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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