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,
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.