Foreword: Best Australian Poetry 2004

The Best Australian Poetry 2004 is the second of our projected annual surveys of contemporary Australian poetry published in literary journals and newspapers. Guest Editor Anthony Lawrence has established himself as one of Australia’s premier poets with a passionate and distinctive voice celebrated for its lush undulating movement, kaleidoscopic vision, and musical complexity.

Guest Editor: Anthony LawrenceGuest editor: Anthony Lawrence
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The Best Australian Poetry 2004 is the second of our projected annual surveys of contemporary Australian poetry published in literary journals and newspapers. We are encouraged by the over-whelming reception of the inaugural edition, The Best Australian Poetry 2003, (pre-sales made necessary a second reprint before the book was officially released) and this has given us confidence in the future of the series. Already we can see the benefits of a policy of engaging a different Guest Editor each year — this year, poet and author Anthony Lawrence — in that this selection feels radically different to last year’s. Rather than attempting a magisterial overview, we have always felt that the varied perspectives of changing Guest Editors will make, in the long run, for a rich and more accurate portrait of what is happening in poetry in Australia. At the practical level, this second edition has enabled us to think more carefully about those matters of policy which seem commonsensical in the abstract but which, in practice, come down to irritatingly minute decisions. Matters of nationality for eligible poets comprise one set of thorny examples, as do the list of journals from which the poems will be selected. In both cases, we have reconsidered but decided to continue our policy of including only poems by Australian citizens and residents published in Australian print journals and newspapers. In the case of the former, we learned its stark consequences when Lawrence returned his selection of his ‘best forty poems’ which included a poem by a well-known American poet who had somehow slipped through our filter: jettisoning the poem and requesting a replacement was a decision made not without considerable pain. In the case of the latter, we felt our decision was a bit harsh on journals such as Antipodes — the journal of the American Association for Australian Literary Studies — which has, for a number of years now, done a magnificent job of bringing Australian literature into the North American ambit and which, at the same time, continues to publish a number of fine Australian poems in each issue. But as well as celebrating Australian poets and poetry, we had decided at the outset to celebrate those journals and newspapers which, in the difficult climate of Australian culture with its attendant problems of lack of financial resources and lack of broad community support, nevertheless continue with a commitment to the poetry of Australia.

In a year in which Australia went to war, albeit as a small component of the ‘Coalition of the Willing,’ it is perhaps not surprising that one of the issues raised during 2003 involved poetry’s commitment to the public sphere. The positions of poets, as always, covered a span. At one end is an essential, though sometimes despairing, quietism inevitably invoking Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / in the valley of its making,’ though perhaps missing Auden’s point that, although the overarching cultural and physical conditions do not change (Ireland remains mad and its weather remains terrible), poetry’s survival as ‘a way of happening, a mouth’ is itself a cause for hope. At the other end is a belief in poetry’s capacity to be at least a component of protest. In March 2003, a collection of poems by 119 Australian poets was delivered to Australia’s Prime Minister as part of an international Day of Poetry Against the War. The poets included ten associated with this year’s Best Australian Poetry anthology: Robert Adamson, Adam Aitken, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, MTC Cronin, Anthony Lawrence, Emma Lew, Les Murray, Thomas Shapcott and Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Speaking on behalf of Australian poets against the war, Alison Croggon’s comment that the collection was a ‘flotilla of poems which matches [Australia’s] military presence in the Middle-East — small, but symbolically significant’ perhaps strikes the right note for poetry in its engagement with the world’s macro-events: ambitious but realistic.

It is sad to have to record, in this introduction to our second volume, the passing of one of the contributors to the first volume. Norman Talbot, who died in January 2004, was a fine, if underrated, poet and a thoroughly distinctive voice in Australian poetry. His first two books, Poems for a Female Universe (1968) and its whimsically named sequel, Son of a Female Universe (1971), contain poems that one remembers fondly after more than thirty years. Talbot’s prize-winning poem sequence, ‘Seven New South Wales Sonnet-Forms,’ is included in this volume, and it was our sad task to inform Lawrence who, tucked away in Hobart, had not heard news of Talbot’s passing but had nonetheless selected this poem on merit. Another passing of importance was that of Clem Christesen, a Brisbane poet and prose writer who began Meanjin Papers as a small magazine in late 1940 in Brisbane. After the war the journal moved to Melbourne, contracted its name to Meanjin, and established itself as Australian premier cultural journal in the post-war period.

