Passionate for poetry

Rosemary Sorensen reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in The Courier-Mail (16 Feb 2002).

by Rosemary Sorensen

Bronwyn Lea is fast becoming one of Australia’s most celebrated poets. No sooner had she received the good news that she was this year’s recipient of the Wesley Michael Wright Poetry Prize, administered by the University of Melbourne, than she learnt her book, Flight Animals, is the winner of the Fellowship of Australian Writers poetry award.

Poetry awards don’t get much notice in the wider community but in the vigorous, passionate and competitive world of poetry, such accolades carry clout.

These two latest come on top of the 2001 Somerset National Poetry Prize, and the 2000 Arts Queensland Poetry Prize.

She has every reason to be up-beat about her own success but Lea, 32, is equally optimistic about the state of poetry. She’s part of a small team at the University of Queensland who have seen their rather bold move into offering a course in poetics take hold in a pleasingly big way. The course has proved far more popular than they had hoped.

It’s not just would-be poets coming to the party. Like Lea herself, it’s people wanting to find out why they are attracted to the patterns of poetry, the nuts and bolts of prosody that have been downplayed in English classes.

“Poetry is more popular now than it ever was. There are more people who are literate, more poetry being published, and the web presence is huge,” Lea says.

She has the facts and figures to back up her claims. Apparently, the word poetry is the most popular term in web searches – what does that say about the digital revolution? “It fits on the screen,” suggests Lea, “and our attention span these days is so short. And then there’s the technology that gives us audio, too. I can get on the Web and listen to Adrienne Rich reading her work.”

American poet Rich is one of Lea’s favourites, and one of the examples she is using in the thesis she is writing for the University of Queensland on the role of poets in society.

Rich represents the activist role, Mayakovsky the role of the worker, the Indian poet Tagore that of the mystic. Out of Australia, what other role could we demand of a poet than as “cultural definer” – Les Murray, of course.

The roles aren’t distinct, Lea says, but her topic is giving her the opportunity to think carefully about the way different societies turn to their poets for help and inspiration. Across cultures and groups within society, however, there are some fundamental yearnings behind the evergreen desire for poetry.

“It’s because people know they can come together at a poetry reading and listen to something that speaks honestly. Poetry is a seeking and searching, trying to get into `big T’ truths.

“Even if the events portrayed aren’t done so accurately, it’s the authenticity of the words. Often in poetry you’re trying to get around the slipperiness of life.”

Rosemary Sorensen reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in The Courier-Mail (16 Feb 2002).

New poet produces a collection of unusual merit

Geoff Page reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (1 Dec 2001): 16.

111193756Geoff Page reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (1 Dec 2001): 16.

First collections of poetry rarely come more assured than Bronwyn Lea’s Flight Animals. At 32, Lea seems to have mastered contemporary American free verse and have the confidence to work in a variety of modes, from the haiku to the modified sonnet. Her poems are full of telling, sensuous detail held together by a low-key rhetoric that, while not afraid of emotion, nevertheless maintains an artistic detachment. Flight Animals has four thematic sections, of which the central two are the most memorable. Here, in poems such as ‘Original Sin’ (a wry but heartfelt elegy to a friend who says before she dies: if / I could live my life over again, I would / have more sex and fewer children), Lea uses a characteristic combination of simple detail and unobtrusive metaphor to embody a diversity of intense emotional experiences. Notable too are Lea’s formal skills. These range from the blank-verse sonnets in ‘Handing Back Time’ through to the remarkable combination of linked haiku and couplets in ‘A Rush of Butterflies’, the latter working very much by association, like the Persian ghazal. There is also the extended prose poem ‘Catalogue of People’, with its oracular paradoxes and their clever, often playful resolutions. There are those who believe God lives and those who believe God is dead. Both believe. In addition to this there are also a lighthearted but substantial tribute to John Forbes in ‘Seven Feet & Where They’re From’ and a number of engaging haiku (all of which maintain the 5/7/5 syllabic form). Perhaps two of the latter are as good a way as any to give a taste of Night Animals or, at least, a sample of its flavours: ‘A ring-tailed possum / squatting in the magpies nest / China in Tibet’ or ‘Losing you I prune / the bright red leaftips my breasts / aching from hedging’. Not all the poems are as immediately likeable as the ones I’ve talked about but there is little doubt Lea deserves the extravagant back-cover praise heaped on her by the poet MTC Cronin, and the critic Martin Duwell, of whom the latter should perhaps be given the last word:

‘These poems are resonant and delicate, but they are also very tough in mind and spirit. Their brilliance is immediately apparent. In short, an impressive first book.’