It should cause no surprise that Judith Beveridge, the editor of the fourth collection in our Best Australian Poetry series, has produced such a satisfying and stimulating selection. Those two adjectives accurately summarise the effect of her own work which has grown steadily in public esteem to the point where she can now be seen as one of Australia’s leading poets. She has searched, as she tells us in her introduction, for poems in which the poets have won a battle with language rather than simply exploited comfortable idioms or, as she puts it, have ‘sat back on their comfortable haunches and written from facility or clannish pride’.
As a result this anthology has a high percentage of poems which are at first reading puzzling but which are attractive enough to lure the reader into the kind of deeper engagement that rewards us with rich responses. And as a result of this there is a high percentage of memorable poems here. Sometimes our initial puzzlement derives from an uncertainty as to what the poem is doing, how it is approaching its subject. The first and last poems of the book are examples of this. Robert Adamson’s ‘A Visitation’, describes with deceptive simplicity how, after a forty-year hiatus, the poet once again sees a yellow-footed rock wallaby: this time, one which has survived a Sydney bush fire. And we are not sure whether we are reading about an image that represents those humans who have been damaged by the intensity of exposure to the gods – what Patrick White, borrowing from Greek culture, called ‘The Burnt Ones’ – or whether we are seeing what is, for the poet, a bearer of revelation, a reminder to someone who has left childhood far behind, of the overwhelming wildness of the natural world. And ‘I giorni della merla’, (the days of the blackbird) by Simon West – the poem with which Beveridge’s selection concludes – is also about visitations.
Here January’s blackbirds promise some kind of revelation but withhold themselves. Those who with tired stares ‘await the wasn’t of a century’ – a beautiful phrase – know the bird only as a shape in their minds.
This is also an anthology of mysterious narratives; a genre that emerges every so often in Beveridge’s own work. They can be surreal/symbolic stories like Peter Rose’s ‘Beach Burial’, Alex Skovron’s ‘Sorcery’, Kathleen Stewart’s ‘How I Got Away’ or Barbara Temperton’s ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife’ (a very Beveridgean poem). Equally they can be fairly straightforward narrations of what would be, to most of us, a surreal reality: Philip Salom’s ‘Sections from the Man with a Shattered World’ describes the psychic fate of an actual Russian soldier who lost the left side of his brain, and Lesley Walter’s ‘Hyphenated Lives’ tells the true and remarkable story of a pair of Siamese twins who produced a total of twenty-one children. All in all, Beveridge has done what we want our guest editors to do: to produce a selection which reflects its editor’s tastes and obsessions (this book is full of moons and horses) and yet have a coherent position on the question of what good poems in Australia should do. The result is one of the liveliest gatherings of Australian poetry we have read.
On a less happy note, last year was marked by extensive depredations by the Angel of Death among Australian poets. Tasmanian writers Barney Roberts, Jenny Boult and Margaret Scott all passed away. Margaret Scott’s work has been celebrated recently in an excellent article by Ruth Blair, ‘Finding Home: The Poetry of Margaret Scott’ (Australian Literary Studies 22.2), which shows how Scott’s migrant experience (she moved to Australia from England in 1959) forms a subtle framework that can be seen to encompass all her thematic material: in particular, the idea of home, which in all its guises is a recurrent focus in her poems. Scott published five books of poetry including a Collected Poems in 2000 (Montpelier).
Two Melbournian poets, Philip Martin and Shelton Lea, also passed away. The former after a long and debilitating illness; the latter after a long and lively life. Philip Martin’s Voice Unaccompanied, though a late first book, has many virtues and is one of those books which looks better as time goes on. Shelton Lea is still remembered in Queensland for a tempestuous visit in 1974. It produced a book in the Makar Press, Gargoyle Poets series called Chockablock with Dawn and one of the editors still has a chapbook of his in which Lea inscribed ‘Thanks for the American Dollar Kid’ in remembrance of overseas currency used to buy it (he hadn’t the courage to refuse). But Michael Sharkey in his memoir in Overland, No 180 speaks of their long relationship and writes so eloquently that it is impossible not to believe his account of Shelton Lea as someone who had the least sense of imposition, the surest sense that people would see a charitable act required doing and would do it. I think he had the least malicious intentions of anyone I’ve met. His self-deprecation was boundless, his awareness that he was putting on an act so surely judged (‘How was I, brudder?’; ‘Could you believe that?’) that it was impossible to begrudge him anything.
A final victim was the Canberra poet, Michael Thwaites who, between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-six worked for Australia’s security intelligence organization (ASIO). He went on to publish five collections of poetry but is best known for the story in which ASIO’s director-general, Charles Spry, recruited him saying, ‘You write poetry, I know. Much of the job will just be hard methodical work but imagination is also needed. I believe you could make a valuable contribution’, thereby establishing the possibility of a new kind of social relevance for poetry in Australia.