As we’ve stated, one of the many aims of this series is to celebrate those journals, such as Meanjin and the new and impressive literary journal Salt-lick Quarterly, which continue to publish quality Australian poems, as well as to celebrate those editors who devote immense stretches of time and infinite energies to produce quality magazines. On a more coercive (though suitably muted) note, we hope that the series will also encourage poets to renew contact with these journals. While emerging poets derive immense support and confidence from publication in small magazines, established poets sometimes withdraw while preparing book-length manuscripts and contribute poems to magazines not as a matter of course, but only when asked. There is a certain irony in the fact that the Guest Editor of this volume did not appear in the inaugural issue, having published no poems in literary journals in 2002. While he did publish poems in journals in 2003 — perhaps inspired by this series? — we are grateful that he agreed to forego possible inclusion in The Best Australian Poetry 2004 and agreed to be its Guest Editor instead.

In a series of books, beginning with Dreaming in Stone (UQP, 1989) and now his most recent The Sleep of a Learning Man (Giramondo, 2004), Lawrence has established himself as one of Australia’s premier poets with a passionate and distinctive voice celebrated for its lush undulating movement, kaleidoscopic vision, and musical complexity. Lawrence’s poems and collections have won just about every prestigious poetry prize in Australia, including the Newcastle Poetry Prize (1997) and the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize (2001), as well as the Judith Wright Calanthe Poetry Prize (1991) and the New South Wales Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry (1996). His poetry is rightly admired by many for its exploration of the immense drama of the Australian landscape, capturing not only the harshness of rural life but also meditating on the intricate and startling details of native birds, fish, and animals. But Lawrence is also intensely interested in the human animal and, in this aspect, his poems are often set into continual motion, converging and dispersing in a kinetically-charged human drama. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that his selection here contains not only many poems about animals — dogs, horses, birds, bats, fish, and the platypus — but also many poems about love — romantic and familial — with all the violence and tenderness that these relationships incite and demand. There are poems too that explore the human at home in the body — a body that oozes, bleeds, and aches, but one that also loves, desires, and heals — as well as poems that are intensely interested in language, another of Lawrence’s own interests, and in how poetry might effectively address the cerebral and political dimensions of creative life. Lawrence’s selection is not only intelligent but also dramatic and flamboyant, revealing an unquenchable and quirky passion for life immersed in the magnificent clutter of lived reality.

During the proofing of this introduction we received word of the death of Bruce Beaver at the age of seventy-six. He was one of Australia’s greatest poets, an indefatigable writer and a great celebrator and lamenter. His most admired book was his fourth, Letters to Live Poets, published in 1969, but the volumes that followed it — Lauds and Plaints and Odes and Days — as well as the volumes that followed these books, are really major contributions to Australian poetry. Beaver showed Australian poets how it was possible to be wide-ranging and international in one’s reading and one’s concerns while writing in a way that seems absolutely Australian. He was always concerned with poets and his two totemic poets were Po Chu-I (whose unstoppable ability to turn life into poetry was something he admired) and Rilke. One of the best poems in Beaver’s first book, Under the Bridge (1961) is ‘Remembering Golden Bells…and Po Chu-I,’ which retells the story of the Chinese poet’s loss of his little daughter, Golden Bells. It seems fitting that in one of his final poems — from his postumous collection The Long Game and Other Poems (UQP, 2005) — Beaver recalls his Chinese mentor:

Late Afternoon

A last radiance of sunlight
illuminates an empty chair, an empty couch.
Visitors are few and when they come
I don’t wish them away
but do hope they won’t stay too long
for my closest friends are books and blank paper.
My fingers itch for the pen and later
my eyes focus on the pages of others.
It’s understandable: I’m in my seventies
and though the days moving into summers
are growing longer, my years are growing shorter.
Like Po Chu-I, I have been away from the Capital
a long time; though I have not lost any children
I watch the faces of acquaintances
and see in them a lost child here and there.
Surely parenthood is a vocation
like poetry, unlike poetry.

