The wrap: poetry in the news (w/e 8 May 2013)

A handwritten poem by Oscar Wilde has sold for over four times its estimate at auction – fetching just over $100,000 (roughly $2,500 per line) – making it one of the most valuable poems ever written by an Irishman. Born on the same date that Wilde died, Alex Dimitrov – founder of a queer poetry salon in NYC called Wilde Boys – is Doing It Ruthlessly and All the Time, while patron saint of poetry, James Longenbach, is busy singing The Virtues of Poetry.

newspaper-icon-thumb10559428A handwritten poem by Oscar Wilde has sold for over four times its estimate at auction – fetching just over $100,000 (roughly $2,500 per line) – making it one of the most valuable poems ever written by an Irishman. Born on the same date that Wilde died, Alex Dimitrov – founder of a queer poetry salon in NYC called Wilde Boys – is Doing It Ruthlessly and All the Time, while patron saint of poetry, James Longenbach, is busy singing The Virtues of Poetry. Tony Hoagland thinks Twenty Little Poems Could Save America, but James MacManus thinks nothing could’ve saved Baudelaire from the Black Venus who betrayed, bankrupted and bewitched him into drug addiction. On Jerusalem Day, Yehuda Amichai was remembered with a poem comparing the city to a carousel, while translators of Dan Brown’s forthcoming novel – borne of his deep reading of Dante’s Commedia – toiled in a circle-of-hell of their own. The multitude of sham Dante tie-ins, including Jonathan Black’s Secret History of Dante – which will expose hidden codes, connections to the mysterious Knights Templar and “a 2,000-year-old conspiracy” – has some people (ok, me) dreaming of a galaxy far, far away … while NASA, hoping to take poetry to a new frontier, has put out a call for 17-syllable haiku for Martians.

Will the real john tranter please stand up?

Review of Starlight: 150 Poems by John Tranter; and The Salt Companion to John Tranter

In his latest collection of essays, Milan Kundera describes the savage portraiture of Francis Bacon as interrogations into the limits of the self. ‘Up to what degree of distortion’, Kundera asks, ‘does an individual still remain himself?’ Or more crucially: ‘where is the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?’ These are fascinating, if troubling, questions. And in the world of poetry, this distorted borderland is Tranter territory. The personas in John Tranter’s poems, his own included, may not be as hellish as Bacon’s. In fact they’re often comical and sometimes rather stylish.

John Tranter (credit Anders Hallengren)In his latest collection of essays, Milan Kundera describes the savage portraiture of Francis Bacon as interrogations into the limits of the self. ‘Up to what degree of distortion’, Kundera asks, ‘does an individual still remain himself?’ Or more crucially: ‘where is the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?’ These are fascinating, if troubling, questions. And in the world of poetry, this distorted borderland is Tranter territory.

The personas in John Tranter’s poems, his own included, may not be as hellish as Bacon’s. In fact they’re often comical and sometimes rather stylish. But his project is the same: ‘the self’, the poems corroborate, is a whole lot more contingent than we would like to believe. When Tranter uses an ‘I’ in his poems it is merely a pronoun of convenience, a basket-case housing an individual’s constituents: a jumble of thought, borrowed behaviours, second-hand experience, and ripped-off speech.

Yeats once wrote that the poet is ‘never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete’. But for Tranter, near a century later, the poet has become precisely that: a bundle of accident. The poet may be an ‘idea’, but it is an incomplete one. And incoherent at that.

Unlike Yeats, Tranter doesn’t dream that the poet hosts any rarified communion with truth. He is not exactly enamoured with his chosen profession, as his poem ‘Rotten Luck’, selected by Amy Gerstler for The Best American Poetry 2010, attests. It opens:

To put up with a career as pointless as this,
it takes the courage of a gambler.
Okay, someone has to do it, but
like they say: vita brevis, ars longa.

‘They’ being Hippocrates. But the thought of life’s brevity transports Tranter’s speaker to a bramble-covered gravesite on a lonely hill in the bush. Is it it the speaker’s or someone else’s? What’s it matter: ‘Mix more drinks’, the gambler says, ‘and mix them stronger’.

The texture of a Tranter poem is fabricated through the clash of seemingly disparate vocabularies: technical language abuts tête-à-tête, doctrine against dirt, Latin fights baby talk. The frisson is in the friction. Tranter, though no intellectual slouch, delights in watching the theoretical crumble when he king hits it with the colloquial. He’s also a notorious imitator of other people’s speech: inanities and interjections, snatches of narrative, expletives, and overheard confessions are frequently built into his poems. (Perhaps a hangover from his brief foray into architecture at university, Tranter often employs verbs from the building trade to talk about poetry: a poem is not composed but ‘jerry-built’, it has ‘scaffolding’, and rather than analysing a poem’s structure he ‘reverse engineers’ it.)

