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.

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.