Escape artist

Maria Takolander Reviews The Deep North: A Selection of Poems (with a note by Paul Kane) (New York: George Braziller, 2013) by Bronwyn Lea. This review appeared in
(20 December 2013).

by maria takolander

The Deep North: A Selection of Poems by Bronwyn Lea (with a note by Paul Kane). New York: George Braziller, 2013.

It is a tribute to the quality and readability of Bronwyn Lea’s poetry that a selection of her work forms the second volume in the new George Braziller series (edited by Paul Kane), which aims to introduce contemporary Australian poets to American readers. True to lyric poetry, Lea’s poems are musical in their composition, and they can be intimate in their subject matter. However, Lea’s work is never just about crafting agreeable verse, and it is never just about her personal experience. What makes Lea’s poetry so striking and meaningful is its acknowledgement of a wider and worldly context: historical, geographical, biological, political. In fact, Lea’s poetry might be said to enact an ironic rejection of the claustrophobic potential of autobiographical verse by continually fleeing from it to something else. This might be typical of contemporary post-Romantic poetry generally, though in Lea’s poetry—highlighting the importance of gender to the work—that flight is often symbolised by the rejection of the trappings of romantic love for a liberating movement into ‘a vantage point … a vista’ (as we read in ‘Driving into Distance’). This makes Lea’s work reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s restless verse, with Dickinson’s presence apparent in the exquisite poem ‘Insufficient Knowledge.’  Continue reading

Southerly review of poetry

Petra White reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Southerly, 69.3 2009: 225-33.

by petra white

The Other Way Out
is Bronwyn Lea’s second book of poems; the first, Flight Animals, appeared in 2001 to much acclaim. Flight Animals established Lea’s particular quality of lightness and wit, which at times permits a grandeur (‘Even the bells of San Blas cannot wake him’). The titles and poems of both books speak of restlessness, a need to escape. But The Other Way Out may also be a Way In. It is a quote from TS Eliot’s The Cocktail Party: ‘There is another way out, if you have the courage’. Many of the poems establish a sense of reaching an impasse: there is a quality of absoluteness, in poems such as ‘Who is he’:

Who is he walking towards me
his spine straight as if the wind
means nothing. His eyes
what can I say. One look grants me…

The character, the ‘he’ in this poem, is not specific; we know nothing about him, he is just ‘love’, or every new lover, who ‘floats my will away’ (a lovely erotic phrase). It is unclear why loss is so sure. Is it simply that one has to be prepared for it? There is a sense of self-teaching in this poem, a stealing against the inevitable: ‘if you will risk, as I do, loving / what you will surely lose.’

This inclination towards the absolute is a strong feature of many of the poems in this book. ‘Ordinary Grace’ pivots on an abrupt dichotomy — ‘there is no language / of the holy I think’ — and turns from this to the ‘amorous prattle’ of galahs ‘flashing their pink undersides as I sink / into the green & watery / vernacular of the natural world’. The ‘holy’ has nothing to offer poetry: the poet belongs in the ‘vernacular of the natural world’. The holy enters this poem only as a counter to the vernacular: there is no sense of what the holy actually is, or what it is doing there. It is there to help the poem make a statement. And the surprise of the galahs and the loveliness of the ‘green and watery vernacular’ fortunately succeed in upstaging it.

Yet, perhaps these more severe poems are a key to the toughness and resoluteness that forms the spine of — and takes different forms in — many of Lea’s poems, the best of which combine a formal sense of the absolute with something fresh and original, rather than generalising. ‘Palinode’, with its intimate opening lines ‘I have written before how I loved him / but I have never written how I disliked him too’, is a witty and self-effacing confessional tale of a bad relationship. ‘Seferis’, like ‘Ordinary Grace’, has a lesson: ‘I hate knowing / my life will not be long enough’. But it comes in the context of other complex realisations:

There is a sense that if
the slightest crack opened up in this faultless
scene all things would spill out beyond
the four points of the horizon & leave me
naked, alone & begging for alms. I hate knowing
my life will not be long enough.

The rhythm of this is urgent and compelling, and balances contemplation of the immediate, the infinite and mortality. In a similar vein, ‘The Bodhisattva’s Hand’ is a subtle study:

The hand calls us into the moment
in which the infinite crosses over into gladness
and we gaze at something singular and joined.
Accept the gift which is not transcendence
but your heart beating at its apprehension.
Here is your life: unlock your fist and begin.

Another grand statement, but also an arresting one. Still, I mostly prefer Lea’s lighter poems. I think of her as a poet whose topic is lightness — with wisdom. In her best poems a sense of absurdity and improbability works well to manhandle the still-present notion of resignation, or acknowledgement of ephemerality and soonish death. ‘A Place’ is a wonderful short poem:

There is a place I like to go
that is behind language.

I like to go there and wobble
like a melon on a table

or a spoon that doesn’t care
if it is chosen or not.

This ‘domestic poem’, using objects fit for a still life, incorporates a philosophical position. Which self is which? Perhaps this is about ways in and out of the self.

Petra White reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by  Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Southerly, 69.3 2009: 225-33.


Silence that rings

Lyn McCredden reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in Australian Book Review (March, 2009): 47.

by Lyn McCredden

These are witty, sometimes boisterous and meditative poems. There is a consistency of craft but an intriguing variety, and perhaps even contradictoriness, to their desires. Each poem is a little box of longing: for courage, for calmness, for love, for transcendence. Equally, the poems are often pleas for the self to abandon desire in its grasping forms, ‘to be whittled down to a twig & grow again into a tree’.