But it’s not just poems that are constructed from words. We — outside the poem — might be also. Tranter’s poems make the case that not only our speech but our inner lives may be a collection of quotations. Once aware of it, it’s hard to return to the world of innocence, where our thoughts are our own. We are condemned to a state of deja pense — the sense that our words and thoughts are not our own, don’t quite fit us, or belong to someone else. We are as original, Tranter’s poems insist, as a blade of grass on a suburban lawn.

In this view our truest portrait would not be a photograph in fine focus but something more like a double exposure. Which might account, at least in part, for Tranter’s abiding interest in facsimiles, doppelgängers, and other reproductions. An early sonnet, ‘Your Lucky Double’, imagines another version of us out there somewhere. You may be down on your luck, the poem concedes, but ‘how lucky you are how lucky’ to have a double: ‘it is more than you deserve’. Similarly, the poem ‘Fever’ opens with a bifurcation of the second-person pronoun: ‘Yes, you care if you’re happy, don’t you? / You and your friend, your dear ‘self’. The poem ends with a hat-tipping to phoniness:

You know,
this ‘you’ you manufacture at night
just for me on the videophone, it’s a dream.
You will wake up feverish. It’s ‘love’.

On first reading, the doubled-you is easy to parse, but start asking questions and you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of doubt.

So who reads Tranter? It’s difficult to say, though he admits to writing for people like himself, if he can find them. People interested in poetry but also novels, block-busters, movies and soaps. They live in an urban landscape. The setting, he says, is a room with ‘a television in the corner, magazines on the kitchen table, a movie playing at the local cinema, cool jazz on the radio’. If you’re looking for a poet to tell you beautiful lies — that you are whole, complete, a beautiful soul — then you’d best stop reading now and pick up the latest Rumi translation. Tranter just won’t deliver. But if you can dance to the idea that all this — language, love, life — is a game, then Tranter will dazzle you, amuse, and if you’re lucky he’ll do your head in.

‘When I was seventeen’, John Tranter confesses, ‘I fell in love with a sodomite’. He is talking about one of France’s greatest poets, but he tarries on his countenance before getting to the poems: ‘His eyes were a dazzling blue and he had the face of an angel His hands were large and awkward: a peasant’s hands’. He’s right, of course, Rimbaud really was a pretty boy. His was a face for T-shirts and coffee cups.

Tranter was born in Cooma, New South Wales in 1943, but worse than too far away it was too late: ‘by the time I came under the spell of [Rimbaud’s] beautiful lies, his body — minus the amputated right leg — had been rotting in a lead-lined coffin in the damp earth of northern France for seventy years’. But Tranter remembers thinking at seventeen — and still agrees in middle age — that Rimaud was ‘one of the most brilliant poets the human race has ever seen’.

Rimbaud believed the role of the poet was visionary: poets could see things ordinary mortals were blind to. His celebrated Lettre du voyant expounds his revolutionary theories about poetry and life: ‘The Poet makes himself a voyant by a long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses. All the forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences’.

When Tranter first read Rimbaud, this kind of talk appealed to him. He grew out of it, but back then he was ‘living in a country town and wanted to go to the city, take drugs and have a lot of fun, write some wonderful poetry’. The pair had a lot in common. But whereas the young Rimbaud hit the streets of Paris and embarked on a brief but violent affair with a famous poet (if the married Verlaine was looking for rough trade he certainly found it in Rimbaud) before chucking it all in for gun-running in Abyssinia, Tranter set up in Sydney, married, and built a career as one of Australia’s leading poets.

Tranter admits he fell in love with a ghost, and he’s been trying to shake him off ever since. Unsuccessfully. Rimbaud’s fingerprints can be dusted on Tranter’s early poems. His words frequent Tranter’s poems as epigraphs and citations. He even stars in a couple of Tranter’s eponymous poems: ‘Arthur! We needed you in 68!’, the speaker cries in ‘Rimbaud and the Modern Heresy’. Rimbaud’s famous dictum, ‘one must be absolutely modern’, remains Tranter’s guiding aesthetic – even if it was first said more than a century ago.

Rimbaud did his best work before the age of twenty, then ‘he gave in to a mixture of rage and pig-headed pride’ — Tranter’s characterisation — ‘and threw his marvellous talent onto a bonfire, along with his manuscripts’. His silence seems to have affected Tranter the most. One might speculate briefly on what treasures Rimbaud might have gifted had he lived and written longer. But the vigour of his work grew out of his occupation as an enfant terrible. Grown men can’t write like that. They must find something else to say, die, or stop writing. What is Tranter at 68 to do?

