Wolf Notes, in that it is centred on a long sequence of poems, in this case “Driftgrounds: Three Fishermen”, written in the voice of an unnamed third fisherman working alongside Davey and Grennan. Where Wolf Notes was divided into three sections, with a set of separate, stand-alone lyrics either side of “Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree”, Storm and Honey opens with nearly fifty pages of “Driftgrounds” and closes with “Water Sapphire”, a shorter group of twelve largely unrelated poems. Of course when I say “largely unrelated”, these poems are necessarily knitted together through Beveridge’s poetic of webs of interrelation and connection. These webs are not simply linguistic, imagistic or rhythmic: a number of these poems engage in various sorts of conversations with other writers including a pastiche-cum-homage to Robert Gray (in “The Harbour”), Kenneth Slessor (in both the book’s title from “Captain Dobbin”, and a sly re-write of “Five Bells”), James Galvin, Andrew Slattery, David St. John, Robert Pinsky, and Stephen Edgar (“The Aquarium”). Also, somewhere in behind the boats and fishermen of the frightfully accomplished sequence, “Driftgrounds”, is Robert Adamson. Nonetheless, among all this dialogue, Beveridge remains entirely her own poet, her voice unmistakable.

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Before moving onto the very impressive “Drift Grounds”, I’ll talk about the poems in “Water Sapphire”. As is the case with Beveridge’s work, the strongest of these poems are coiled tightly around the rhythms of language and imagination, observation and description, the music of immersion in her subject matter. While there are a couple of poems that aren’t especially striking, these remain playful, enjoyable romps through language: “Appaloosa”, “Cockatoos” come to mind. “Rain” is in some ways similar to these poems, but the constant flow of imagery becomes a torrent itself – it enacts itself in a way that these other two poems don’t seem to do. On the other hand, “The Binoculars” appears one of the most understated and moving poems in all of Beveridge’s books. The poem recalls the death of a friend of the speaker’s father and their shared years of birdwatching. Quoting the surprising and devastating final lines does not quite do the poem justice (I’d have to quote it in its entirety), but I may as well. Her father has kept Harvey’s binoculars, and “Years later”, perhaps after her father’s death, she attempts to use them, and sees only grey. Only then does she suddenly remember him “slowly sealing into each intricate/ chamber as much as he could of Harvey’s ashes”.

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