‘Two Ways Out’, the eponymous poem, lays out the map of the book: the human, desiring machine who must choose between opposing impulses: the ascetic and the rococo, two distinct paths by which to escape ‘the insufferable / medium of a par-boiled heart’. The poem, as with the volume, leaves you understanding something of both poetic journeys. Sometimes the two collide or are enmeshed in each other, in the figure of the poet who craves transcendence but who is impatient, who hasn’t ‘time to wait for grace’.

First, we are presented with attentiveness and an openness to the world; these qualities inform some of the quieter poems. ‘These Gifts’ records the way ‘the day has charmed you / with ephemera before you can object’. The fear of ‘Women of a Certain Age’ is stilled, but only momentarily, by an imagined world, ‘a new hospitable household’. In ‘Crows’, the desire is the search for ‘How to be / faithful to  the  crow-stepped  branch,  how to write / crow-scent in a human score’.

In such poems, we read the rich lyrical traces of Romantic attentiveness to the natural world, experienced as balm and nurse; but often it is with a very contemporary twist, a shaft of anti-Romantic and often humorous realism. ‘Crows’, for example, is a wonderful revelry on the dawn chorus of birds which ends with ‘the aural world giving / feedback,  shrieking like a microphone / too close to a speaker / & exploding into applause’. Ecstasy and discord enmeshed; the Romantic and the modern.

The second section of the volume, pop-culturally entitled ‘Where Is the Love?’, reflects modernity, but often through subtle contrasts. Individual poems may be set  historically, such as ‘The Nightgown’ with its distilled picture of ‘the Japanese woman in her desire’ who ‘commits to a life of dreaming / whether the lover appears or he doesn’t’. But the next poem, ‘Born Again’, is a tough and deliberate contrast, a revelation of modern desire: the divorced couple, the hatred still simmering, the bloody battle of the genders. Yet, in this raw evocation of modern love, there is the surprise of realisation in the observing wife, touched by grace and a vision of intimacy she imagines but has never experienced.

Love, or rather lost or broken love, permeates this section. The poems are never simply nostalgic or sentimental. ‘Routine Love Poem’, for example, could hardly be described thus. It is hard-nosed but with a deep draught of terror running through it. It is a confrontational poem, but also one which measures what is lacking, what might have been, in some better world beyond the repetitive, mechanical ‘they make & remake the coffee / they make and remake the bed’.

This is a wonderful, culminating evocation of the whole volume’s philosophy: inclined to the ascetic, but equally to action, involvement, making.

The volume’s final section, ‘The Way into Stone’, brings the reader to another way of negotiating desire, with its Buddhist-inflected meditations. Here we are led to think back on that earlier choice between ascetic and rococo paths. The bell and the stone deliver their quiet, post-human calm, ‘alert to the silence that rings’. But we find here, too, a number of exhortations to courage, the decision to take ‘A breath, a step, a word’ and to make a beginning. The human starting point is seen constantly to be ‘insufficient knowledge’. But from such a place humans begin with hope, perhaps enabled by ignorance of the pain that awaits  them. So we read of ‘The  Isurumuniya Lovers’ from Anuradhapura, fifth century CE, who experience ‘the sweet flood between us’, enjoying each other absolutely ‘in staggered silence till the future came / to blind us with its mirror’, another version of the fall.

The final poem of the collection, ‘The Bodhisattva’s Hand’, is a fine meditation on peace, but also on action and courage infused with that peace. Gazing on the ancient sculpture, the poet observer depicts ‘this figure peaceful as a stick of green bamboo’, and tells us: ‘The hand calls us into the moment / in which the infinite crosses over into gladness / & we gaze at something singular & joined.’ This is a wonderful, culminating evocation of the whole volume’s philosophy: inclined to the ascetic, but equally to action, involvement, making. In fact, both inclinations, shared by many poets, are bound together in a dialogue: silence and words, peace and desiring, transcendence from this  world and being steeped in the world. So the final wisdom, earned by the accumulative power of the poetry and convincing, is in doubleness of ‘Accept the gift which is not transcendence // but your heart beating at its apprehension. / Here  is  your  life: unlock your fist & begin’. In this exhortation, we are taken back to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, cited on the opening page of the volume, especially perhaps to Eliot’s Four Quartets, with its own poetic movement between meditation and action.

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

Lyn McCredden reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in Australian Book Review (March, 2009): 47.

Fine connections in touching lines

Geoff Page reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (13 December 2008): 16.

by Geoff Page

It’s been seven years since Bronwyn Lea’s remarkable first book of poetry, Flight Animals. Now, at last, we have its successor, The Other Way Out: New Poems. The initial collection was marked by a consistent level of technical excellence and an impressive variety of form and tone. The second, luckily, lives up to the very high standard Lea created for herself. Perhaps that is why she has waited so long.

The new book falls into three parts: the first dealing mainly with issues of life and death, the second revisiting an intense love affair and the third meditating, among other subjects, on Eastern religions and the architecture and art they have given rise to. The poems in all three sections are finely but unobtrusively tuned and build, typically, to a highly memorable last line.

In ‘Dog Days’, for instance, her sonnet on Brisbane, she uses a variety of images to evoke the relentlessness of that city’s midsummer heat: ‘The sky is a blue so pressing it falls/like glass to the ground.’ She finds herself drawn by ‘hope’ to the river and concludes her poem by noting how ‘Today the water slides by/in silence, a quavering less oppressive city //splayed upside down on the surface./A dog barks in the white light, just once.’ That ‘just once’ is a typical Lea touch, a nicely resonant full stop to the whole poem.

A similar compression and understatedness can be seen in Lea’s poem, ‘Ars Poetica’. It’s short enough to quote in its entirety and is plainly indicative of where she is heading in this second collection: ‘I used to want/to say one thing //& have it turn/out to be another./Now I only want //to say one thing./As if the pleasure //now is in the voicing/not the trickery //but the soul making/itself heard //above the traffic.’