Starlight: 150 Poems is Tranter’s 22nd book of poems in his 40-year career. It was released in late 2010 alongside The Salt Companion to John Tranter (intelligently edited by Rod Mengham), a landmark collection of incisive essays by a range of international critics investigating Tranter’s major themes and periods — this review grazes on a few — up to his most recent book of poems. It’s important reading for anyone serious about Australian poetry.

What distinguishes Starlight from his other collections is that just about every poem can be traced to another time and poet: John Ashberry, TS Eliot, Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud (of course), Stéphen Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire. This is not to say they are translations: they’re not. Variously, according to the author, they are ‘mistranslations’, ‘radical revisions’ and ‘multilingual dealings’. There’s also a section of ‘adaptations’ in which Baudelaire’s poems are migrated from their native nineteenth-century Paris to contemporary Sydney.

The first poem in Starlight is a particularly dense and demanding poem, ‘The Anaglyph’, which effectively disembowels every line in Ashbery’s 1967 poem ‘Clepsydra’. Tranter retains the first and last few words of Ashbery’s lines and inserts his own middles. So whereas ‘Clepsydra’ opens (opaquely, it must be said):

Hasn’t the sky? Returned from moving the other
Authority recently dropped, wrested as much of
That severe sunshine as you need now on the way
You go. The reason why it happened only since
You woke up is letting the steam disappear …

‘The Anaglyph’ is book-ended by Ashbery’s words but Tranter steers them in entirely different directions to skewer fashionistas and arty pretenders:

Hasn’t the charisma leaked away from the café crowd, and that other
Authority, the Salon des Refusés ? I have forgotten much of
That old sack of enthusiasms and snake-oil recipes, the way
You have forgotten your own childhood, since
You woke up just in time to watch the adults disappear …

If it’s a tribute, it’s a brutal one. Later in the poem the speaker comments on its own processes: ‘this project, I admit that / It is like gutting and refurbishing a friend’s apartment’.

‘The Anaglyph’ reveals more of Tranter than we’ve seen for a long time. ‘I adjust the mask’, the speaker says, that ‘fits more loosely every decade’. It appears to be an epistle to Ashbery — at least the ‘you’ appears to be anchored in the biographical data of Ashbery’s life — combing through his relationship with the older poet’s poetics and signing off with an invitation: ‘Just now somebody / Is phoning to arrange for drinks – will you join me? – later this evening.’

‘The Anaglyph’ opens up further when seen through the metaphor implied by its title. An anaglyph is a picture made up of a red and a blue identical images that are superimposed but slightly offset so that the picture becomes stereoscopic when viewed through 3D glasses. The obvious interpretation here is that the two superimposed images are, metaphorically speaking, Ashbery and Tranter’s respective poems. The stereo effect kicks in if the reader is able to ‘hear’ the older poem in the new one, thereby granting the illusion of depth through time. But shifting perspective yet again, ‘The Anaglyph’s is both an homage and an assassination. Tranter’s placement of Ashbery’s ‘well-wrought urn in the centre of the square’ — in a poem preoccupied with the passing of time — conjures deathly connotations. In one view the speaker licks the jowls of the older poet; in another his teeth are at Ashbery’s throat.

At times the poem suffers from noun-heavy plodding — ‘The map / Of the literary world is a pantomime, and its longueurs have become / Prolongations of our prevarications on bad weather days’ — but Tranter’s brilliant comedy cancels out his own occasional longueurs. The speaker describes himself as ‘a spiritual hunchback, drooling and gaping at the stars’ and captures the spirit of our age in a throw away line: ‘Emptiness will do fine. Just pop it in a doggy bag, thanks’.

Paradoxically the poems cordoned off in ‘Speaking French’ sound very American. But that’s not the weirdest thing about this assembly of homophonic mishearings. In English when words in a poem or song are misheard in a way that gives them a new meaning, they are known as ‘mondegreens’. Hearing, for example, the opening phrase to the American Pledge of Allegiance as ‘I pledge a lesion to the flag’; or its closing as ‘liver tea and just this for all’. The Japanese call it soramimi (‘sky ear’: the sky tells me words the person hasn’t said) and it typically involves interpreting lyrics in one language as similar-sounding lyrics in another language. The French in Paul McCartney’s song ‘Michelle’ is particularly susceptible: ‘Miss Shell, marble, Sunday monkey won’t play piano song, play piano song’.