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2003

The Best Australian Poetry 2003, the first in what we hope will be a long and vibrant series, is a selection of 40 of the best poems published in Australian literary journals and newspapers in the preceding year. Martin Duwell brings to this volume his experience that comes from 35 years in poetry publishing and criticism, as well as a passion for poetry that rivals any poet’s.

Guest Editor: Martin DuwellForeword: Bronwyn Lea
Guest editor: Martin Duwell
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The Best Australian Poetry 2003, the first in what we hope will be a long and vibrant series, is a selection of 40 of the best poems published in Australian literary journals and newspapers in the preceding year. Poetry in Australia is thriving. According to my somewhat shaky mathematics, in 2002 there were exactly 100 volumes of poetry published (that’s one poetry book for every five novels) and 27 themed anthologies containing at least some poetry. Australian newspapers published almost 400 new poems (as well as reprinting some classics) and Australian literary journals published close to 1,800 poems. As the general editors for The Best Australian Poetry series, Martin Duwell and I hope that this anthology will direct readers to the poetry collections of the poets they enjoyed in this and future issues, as well as point to the literary journals that continue to publish high-quality poems.

We regret that we have not included poetry from Australian internet journals in this anthology. The decision to limit sources to the print media was based, for this year at least, on logistics, but it is possible that this might change in the future. In the meantime, I’d like to point to some websites worth looking at, including Cordite, Divan, Stylus, and John Tranter’s hugely popular Jacket, which brings into conversation poets and critics from around the world. Taking a different tack, Coral Hull’s Thylazine continues to make a case for poetry and activism, as well as provide an Australian poet directory — to which I am indebted in the course of tracking down some of the poets included in this anthology. And then there’s Jayne Fenton Keane’s Slamming the Sonnet website, which makes the most of web technology by using audio and video files to flesh out poetry and breath a little life into the critically-declared “dead” author. Last time I logged on, Queensland poet Sam Wagan Watson held his own in a cyberslam against Yeats, Plath, and Bukowski.

2002, like any year, was a time of things living and things dying. Most significantly it saw the passing of three major poets, Dorothy Hewett, Ron Simpson, and Gary Catalano. The former was always a flamboyant, larger than life figure in Australian poetry but one who showed that poetry could still embrace the large questions of public and private lives. Simpson and Catalano were quieter writers and it might be said they belong to the tradition that imported some of the values of the visual arts — especially a concentration on line — into our poetry. At the institutional level, Robert Adamson and Juno Geme’s Paperbark Press shut its doors after 17 years of publishing some of Australia’s finest poets. Shortly after, Ivor Indyk announced a new arm to his publishing house: the publication of literary works by individual authors under the Giramondo book imprint. Another birth worth noting is Ron Pretty’s revival of Poetry Australia, in this incarnation entitled Blue Dog: Australian Poetry. In Pretty’s editorial for the inaugural issue, he backs up contributing essayist Michael Sharkey’s assessment of the impoverished state of poetry criticism in Australia and puts out a call for “thoughtful pieces written about contemporary Australian poets and their work”. Which seems a good idea.

Given this discussion, then, it is no accident that we have decided to kick off the inaugural issue of The Best Australian Poetry with a guest editor who is not a poet, but a poetry critic. Martin Duwell brings to this volume his experience that comes from 35 years in poetry publishing and criticism, as well as a passion for poetry that rivals any poet’s. Presented with the task of selecting only 40 poems from over 2,000 possible poems, Duwell has created (without much fuss) a terrific collection of high-quality poems that is sure to impress dedicated readers of Australian poetry and newcomers alike. Duwell possesses that rare ability Sharkey calls for in his essay “Reviewing Now”: “the ability of read widely, without prejudice”, which struck me immediately when I read his compilation and noted the diversity of form, voice, style, and subject matter. Duwell has a critic’s eye for quality, but also an anthologist’s sensitivity as to how individual poems converse — how they confront, contradict, affirm, and question one another.