There was not very much ‘trickery’ in Flight Animals but one can sense here the eloquent simplicity Lea is reaching for. Some of the poems, for example, ‘Love Begins with a Vision’ and ‘View from the Blue Pavilion’, read like haiku sequences. Others, such as the technically ambitious ‘Routine Love Poem’, use the repetition of simple elements, almost in the manner of a Gertrude Stein or Samuel Beckett. The poem also displays the persistent ambivalence running through many of the erotic love poems at the book’s centre. In ‘Palinode’, for instance, Lea begins ‘I have written before how I loved him/ but I have never written how I disliked him too.’ In ‘Born Again’ she has the deliciously malevolent lines: ‘Instead of dying, god spoke to him./God forgave all his trespasses. But I/didn’t forgive his trespasses against me./My heart was a long ledger.’

This degree of intensity carries over to into the book’s final section which, while it touches on temples, pavilions and terracotta warriors, is just as much concerned with the raw force of human emotions. We are given, for instance, Lea’s versions of the graffiti at Sigiriya, written between the seventh and 11th centuries AD. They begin: ‘I came & saw the girls with gold chains/between their breasts now heaven is no good.’

Another poem in the sequence has Lea’s narrator reminiscing: ‘Each night/I found the present-tense of you: your body/in the bed conducting light,/the little room lit up, my sex ransacked/by a branch of burning sky.’ This might sound melodramatic but the poem’s ending is convincing enough: ‘Each morning we walked/ in staggered silence till the future came/to blind us with its mirror.’

In some other poems in the last section (such, for instance, the deeply moving ‘Father and Daughter’) there can sometimes be, by contrast, an almost risky minimalism but these are dangers Bronwyn Lea is more than willing to deal with in her pursuit of the subtlety she aims for. The Other Way Out will be more than satisfying to the many readers who have waited since Flight Animals in 2001 alerted them to the presence of a poet who has, as Alan Gould has put it, ‘the humour … the tact … and the fine connections of a very singular sensibility’.

Geoff Page reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (13 December 2008): 16.



Poetic intimacies to be shared

Geoffrey Lehmann reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in The Weekend Australian 6-7 Dec 2008: Review 8-9.

by Geoffrey Lehmann

Why do people write poetry? Unlike Damien Hirst, who auctions artworks fabricated in his workshops for millions of pounds, poets get little money from their poetry. Nor is there much fame, and sometimes it seems as though there are more poets than poetry readers.

So why write poems? One reason may be the longevity of a good poem. Thousands of lines of ancient Greek poetry have survived for more than two millennia. This compares with some rare fragments of their music (less than 50 minutes recorded for Harmonia Mundi in 1978), none of their paintings (although they ranked this art form with their sculpture) and a few remnants of their best sculpture.

Poetry is like bits of DNA. It codes itself into our minds and transports itself down generations, popping out at odd moments, such as the poem by W.H. Auden read out in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. But it is still worrying. Where will the new good poets come from?

It’s therefore a great relief to read Bronwyn Lea’s The Other Way Out. Still a year or so short of 40, Lea may be the brightest light to emerge in Australian poetry since the start of this decade. Her poetry is intense, personal, intelligent and witty. She is able to make her lines move briskly and economically and create surprises. In ‘Born Again’, which is surely a modern classic, she describes a divorce from a man

who sold his house
by the beach and drove his Volkswagen
into the desert to die. He was gone
a year. I was living one vertical mile
above the desert floor – where he slept
in his car.

The vivid detail about living one vertical mile above the desert floor puzzled me for a few days. Then I realised I’d been a bit stupid. The persona of the poem, presumably Lea during her years in the US, had gone to live in a mountain region such as Colorado, where she would be one vertical mile above the desert floor. The ex-husband doesn’t die as he’d planned. He becomes a ‘born again’.

‘Instead of dying, god spoke to him./God forgave all his trespasses. But I / didn’t forgive his trespasses against me. / My heart has a long ledger.’

The ex-husband comes to collect his daughter from the mother’s snowbound house, presumably on parental access. The mother gathers her daughter’s things. ‘It took a little while. When / I returned he was gone. Typical.’ She looks around and discovers him praying in the snow. In an ironic conclusion, Lea recalls:

Snow collected on his upturned palms.
I felt its coldness. Such intimacy
we had never shared. Sometimes grace
Comes like that, it falls like snow.

Geoffrey Lehmann reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in The Weekend Australian 6-7 Dec 2008: Review 8-9.


Pulping our poetry

Rosemary Neil investigates the findings in Bronwyn Lea’s book chapter, ‘Australian Poetry’ in Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing. Ed David Carter and Anne Galligan. St Lucia: UQP,2007: 247–54.

by Rosemary Neil

It took Alan Wearne 13 years to write his verse novel, The Lovemakers, which explored “all the great, sexy things” (love, betrayal, home renovation) about life in the suburbs. In 2002, The Lovemakers took out the poetry prize and book of the year in the NSW Premier’s Awards, an extraordinary achievement for a 359-page poem written in a kind of exalted Strine.

Yet even as Wearne stepped up to the podium to collect his gongs from then NSW premier Bob Carr, The Lovemakers was doomed. “At the same time they were congratulating me, they (his publisher, Penguin) were planning to dump me,” the poet says, still incredulous five years later. In spite of the prizes and high praise this verse novel garnered, Penguin spurned the second volume. ABC Books eventually accepted The Lovemakers II, but although it earned excellent reviews, “any promotional campaign was non-existent”, Wearne complains. In the end, both volumes of The Lovemakers were pulped.