Not surprisingly, many poets have been drawn to the derangement that comes when sense is detached from sound. Perhaps the most famous homophonic translations are Zukofsky’s 1969 translations of Catullus in which he attempted to replicate in English the sounds rather than the meanings of the original Latin. Tranter has been wading in homophonic territory for years, but Starlight documents his most extensive — and successful — exploration to date. Never afraid to reveal his processes as a poet, Tranter offers an online peek behind the scenes into the making of ‘Hôtel de Ville’.

The original poem, ‘Ville’, is Rimbaud’s most damning indictment on society’s degeneration during the industrial age. The setting is thought to be London where he lived with Verlaine on three occasions during the early 1870s. But it doesn’t so much matter where the poem’s set, it’s as much about the idea of a city — ‘citiness’ —  as it is about a particular one. The speaker is in his cottage, which is ‘his country, his whole heart’, looking out a window at ‘apparitions roaming through the thick and endless coal-smoke’. One wouldn’t expect a Frenchman’s view of London to be flattering and it’s not: ‘the metropolis’, he opines, ‘is believed to be modern because every known taste has been avoided in the furnishings and the exteriors of the houses as well as in the layout of the city. Here you cannot point out the trace of a single monument to the past’. True enough: London does have fewer monuments than Paris, but he’s just getting started. Here ‘millions of people who have no need to know each other’ live identical lives flattened out so that their lives pass quickly without struggle. Everything is like this, the speaker decides, ‘death without tears’, ‘desperate love’, and ‘pretty crime whimpering in the mud of the street’.

Ouch. But here’s what Tranter does to it. First he dictates it in French into Microsoft Word’s speech-to-text program. The only problem is that the software is monolingual and recognises only English. Ergo the computer is thoroughly confused. ‘The initial results’, Tranter says in an explanatory note on his website, bear only ‘a very oblique relation to the original texts’. In other words, what comes out is rubbish: ‘Press the monument assumes to see all the modern so we do we do need to solve the spicy on sun is in the longer junkie known to be some’ (to offer a fragment at random).

Tranter and his software has turned Rimbaud’s poem into a junkyard. Its meaning is thoroughly disassembled. And yet there’s something alluring in the derangement. Something perhaps to salvage. So Tranter rolls up his sleeves and gets to work on the ‘raw data’, reworking it, he says, ‘extensively’. Along the way he rigs it into a sonnet. And at some point he throws in a line from a John Ashbery poem. Why? He doesn’t say. Perhaps to amuse himself. Perhaps for the thrill of making it fit. Or maybe, like a bay leaf, a mild bitterness serves to enhance the surrounding flavours. By the time Tranter’s finished with it, Rimbaud’s poem has been relocated, via the title, to the continent. ‘Hôtel de Ville’ references, perhaps, the famous Parisian town hall or maybe the one in Brussels where Verlaine was briefly interred after shooting Rimbaud in the wrist.

With exact words phrases from the computer-generated text in bold, synonyms in italics, and Ashbery’s words underlined, here’s Tranter’s poem in full:

The kids should visit a history museum
in their senior year, to understand disgrace as
one form of Clinton’s victoryOn the other hand
the European Community foreign debt gives
everybody bad dreams. So we do need to solve
the problem of students reading difficult things
that will lead them astray: why did Rimbaud
turn from socialism to capitalism? As if

it matters. He is his own consolation prize.
We’d be delighted to have his uniform.
We want tosee all the modern art stuff, too.
Thank you. Press the button marked ‘monument
and see what happens: a recorded voice says
‘I have wasted my life’, and we pay to listen.

There’s a lot to like in Tranter’s sonnet-mondegreen. The shadow of the global financial crisis — Tranter keeping up-to-date — hangs over the poem. The surprise of ‘Clinton’s victory’ and serendipity of ‘we’d be delighted to have his uniform’. And line nine, always the heart of a sonnet, achieves cut through: ‘it matters. [Rimbaud] is his own consolation prize’.

Tranter has written 83 such mondegreens. It’s tempting to think of each one as a mini exorcism, but Tranter emerges from the pages of Starlight looking less the victim of a haunting than a stalker on a homicidal rage. Rimbaud (along with his comrades Verlaine, Mallarmé and Baudelaire) has been misconstrued, dismembered, put through a sieve, and re-appendaged according to Tranter’s tastes and idiosyncrasies. The poets have been distorted — to return to Kundera’s line of questioning regarding Bacon’s portraits — to the point of being barely recognisable as themselves. But Tranter always incorporates at least one or two signature fragments to ensure the crime doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s tempting to think that with this tour de force Tranter might finally have thrown Rimbaud from his back. But then again all horror stories these days — to draw on another Tranter genre — must end with a sequel.