Which brings me to another matter. I began writing this Foreword — then stopped for a long while — in October 2002. It was the time of the bombings in Bali. Which is to say, I wrote this within history, which is to date it. Many poems were born of this time, and like the thousands of 911 poems before them, Bali-bombing poems whizzed around the internet and clogged open-mic readings across the country. How many of these poems will survive remains to be seen — not many occasional poems do — but their existence illustrates Denise Levertov’s assertion (quoting Heidegger interpreting Hölderlin) that to be human is to “be a conversation”. Many it seems turn to the poem when their human need for dialogue, “in concretions that are audible to others”, overwhelms them.

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.


Kate jenning’s moral hazard

Review of Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings first published in The Courier–Mail. 22 June 2002: BAM 7.

Kate Jennings_B&WThe release of Kate Jennings’s second novel, Moral Hazard, comes at a time of highly emotive and politicised debate about euthanasia in Australia. Also fitting to its subject matter, Moral Hazard arrives on the heels of Iris, a film about the late Iris Murdoch who had Alzheimer’s disease in the last few years of her life. Jennings, whose novel takes on both euthanasia and Alzheimer’s, couldn’t have hoped for a more opportune release date.

One can only speculate as to how much of the story is autobiographical. Jennings, like her protagonist Cath, is an Australian who worked as a speech writer in several Wall Street banks during the early 1990s. And Jennings’s husband Bob Cato died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease aged 75.

Cath commutes between two worlds of dementia. By day she works as a speech writer at Niedecker Benecker, a fictional Wall Street investment bank; and by night she looks after her much older husband, Bailey (a likely allusion to John Bayley, author of the controversial Murdoch biography), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Both worlds are awful.

Early in the story, we learn that Bailey’s mother had been an outspoken member of the Hemlock Society, the oldest and largest pro-euthanasia organisation in the US. In fact, she had taken her own life rather than enter a nursing home. Before he developed Alzheimer’s, Bailey too had expressed his commitment to “dignity in death”.

But his Alzheimer’s presents a Catch-22: Bailey would need to make his “exit”, not in the extremity of the disease, but early on, while he still has the ability to carry out his own wishes – while he is still mentally competent. But Bailey’s illness progresses swiftly, before Bailey or Cath can contemplate such an action, and the window of opportunity closes.

Still, it takes about seven years for Bailey to “erode like a sandstone statue becoming formless and vague, reduced to a nub”.

Luckily, or so Cath thinks, Bailey has a living will – an advance directive stating he does not want to be connected to life-support merely to delay an inevitable death. Also, Bailey’s medical charts list him as DNR (do not resuscitate), and he has a “health care proxy” nominating Cath to make health care decisions on his behalf. Even so, Bailey’s doctors ignore these instructions and keep him alive with transfusions and antibiotics. Cath, feeling herself responsible to Bailey’s wish for “dignity in death”, is faced with a “moral hazard” she cannot ignore.

Of course, this is not the only “moral hazard” she has to contend with. There’s also Wall Street where, reflects Cath, “women are about as welcome as fleas in a sleeping bag”. Cath, who distinguishes herself as a ’60s-style feminist on page one by quoting from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, is not enamoured, to say the least.

The result is a schizophrenic sense of disconnection between Cath’s two worlds. There is a sense that the novel needs to be longer to fully explore these rich and harrowing territories.

Life’s tragedies are rarely how we imagine them: they are simultaneously more awful and easier than we anticipate. Nevertheless it seems that, on an emotional level, Jennings’s novel is just short of the mark. She tells her story with an Australian fear of emotion, a detachment bordering on insensitivity that quite often is difficult to comprehend. Stoicism makes Moral Hazard a strong novel, but lack of vulnerability precludes it from being a great one.


Review of Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings first published in The Courier–Mail. 22 June 2002: BAM 7.

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.’

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