Behind the pulverising of Wearne’s two-volume epic lies a bigger yet rarely told story of the near-abandonment of poetry by many powerful publishers. Reflecting this, a new study by University of Queensland Press poetry editor, Bronwyn Lea, has uncovered a fall of more than 40 per cent in the number of poetry books being published.

Lea’s study finds that ‘in the years between 1993 and 1996, more than 250 books of poems were published in Australia each year. By 2006, this figure had been reduced by about 100 titles.’

Today, Lea says, the vast majority of local poetry titles come from small, independent presses. Some, such as Giramondo and Black Inc, punch above their weight, winning prestigious literary prizes or attracting big names.

According to Lea, however, many independent poetry presses “do not have sufficient access to resources, distribution and marketing to have their books noticed by readers. Under these conditions, the thus far unchallenged maxim that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’ becomes self-fulfilling.”

Lea, a poet and academic, believes UQP is the only large, mainstream publisher that still maintains a formal poetry list. UQP publishes five or six poetry titles a year and has on its list eminent poets such as John Tranter and David Malouf. Malouf’s first poetry collection in 26 years, Typewriter Music, was released in hardback at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last month. Within three days, its print run of 3,000 had all but sold out.

Lea says this shows that – contrary to popular belief – if poetry is properly marketed, it will connect with readers.

Her study, published in the new UQP title, Making Books, retraces how “the 1990s heralded a new ethos in Australian book publishing: poetry was no longer presumed to be a prestigious staple on the list of a serious publishing house.

“With mergers and takeovers happening left and right in the commercial publishing sector, poetry, for all its ‘cultural worth’ was told to pay its way in dollars or be gone. But with characteristically small print runs and booksellers hesitant to stock specialty books, this was a big ask.”

By the close of the decade, Lea found that publishers such as Angus&Robertson, Penguin, Picador and Heinemann had axed or radically cut their poetry output, leaving canonical poets such as Judith Wright and Les Murray temporarily publisherless.

The antipodean retreat was part of an international trend. Oxford University Press caused a furore in 1999 when it dumped 28 of its poets, including expatriate Australian Peter Porter, and closed down its poetry series.

It is telling that Murray – commonly ranked with the world’s top handful of poets – has signed up with Black Inc. (His previous publisher was the small, stylish but now defunct Duffy&Snellgrove.) Murray says of the majors backing away from poetry: “Their philosophy now is sales at any cost and quick turnover, so we are better off in some ways without them. The only escape routes at the moment for poetry are the net and performance.”

Wearne believes most of the majors are “scared of poetry and don’t understand it”. Now “a poet in exile” teaching creative writing at the University of Wollonging (he’s from Melbourne), he wonders why his earlier verse novel, The Nightmarkets (1986), enjoyed several reprintings and what he calls a crazy level of media attention, while 15 years later, The Lovemakers bombed.

The poet, who considers himself an entertainer and an elitist, believes the decline has been caused by dumbing down within the media, universities and publishing houses, a resurgent cultural cringe and a lack of nous about how to market poetry.

Wearne compares today’s poetry scene with the Australian film scene in the 1950s, when questions were asked about whether it had a future. Murray concurs, sort of. He tells Review “we are now back to exactly where we were in the early ’60s” when he started out as a poet. Back then, he says, few big publishers were interested in publishing local poetry as they were convinced it wouldn’t sell.

Interestingly, when Murray edited Best Australian Poems for Black Inc in 2004 and 2005, roughly half the poems he chose were by writers he had never heard of. He says this reflects the dearth of commercial publishing outlets for poets, but adds: “We always have had highly talented amateurs and I don’t think it matters that much.” Even so, deprived of mainstream publishing outlets, it’s hard to imagine our emerging poets attracting the same level of national and international recognition our senior poets (Murray, Malouf, Tranter, Wright, Peter Porter) have enjoyed.

At 39, Peter Minter has been writing poetry for 15 years, and has won significant prizes. He says of the scant opportunities for poets at bigger publishers: “It does grate. There is frustration that poetry doesn’t have the same kind of profile that prose does. The flip side is that in an almost up-yours kind of way, younger poets are stimulated into setting up their own presses and magazines.”

In spite of the grim outlook, Minter, Lea and others are adamant a poetry revival is under way on the web, at independent presses and in cafes, pubs and school halls. They say online poetry journals and performance poetry are reanimating the art form, and that the revival has so much grassroots support it exposes poetry-shunning publishers and bookshops as being out of touch.

Certainly, Miles Merrill is one of very few poets in Australia who can say: “I make an excellent living as a poet.” For the past two years, this charismatic African-American has performed for students around the country, from outback schools of 50 pupils to elite private schools with panoramic views of Sydney Harbour. Using little more than a mike, sunglasses and his sonorous voice, Merrill performs his own poetry and Coleridge, to a hip-hop beat.”If kids aren’t yelling for more when I leave the room, I feel that I’ve failed somehow,” he says.

Merrill, who moved to Australia 10 years ago, is also director of the NSW State Library’s poetry slam, which is about to go national. Poetry slams resemble a cross between hip-hop and Australian Idol, and the library is holding nationwide heats for its Grand Slam in December. Contestants get an audience and two minutes to impress judges who are plucked from the audience. At stake this year is $10,000 prizemoney.

The talent is nothing if not eclectic. According to Merrill, last year’s NSW finalists included a 12-year-old from Broken Hill and a 70-year-old from Armidale in northern NSW.

Melbourne, meanwhile, is warming up for Poetry Idol, another word wrestle that will culminate with a grand final at the Melbourne Writers Festival in September. Poetry Idol organiser Michael Crane is a mid-career poet who has had 350 poems published over the past decade, mostly in journals such as Meanjin and Overland. He agrees performance poetry is a growth area. But he also admits that in the present publishing climate, “if it hadn’t been for the magazines, I probably would have given up”.