Bronwyn Lea’s review of Starlight: 150 Poems by John Tranter and The Salt Companion to John Tranter edited by Rod Mengham was first published under the title ‘Masked Marauder’ in Australian Literary Review (March 2011): 18–19.

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An assembly of poets

Review of Australian poetry titles in 2009

The Mary Gilmore Prize is for a first book of poetry. This year there were 39 entries: 33 of them were authored by women. The short list of five, perhaps not surprisingly given the odds, is made up entirely of women: Emily Ballou for The Darwin Poems (UWA 2009), Helen Hagemann for Evangelyne and Other Poems (APC 2009), Sarah Holland-Batt for Aria (UQP 2008), Emma Jones for The Striped World (Faber & Faber 2009), and Joanna Preston for The Summer King (Otago UP 2009). At the time of writing, the winner of the Mary Gilmore Prize has not yet been announced; however, several of these titles have already won national (and, in Jones’s case, international) prizes, in some cases in competition against highly esteemed and established poets.

stamp_mary_gilmoreThe Mary Gilmore Prize is for a first book of poetry. This year there were 39 entries: 33 of them were authored by women. The short list of five, perhaps not surprisingly given the odds, is made up entirely of women: Emily Ballou for The Darwin Poems (UWA 2009), Helen Hagemann for Evangelyne and Other Poems (APC 2009), Sarah Holland-Batt for Aria (UQP 2008), Emma Jones for The Striped World (Faber & Faber 2009), and Joanna Preston for The Summer King (Otago UP 2009).

At the time of writing, the winner of the Mary Gilmore Prize has not yet been announced; however, several of these titles  have already won national (and, in Jones’s case, international) prizes, in some cases in competition against highly esteemed and established poets. Unfortunately, these particular books were published just prior to the catchment for this review so I was not afforded the pleasure of reviewing them here. But I bring up the Gilmore shortlist in any case because I think it best illustrates a point that poetry critics and reviewers have been making for some time now: the most exciting poetry in Australia seems to be found, very often, in first books by young female poets.

The emphasis on female authors, it’s worth adding, has become evident not just in poetry publishing in Australia but also overseas and in other genres. In 2009 all eyes were on the women who swept the heavyweight international literary awards: the Nobel Prize in Literature went to German author Herta Müller who, the Swedish judges said, “with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed”; the Man Booker went to Hilary Mantel for her novel Wolf Hall; the International Man Booker went to Alice Murno for Too Much Happiness; and Elizabeth Strout won a Pulitzer for her short story collection, Olive Kitteridge. Is it an accident they were all women; stacked judging panels; a mini-trend? Or are the tides turning?

Back home in Australia, similar questions were being posed in poetry circles. Reviews that commented on the predominance of young female talent among poets left some of the authors in question feeling not so much flattered as wondering – in conversation and in blogs – why they were being singled out as female: they preferred, some of them said, to be judged – and categorised if they must be categorised – based on some quality of their writing, not on the particular pairing of their chromosomes. It’s not that it isn’t interesting to think about the poet’s sex (and for that matter his or her gender and sexuality), they argued, but only if such interrogations yield interesting results pertinent to their work. Many of the same poets deemed that this clumping, as they saw it, did not. As might be expected, however, some bloggers (some of whom were poets, some critics)  accused them of being overly sensitive: the “young female poets” were being complimented, not being thrown into a now non-existent gender ghetto. Then one anonymous blogger – a male? – smirked: “I’ve heard them referred to as the Ladies of the Lyric”. The condescension was as loud as the phrase is alliterative, and the sexist cat – to stretch the ghetto metaphor – was out of the bag and running down an alley.

This review is not the appropriate forum for interrogating lyricism, nor its alleged linkage to female poets. There are too many books that need attention to waste space theorising. But some of these observations – and objections – were foremost in my mind as I surveyed a year’s worth of poetry books sent to me for review. Having read the books on offer, and thought about them, I feel safe to dismiss the gender question as not particularly pertinent this year. And I would dismiss it immediately if it weren’t for the presence of a very striking book in this catchment that happens to be yet another first (full length) book by an Australian female poet: Ghostly Subjects (Salt 2009) by Maria Takolander. It’s also one of the darkest books on offer.

Takolander’s poems are ruinous, diabolical, all the more so for their polish and precision. Here, as in Baudelaire, beauty is inextricably linked with evil: it’s “the dark italics”, as Wallace Stevens phrased it, that compels the poetic imagination in these poems. Not surprisingly, it’s often night-time in a Takolander poem: night is “the dangerous time”, the speaker says in “Drunk”, adding “anything goes when the light goes.” In “Pillowtalk”, a devastating poem in which innuendo lingers like poison, “There is no rest. / Nights are for unreason.” It opens with a stunningly precise if ominous image:

Inside the bedside drawer,
The knife blade empties
Like an unwatched mirror
At night.