While we like to profess reverence for dead poets from Shakespeare to Paterson, could it be that readers have little time for living poets? Ron Pretty has run Five Islands Press, Australia’s biggest independent publisher of poetry, for 20 years. He has never broken even and admits that without Australia Council subsidies “I probably would have gone under a long time ago”. A typical FIP poetry title has a print run of 500 or 600, “which is part of the reason the major publishers don’t want to know”.

Penguin boss Bob Sessions says the country’s biggest commercial publisher ditched its poetry list in the late ’90s because it wasn’t selling: “We had a poetry list at one time, until we realised that the maximum sales of the average volume we put out was between 200 and 400 copies, and that was unsustainable … We had a poetry list that was losing us money hand over fist, year after year.” He feels small, subsidised presses such as Black Pepper, Giramondo and Brandl&Schlesinger are the natural home for poetry (lower overheads can make it more feasible for them to publish books with small print runs). Given the rise of small presses and online poetry, Sessions says the obsession with poets being published by big publishers “is kind of irrelevant now”.

Sessions reveals Penguin is looking at producing a new anthology of local poetry “to show that modern poetry is alive and well in Australia”. Yet when asked about a release date and editor, he is vague. (Penguin’s previous anthology of Australian poetry was published 16 years ago.)

Clearly, some big publishers are still interested in verse novels. Dorothy Porter and young adult novelist Steven Herrick recently published such novels with Picador and Allen & Unwin respectively. A spokeswoman for Picador says Porter’s new verse novel, El Dorado, about a serial killer, “is doing fantastically” selling 4000 copies in its first month. The spokeswoman says while Picador doesn’t produce as much poetry as it used to, it has inhouse poets such as Porter and Lily Brett. (In Britain, Picador publishes Clive James and Peter Porter.)

Lea concedes some commercial publishers are still producing poetry, “but generally speaking, I haven’t seen a major act of re-engagement”.

Now in his early 60s, John Tranter is a poet of the printed page and of the cyber age. He believes “digital publishing will help save poetry from extinction. Online publishing is definitely the way of the future for poetry, mainly because it does away with the bugbear of distribution.”

While it is difficult and costly to ship poetry books overseas or get them into bookshops, Tranter’s web journal, Jacket, publishes poets from all over the world. British newspaper The Guardian has called it “the prince of online magazines”, and it has had 500,000 visits since Tranter set it up 10 years ago. Yet for all its prestige, Jacket remains a labour of love, Tranter is unpaid for the work he puts into it.

Last month, Nicholas Manning, an Australian academic working at the University of Strasbourg, helped launch The Continental Review, the web’s first video-only forum for contemporary poetry.

According to Manning, the review is a continuously updated poetry collection of video readings, reviews and interviews, integrated with YouTube. Manning hopes the Review will signal “a new approach in the communication and reception of contemporary poetry and poetics”.

But have our reading habits kept pace with technology? Are readers as seduced by a poem on a computer screen as they are by beautifully presented anthology of poems?

Lea concedes “there is no vetting system on the internet. It embraces the full range. To be published in Jacket would be an accomplishment, while at the democratic sites it’s just a matter of uploading your poem.”

Nevertheless, the mission to preserve our poetic heritage is turning to cyberspace. Tranter and others have secured a $500,000 grant to archive Australian poetry on the net; eventually, it is hoped poets will receive a fee whenever their poetry is downloaded.

Western Australia’s arts department is putting up $60,000 during a three-year period to encourage low-budget poetry publishing, while the Copyright Agency Limited is funding the Australian Poetry Centre, which opened in Melbourne this month.

The centre aims to lift the profile of homegrown poetry. Director Teresa Bell says the key to achieving this is to market poets more effectively. Poets, she says, should be marketed as celebrities, much as some novelists are.

“It is a scandal that we can’t have access to poetry in many of the bookshops of Australia and that it isn’t being supported by many of the larger publishers,” she says.

But she also sees a need for greater unity among our famously fractious poets. New to her job, she has already noticed divisions between Sydney and Melbourne poets, bush and city poets, performance and academic poets. “In order to flourish, there should be room for more diversity,” she says diplomatically.

Wearne retorts “that there were factions in the poetry world for about half an hour 30 years ago”.

Yet Murray claims that when he edited Best Australian Poems, “the great rivals of Australian poetry said. ‘Oh, Murray’s taking over the poetry world. He’s monopolising it.”‘ He accuses his rivals of “calling down the great Australian spirit that is called jealousy”.

In spite of the pulping of The Lovemakers, Wearne is working on another verse novel. He acknowledges poetry “is written by a minority and read by a minority”.

He is quick to add: “That does not mean it shouldn’t be on the shelves as it was years ago.”

Rosemary Neil investigates the findings in Bronwyn Lea’s book chapter, ‘Australian Poetry’ in Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing. Ed David Carter and Anne Galligan. St Lucia: UQP,2007: 247–54. This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian 7–8 July 2007, Review: 4–5.

Full text available online.

Elsewhere with equipoise

Alan Gould reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Quadrant Vol XLVII (Oct 2003): 68-74.

by alan gould

The quality in the art of Bronwyn Lea that I would most like to highlight is what I will call its equipoise. It is a quality to be found throughout this, her exquisitely well-wrought first volume, Flight Animals.

Bronwyn Lea’s poems argue, and because they do this with such intentness and unforeseeableness, it is difficult to quote from them piecemeal. But let me try to illustrate what I mean by equipoise in ‘Antipodes’:

In this lifetime, antipodes must be
my word, my home or anyone else’s.
Anyone who lives at opposites or knows
what it is to be contrary, to deviate. Like
disparate continents. Like the holding of
Europe and Australia in your blood.
This, I find, is a feat. And I recognise, as I age
that my apogees are elongating,
my reversals are rising like the swollen
belly of a frog storing water in its sleep.

Into the discourse are brought a friend, perplexed, like the speaker, by the ground upon which one can give and receive love, and a man, a lover, with ‘sand-heavy eyes’. The poem argues in favour of loving the thing-in-time rather than the Ding an sich, and how the disparity of claims made upon our nature can be reconciled when this view is taken. Her premisses are clear, her leaps of logic finely discerning, her images vivid, and only towards the end do we learn the poem has a dramatic context. For it is being meditated in the immediate aftermath of lovemaking, looking out on a particular view:

…Then just now, lying
in the low light of afternoon, I saw
it is the movement more than the man
that I love, the movement in and out
of me, framing the sweet falling
of lilac pollen, falling soft upon his back,
my tongue.

So, the poem’s equipoise lies in the balancing of its forces, abstract proposition and personal feeling, worldwide tectonics with the intimacy of two human bodies alone together, argument with confiding, a casualness in the diction with an incisive control of the intellectual substance, an audacity in the turns of discourse with a sureness of how the whole should resolve itself. In this poem, and throughout the volume, the close attention this poet requires us to bring to her work is rewarded by the sense of an entirely new arrangement of thought and feeling having been made.

Deeply Bronwyn Lea has absorbed the example of Wallace Stevens. Her doctoral thesis was entitled ‘To Dwell in Possibility’ and like the American poet, the poems in Flight Animals make the case for the status of the imagination. Imagination creates, not likenesses of being, but new states of being. The poem is ‘the cry of its occasion, part of the res itself and not about it’.

The pace is characteristically calm, the emotion complex, the eye attentive for just the image that will illumine her reasoning without overstatement, that will catch the humour, create the tact, the fine connections of a very singular sensibility.

To take one poem from this book as I have done is useful in describing the intellectual and emotional finesse in Bronwyn Lea’s work, but it does not do justice to her range. Flight Animals abounds in poems achieved in ways never quite expected. The twenty-six proverbial distinctions in ‘Catalogue of People’ mingle aphoristic sagesse with a humour that subverts the endemic smugness of distinctions. Her ‘Seven Feet & Where They’re From’ is as much a gentle pastiche of John Forbes’ ‘Four Heads & How to Do Them’ as a means of entering attitudes of mind, historical, ethnographic, etymological. Entailed in this sequence – ‘The Chinese Foot’ particularly – is a gift for story-telling that is elegant, delicate, purposive. In her tanka sequence, ‘A Rush of Butterflies’, she places a series of deft images to describe the process of sorrowing after lost love:

By my foot, a skink
Fixes an eye on me – more
Devoted than you.

My shovel splits an earth worm –
I watch the two ends wriggle.

But her qualities are more typically integrated within the single utterance than incidental to several poems. Often her preoccupation is with mutability. In poems like ‘Deepcreek Hotsprings’, ‘Orthograde’, ‘Woman Holding a Vase’, the pace is characteristically calm, the emotion complex, the eye attentive for just the image that will illumine her reasoning without overstatement, that will catch the humour, create the tact, the fine connections of a very singular sensibility.

Alan Gould reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Quadrant Volume XLVII (Oct 2003): 68-74.

Island poetry review

Judith Beveridge reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Island 88 (Summer 2002): 90-97.

by Judith Beveridge

Bronwyn Lea’s first collection Flight Animals is an extremely assured and accomplished volume. It’s full of finely wrought poems fusing together both delicacy and potency. Many of her poems are about the perishable nature of love and desire, and her skill lies in capturing the tensions between our need to hold on and make durable that which is essentially fugitive. As a result there’s often a tone of sadness in her work, yet there is also wisdom, a wisdom gleaned from taking the fallen, deciduous nature of things into oneself and there finding the inherent beauty.

Lea’s poetry walks that delicate ground of looking back with sentiment and sadness, yet still maintaining integrity with the present. Although there’s nostalgia in her work, she never lets it become cloying or sententious – she’s too fine a poet, and too rigorous in her perceptions, always letting an image carry her resolving adjustments:

I can look forward to the future –
the geometries of things to come – carrying
lightly the weight of my nostalgia,
rejoicing in my catalepsy,
celebrating only myself – my chic
design, my sheen, my sheet metal surface,
my fact of being, my heroic act
of forgetting. Arranging flowers with
timeless, jazzy optimism.

It is not surprising that Lea, having spent a good part of her life away from her native Australia, should consider landscape and place as a valuable backdrop for exploring movement and change. In ‘Antipodes’, desire and geography undergo powerful fusion, as Lea brings under the one tether the seductive fluctuations of time and place. Similarly, in ‘Tomorrow I will Plant Flowers Find a New Place to Hang my Keys’, change and movement are again what remain after the fleeting, intimate fragilities are packed away. Yet so delicately does Lea render this that the ‘old yellow teacups / with broken edges’ take on a beloved charm:

I have loved these cups and cared for them
because, in them, I have seeped the tea
for so many exiles. Bright bodies
full of fragrance and bits of orange.

Lea’s images are not only beautifully chosen, but also beautifully arranged. They have balance and owe a lot to meticulous attention. Lea also values the way a line can rhythmically distribute emotional momentum, giving her thought over to sensualities inherent in certain orchestrations, such as the beautiful pacing and composition she achieves in these fines from ‘The Wooden Cat’, where the soft accumulation of the participles carries the tenderness:

…how my distempering dog, her nerves buckling
under the weight of the virus, her lungs
as senseless and lacking in integrity
as a colander, smiled one morning and let
death do the breathing for her.