The child-speaker’s psychological “bed was made” by whatever happened to her during those long, black hours. We’re not told exactly what did happen – some words should never see the flood of day – though the father’s rifle leaning behind two old coats does lend itself to a Freudian interpretation. The poem closes with the speaker’s troubling confession that she hides bullets in her mouth – her invocation as a poet? – and grinds them down like candy. Almost all the poems in Ghostly Subjects are similarly menacing, but they’re also stylish and very smart. Don’t be surprised if they take up residence in your body after reading them, like “a tree full of vultures … / hulking like souls” (“Tableaux”) – it’s just that kind of book.

This year’s catchment, in contrast to the previous year, contained few first-time authors but instead saw a number of fine books by Australia’s senior poets. In Les Murray’s Taller When Prone (Black Inc 2010) the poems, as seen in his last few books, are shorter than in his early work, and so is his line. His thinking seems tidier than before, the breathing more relaxed, but this new collection nevertheless showcases Murray’s trademark sally and satire, along with the whimsicality and wisecracking wordplay that safeguards his rank as one of the best poets writing in English. The title of the collection comes from the poem “The Conversations”: “A full moon always rises at sunset / and a person is taller when prone”. As depicted on the cover, these seemingly paradoxical lines are resolved in the image of a man’s late-day shadow stretching into a paper-thin giant. But as often is the case with Murray it is also a pean to the imagination, the idea that a person is more than himself when asleep and dreaming: “a person is taller at night”, the speaker also asserts. Or it might also connote that a person reaches full stature only through the canonising processes afforded by death.

It struck me reading this book that it is haunted not only by Murray’s old foe, the black dog of melancholy, but also by the spectre of insanity. Like Lear – “O! let me not be mad,” cries the king – the speakers in Murray’s poem fear losing their mind. In fact King Lear is evoked in one of the most striking poems in the collection, “King Lear Had Alzheimer’s” – a poem that draws parallels between Cordelia’s disinheritance and, to read intertextually, that of his own father’s. The poem pushes a bleak, almost Hardyesque idea of fate and what it does to a human:

The great feral novel
every human is in
is ruthless.

Alzheimer’s appears again in the poem, “Nursing Home”. “Don’t outlive yourself”, it warns as the speaker recounts the losses and indignities of old age: “the end of gender / never a happy ender”. Then, proving he still can dance on bits of paper, Murray conjures “a lady” in a nursing home who has “who has distilled to love / beyond the fall of memory”:

She sits holding hands
with an ancient woman
who calls her brother and George
as bees summarise the garden.

“Summerise” is quintessential Murray. Sonorous, yes, but it’s also a pun on the season – “summer-ise” – at the same time granting bees the busy work of joining the dots in this bittersweet scene.

Bees bring to mind Dorothy Porter and her seventh and final collection of poetry, The Bee Hut (Black Inc 2009). Written in the last five years of her life, it was completed just before her death in December 2008. “The bee hut became a metaphor for these last years of [Porter’s] life”, Andrea Goldsmith writes in the Foreword: “she marvelled at the bees, as she had always marvelled at life, but she was also aware of the danger amid the sweetness and beauty”. In the titular poem, the speaker tells of a swarm of bees that has taken over an old shed:

I love the bee hut
on my friend Robert’s farm.
I love the invisible mystery
of its delicious industry.
But do I love the lesson
of my thralldom
to the sweet dark things
that can do me harm?

Even Porter’s love cannot forego awareness of the forces that hurt and destroy, even if she would have them subsumed within a celebratory synthesis. Like the Romantics who feature in a number of Porter’s poems – Keats, Byron – Porter is often at her finest when voicing contradictory surmises about the relationship between the imagination and the pressures of reality. As Keats did in “When I Have Fears”, Porter stared down her own death in her final poems. But unlike Keats, Porter stays wildly passionate – “exorbitantly flamboyant”, even, like the art deco buildings she sees through her window at the Mercy Private Hospital in Melbourne – until the end. Her last poem, “View from 417”, was written two weeks before she died. It’s impossible not to love the stubborn optimism of the collection’s last words:

something in me
despite everything
can’t believe my luck

In an earlier poem, “Early Morning at the Mercy”, the speaker, at 6 a.m. in the “cool-blue cool / of early morning”, lets her tea go cold and turns her mind to Gwen Harwood’s Bone Scan poems.  “How on earth she could write / so eloquently in hospital”, she wonders. The Bee Hut – poignant, powerful, spirited – has me asking the same question of Porter.