Lea’s superb technical skill is also evidenced by her series of perfectly configured haikus ‘A Rush of Butterflies’, and her use of syllables in ‘The Aboriginal Foot’. This latter poem is from the sequence ‘Seven Feet & Where They’re From’. They began, as Lea says in her notes, as a response to John Forbes’s poem, ‘Four Heads & How to Do Them’. Her first poem, ‘The Greek Foot’, closely adheres to Forbes’s opening poem ‘The Classical Head’ (variations in parenthesis):

Nature in her wisdom has formed the human feet (head)
so they (it) stands at the very bottom (top) of the body.
The feet (head) – or let us say the foot (face) – divides into three,
the seats of fortune (wisdom), refinement (beauty) &fate (goodness) respectively.

But it is Lea’s genius to take the clever, conceptual framework Forbes has established and make her poem an engagement, not with literary values and their application, but with human suffering: ‘Socrates said when our feet hurt we hurt all over.’ For me the highlight of this sequence is the poem ‘The Chinese Foot’. Here, Lea focuses on the husband’s cultural and erotic interpretation of his wife’s disfigurement, and through the accumulation and accretion of impeccable, sensual imagery horrific ironies are revealed. The comparison of the bandaged foot to a temple is indicative of Lea’s incisive and penetrative skills:

The bandage wraps figure eights
around her heel, across the crest
of her foot and tightly over her toes
(which are black and pressed
to her sole) so that her arch breaks
magnificently with the steep pitch
of a temple.

Flight Animals is a superb debut, and full of poems of such beautiful surety, both in manner and execution, you would think it was written by a poet burgeoning into mid-career. Bronwyn Lea, then, is a poet whose future would appear to be exceedingly bright.

Judith Beveridge reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Island 88 (Summer 2002): 90-97.

The luxurious image

Sarah Perrier

In the notes to Flight Animals, Bronwyn Lea informs her readers that the term is used to indicate not only those animals that can fly, but also those animals that, when confronted with danger, flee. In this, her debut collection of poetry, Lea uses the term ‘flight animals’ (in both its senses) as a controlling metaphor with great success. In language that is rich and sensuous, Lea explores the complexities of attachment and detachment, desire and distance, movement and stasis. Her voice ranges from reverent to wry as each poem in turn contemplates the nature of human nature, whether we are, after all, flight animals ourselves.

Movement and intimacy are the two predominant themes of Flight Animals. At their points of intersection, Lea finds the fight-or-flight moment that most defines the character of Lea’s speaker. She characterizes herself as ‘restless’ and as someone ‘who won’t be pinned’ (‘California Morning’). Elsewhere, she considers her place as a woman ‘schooled/in ricochet’ who comes to understand ‘It is the movement more than the man/that I love’ (‘Antipodes’). Thus, while the collection begins with a group of poems entitled ‘Homecomings,’ taken individually the poems resist any such feelings of easeful return. Often writing from the perspective of an Australian in America, Lea speaks with an exile’s rootlessness. Unlike other contemporary poets, such as Eavan Boland or LiYoung Lee, both of whom share something of her exile’s sensibility, Lea creates poems whose speakers seem to be enduring self-imposed exiles.

As a first book, Flight Animals seems to be documented evidence of its author’s promise. The collection is a sampler of sorts, offering examples of all the poet can do. Lea presents traditional free verse poems side by side with poems in haiku and rubaiyat forms. She offers readers elegies, odes, translations, and ekphrastic poetry. Taken in total, the book has a predominantly lyric sensibility, but the individual poems are just as likely to be narrative or meditative as they are lyric. Her wry sense of humor comes through in poems like ‘Woman Holding a Vase’ (after a Leger painting) and ‘Catalogue of People,’ while ‘Australia Day’ offers a lesson in politics, and ‘Seven Feet and Where They’re From’ hints at the range of knowledge the poet brings to bear on her work.

Lea provides some order and shape to this pastiche of poetic habits through the careful architecture of the book’s structure. Flight Animals is broken into four thematically grouped sections, each consisting of only eight or nine poems. In the end, however, it is not the structure or form of these poems that holds them together. Rather, it is the luxurious richness of Lea’s voice. The details and images she summons again invite a comparison to Li-Young Lee’s work; like his poems, Bronwyn Lea’s work is filled with beautiful and sensuous surfaces.

Her attention and skill is most frequently applied to descriptions of the natural world. This world is not, however, simply a pleasant backdrop for the poems in Flight Animals. Rather, Lea creates a natural world that is full of its own decay. In this, her work is reminiscent of H.D.’s Sea Garden; for H.D. there is a particular kind of beauty whose tenacity amid decay is in itself lovely. At times, Lea echoes this sensibility, such as in ‘Driving Into Distance’ where she describes a swarm of butterflies: ‘ten thousand/wings over I-5, tacking against the wind/striking my windshield in silent synoopation./It was oddly beautiful, these little losses.’ Elsewhere, the natural world is represented by a rotting oak, a dried rose, or silk chrysanthemums. The use of what is rotten or artificial in nature helps Lea to avoid preciousness, particularly as she does make such frequent use of common images like flowers and rivers.

The invocations of rot and decay also help Lea avoid the potentially saccharin. Take for instance her poem ‘Contemplating Chaos at Burleigh Heads.’ In it the speaker observes as her daughter plays in the surf and notes, ‘My daughter skips/a jellyfish across the flats. She is collecting / pippies in a bucket and wears wet flowers in her hair.’ Conventional wisdom would suggest that any writer offering opening lines as loaded with the potential for sentimentality as these should move on to new territory as quickly as possible. Yet as the next stanza opens, readers will find that the flowers are still with us, but now ‘are not flowers. They are drowned butterflies/that have washed up with the jellyfish.’ The transformation of the butterflies from living (flight) animals to lifeless ornaments in a child’s hair surprises and we do not feel manipulated by the situation’s potential for sentimentality.