Speaking of luck, Catherine Bateson takes up the theme and spins it on her head in her poem “The Day Complains” from Marriage for Beginners (John Leonard Press 2009). Feeling distinctly unlucky – the speaker in the humorous if unlikely guise of “a day” – shows, as do many of Bateson’s poems, that poetry and comedy are good bedfellows. It begins:

Why can’t you take me as I am
the way I have to take you –
hungover and foul-mouthed
in your Cookie Monster pjs
last night’s argument with the ex
banging away in your head

“The Day” continues its admonishment of the poet-addressee and concludes with a king hit Dorothy Porter, for one, would love:

So roll over, close your eyes
and sleep me off.
I’ll go down to the nursing home
where they’re grateful just to see me.

Some say Tom Shapcott’s Parts of Us (UQP 2010), his fifteenth book of poems, is his best yet. An unflinching meditation on death, aging, and the unheralded losses that come with physical decline, it is at times painfully candid. In the sonnet “Miranda at Two”, just as the speaker’s young granddaughter is “tumbling toward speech” – learning that “sound is the conduit for all those urgent things inside” – the speaker finds  that his own capacity for language, or more accurately his capacity to sound language, is closing down around him:

my own tongue thickens and the muscles distort
language so that I hesitate to express myself and cannot
control articulation. Silence rather than speech
is my new mode.

The final couplet has Miranda laughing up at the silent poet and adopting as her own the poet’s task of naming; she addresses him – though we’re not told by what name – “with perfect symmetry”. Despite the isolating effect that the loss of speech has on a human life – which is of course the heart of this poem – it is difficult to discern self pity in these lines. Speech is to a poet what hearing is to a musician, and one imagines the loss should be more terrible than it is presented in this poem. But as a poet he is still able to write – and this he does exceptionally well – but more than this he can listen.

Hearing is a sense Shapcott revels in. Everywhere his love of classical music is evident, particularly in the first section of the book where poems about Stravinsky, Vivaldi, Schoenberg and other musicians abound. But in a startlingly beautiful and enigmatic poem called “Nocturne” it’s not humans who make music, but the “night’s full choir / of possibilities”.

Listen. The night is dark
though it’s amazing how much light
pretends otherwise – the stars
could be hidden by clouds but this
street and advertisement message
hoodwinks us into believing
our fate is otherwise.
We are alone.

The poet says he knows “the ultimate of silence” but still, he says, he “cannot believe silence / will truly happen to [him]”. Parts of Us tells us it won’t.

With Judith Beveridge’s unquestioned reputation as one of Australia’s most highly regarded poets, even knowing her work well it comes as a shock that Storm and Honey (Giramondo 2009) is only her fourth collection of poems. But those who know poetry know that quality and quantity are not necessary apportioned in equal measure, as Elizabeth Bishop with her small handful of exquisite books illustrated so well. As Bishop sometimes did, Beveridge takes the ocean as her subject and makes it her element. Storm and Honey opens with a boy, or what was left with him, being pulled from the steaming gut of a shark, and it ends with a shark in “The Aquarium” that the speaker cannot forget:

how its eyes keep staring, colder than time – how it never
stops swimming,
how it never closes its mouth.

The shark, the ultimate predator whose open mouth causes “our hearts [to] burn inside us”, becomes a symbol of unceasing hunger, the cause of so much grief. It’s this philosophical dimension of Beveridge’s poems that gives them resonance beyond her capacity to carve an intricate image or to craft into language the sounds of the nature and the rhythms of work. Though it must be said that she does the latter exceedingly well.

Like Porter, Beveridge also has a poem about a bee hive – hers is in bushland, “in an old toppled red gum”:

Sometimes, I’ll picture that old fallen
red gum exhaling bees from the shaft of its cracked
trunk. I’ll picture my hand deep in the gum’s
center, warm with the running honey; the swarm
suddenly around my head like a toxic bloom,
and the noise, the noise in my ears – still wuthering.

These remain among the most intoxicating lines I have read in a long while. As with Murray’s “summarising” bees, Beveridge’s wuthering bees are evidence of her power as a poet to breathe life into forgotten words and show how their presence in our lexicon is earned, not as a luxury but as a   necessity that we may live life fully.

Similarly intoxicating, Sarah Day’s Grass Notes (Brandl & Schlesinger 2009) is, to adapt a phrase from her poem “Fungi”, a “beacon of freakish beauty”. The rapturous poem “Apples” opens with a couplet as majestic as any – “these apples have weathered / the rise and fall of civilisations” – and traces their cultural trajectory along the Silk Route to ancient Persia , branching into varieties “illustrous as any dynasty”, passing through art and religion and science to end again as themselves: “These half dozen apples on a plate – / currency of Everyman’s pleasure.