It is the luxurious richness of Lea’s voice. The details and images she summons again invite a comparison to Li-Young Lee’s work; like his poems, Bronwyn Lea’s work is filled with beautiful and sensuous surfaces.

Yet this is perhaps also the source of one criticism that might be leveled at Lea’s book. For all their richness, some of these poems do not manage to create an interior life for their speakers that matches the quality of Lea’s lush exteriors. By relying so insistently on the image to communicate her emotional content, Lea sometimes seems to be striking an emotionally distanced pose. Neither does this pose always work effectively when paired with Lea’s frequent use of the first-person lyric ‘I.’

At her best, however, in poems such as ‘Christmas Day’ and ‘A Rush of Butterflies,’ Bronwyn Lea dazzles readers with her ability to handle form and image in an emotionally compelling manner. Utilizing the tanka form (a variation on the traditional Japanese haiku), ‘A Rush of Butterflies’ admirably illustrates how her images often do work to convey emotionally powerful content in a controlled manner: ‘Moon or not, moss hugs/a rock. See how I loved you?/See how I loved you?’ The simple repetition of the question in this passage brings Lea’s writing right to the edge of emotional territory that readers are often reluctant to enter. The pairing of this emotional content with the tight syllabic counts of her form and the simplicity of her images provides more than enough evidence that Bronwyn Lea is a skilled and savvy artisan whose future work holds great promise.

Sarah Perrier, University of Cincinnati, reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in Antipodes 16.2, Dec 2002: 197-98.


Timeless, jazzy optimism

Stephen Lawrence reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in JAS Review of Books Issue 10, Nov 2002.

by Stephen Lawrence

     The possibilities of human
     movement sends my mind on a flight
     into the wordless;
     my mind’s winged motion upward
     and soaring – ‘Ode to a Gymnast’

Bronwyn Lea’s poems live in motion. Flight is travel, and it is also escape. (‘I have no body, only belongings.’) Restlessness pervades this first collection, and it gives her the freedom to range far and wide.

Equally intelligent but lesser poets might have allowed themselves to soar into ethereal self-obsession, and Lea does look inward but is aware of merely ‘celebrating only myself — my chic / design, my sheen, my sheet metal surface, / my fact of being’ (‘Woman Holding a Vase’). Riding above such pitfalls, Lea’s ascension produces a perspective from which to gain insight. She shuns barren hedonism with her ‘timeless, jazzy optimism’ — reminding us that the medium of poetry is like ‘advertising, music videos, jazz’ (Pam Brown, Antipodes, December 2001, p.101). For example: ‘Before leaving the world of flesh forever,’ she exhorts, putting her spin on the Rubáiyát, ‘we should spend to the limits of our pleasure.’ This is Omar with ginger and a little sass mixed in.

Lea’s buoyancy also allows her to energetically engage with the often-troubled complexities of relationships, in a more sophisticated way than many other contemporary poets dealing with this theme. She acknowledges gender differences and wrangles:

Desire or craving, he says,
(he means to say thirst)
is the cause of all suffering.
(He is the one who will
not remember me more…)

(‘Found Wanting at Zen Mountain Monastery’)

Sites of conflict and standoff are the places in which unity is most likely found, and knowing this permits Lea to see the similarities that can lead to hope. The emotional endpoint for participants is the same: the poet wants to ‘make him / reel until his heart beats so fast he finds it’ (‘Handing Back Time’).

Her splendid ‘Catalogue of People’ tries to unite, or at least to tease apart, some other human contradictions — bringing to mind John Tranter’s ‘there are two sorts of people: those who say / …`There are two sorts of people,’ / and those who don’t.’ Lea accomplishes this using generous sympathy, as well as dispassionate openness to other points of view (‘There are those who write literature of praise and those who write literature of blame. Both reveal an impulse towards life.’) One or both positions may be self-defeating, and she is not afraid to take sides (‘There are those who speculate about two types of people and those who speculate about continuums. The latter are caged in a paradox.’) She ends by facing herself to make the disarming commitment, in a kind of homely annunciation: ‘I like pigeons’.

At times, the writing can become a little over-cooked — particularly when her rhetorical assurance ceases to be grounded in emotion. Parts of ‘Handing Back Time’ (‘memory is the broken bridge / to his childhood’s field where he ran barefoot’) and ‘Driving Into Distance’ (‘mapping / myself onto its labyrinth of yellow’), to my ear, sound off-key or overheated in their context. Also, her sharp observation can become overwhelmed with abstractions that read like sophomoric speculation. It is hard to feel parts of ‘Contemplating Chaos at Burleigh Heads’:

because her body constantly erodes and renews
it would be an infinity that constantly
changes …

I discovered a child that exists
between a possibility of several children.

Meditation can read as idle sophistry when theory and passion don’t connect. This is a rare flaw, however, and not a single poem completely loses its footing.

As well as exploring geographical spaces — Texas, Peru, Japan, Long Island — Lea’s trajectories take her through time. ‘Original Sin’ seeks to reassemble the past in the present, and yearns for a pre-Fall state:

I want to turn back
farther than hours —

back to dreams where
my scales are slight
as dragonfly wings and not
an armadillo’s armour.

Lea’s wisdom allows her to perceive that there is no complete answer. There can only be brief moments of release, of untrammelled flight — and she ultimately becomes reconciled with her time — and earthbound physical being, ‘heedless of the requisite fall’ (‘Orthograde’).

This is one of the finest first collections that I have read for years; Bronwyn Lea’s excellent book is unified, astute and original.

Stephen Lawrence reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in JAS Review of Books Issue 10, Nov 2002.


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