But not all her poems ride such heady top notes: Day is also a master of gravity. As seen in the quiet devastation of “Wombat” in which the speaker attempts to haul the bulk of a dead wombat – his head “big as a person’s”, his “grey palms big and soft as / a child’s” – off the road.

In the end, the only way to move his bulk
was to hook an arm under each of historical
and haul him like a dead man
off the yellow gravel across the ditch
and leave him on the grass bank
as if in deep repose.

The speaker projects the wombat’s slow decay as his body collapses from within and “recedes into two dimensions”:

An arrangement of bones upon the drying grass,
summer warming up his patch of earth;
the forest ravens jawing higher up the hill,
a magpie carolling each lightening morning
and skylarks overhead
rising on each ascending note.

It’s this kind of movement that gives, along with her many other staggeringly good poems, evidence for the claim on the back of the book”: Day is indeed one of the most considerable of modern Australian poets.

Ascending notes bring to mind Alan Gould’s twelfth book of poems: Folk Tunes (Salt 2009). The collection, filled with rhymes and rhythms that accord with its title, is filled with light: sometimes it glances off the beloved’s “head of silver curls” (“She Sings Him”); other times it glints from a juggler’s cleaver (“The Juggler and My Mother”). Music abounds but it’s when the darkness of satire enters the minds of these otherwise romping and playful poems that things turn operatic. As in the brilliant but biting “In Thought They Lived Like Russians”, which begins:

They stripped the furniture from their flat,
and put on gloves to pay the rent,
they scorned their freeholds in the fat
of middle class content.

The poem concludes, like a Russian novel, with a reconciling of opposing emotions, underscored by a dazzling enjambment that spins meaning on its head:

They were the fate within the novel
where joy and disenchantment join
at some not altogether sane
not altogether pain-
ful level.

Likewise Ross Bolleter celebrates, mourns, and charms in equal measures in Piano Hill (Fremantle Press 2009). Bolleter – a musician who runs tours at a ruined piano sanctuary in WA – possesses the whimsical ear of a composer, paired (not pared) with a mind ruthless as a zen scalpel. “Suite for Ruined Piano” is a knockout sequence that, as a whole, is an unapologetic ode to the piano. There’s a little bit of jazz in the dazzling “Everytime We Say Goodbye” – but it’s mostly about a Sudanese poet who, after sharing with the speaker a meal of “chili mutton rice and onion”, recites a poem in Arabic (translated by an English woman). But it’s what the Sudanese poet doesn’t say that gives the poem its crushing ending:

‘Memory’, says the poet, trying not to recall
waking with a gun in his face, soldiers
ripping the coverlets off his children –
who burrowed into their beds abandoning
their bodies like the remains of a feast
not worth touching.

Africa looms large in Marcelle Freiman’s White Lines (Vertical) (Hybrid 2010). “Mercy” is a powerful and moving portrait of a nurse in Johannesburg who each night “comes from Soweto / to the white suburbs” to look after the speaker’s father. The end is amazing:

When he died she walked
into our house with its candles,
her hips arthritic, bent with stroke, still massive:
round the family table, she held our hands, opened her Bible
closed her eyes, and sang,
her voice like a bell –
you could feel God at her shoulder,
waiting over the horizon.

While some poets stare into darkness for inspiration, Andrew Taylor looks into the light. The Unhaunting (Salt 2009) is Taylor’s fifteenth book of poems – his first since confronting a severe illness in 2003 – is brilliant. The collection takes as its title, and overarching theme, the idea that ghosts are real and live among us – not as spirits but as fellow humans, whose torment is our haunting. Death is their – and our – only release.

Taylor plays with the idea in “The Carillon Clock”, a gorgeous poem in which time haunts literally and figuratively. It describes an old pendulum clock that came from France, “possibly in the time / of the Second Empire” but which “neither trilled nor peeled / … rather it breathed”. One night the speaker in his insomnia – “already awake” – hears the clock “in barely audible words” offer up its final wisdom before settling into silence forever:

And to you –
my lonely listener – I say, try to live
beyond time, in that dimension
no one can measure. Then the voice fell silent
and for many years the clock stayed
hanging on the wall. Probably
its outline is still there on the plaster.

You can feel, in this collection, Taylor getting closer and closer to the things he wants to say in his vocation as a poet. In “The Impossible Poem”, the final poem that serves as a coda of sorts for the collection, the poet – or “lonely listener” – conjectures:

There are only two poems –
the one you write
and the one always undoing
your words

As you get older, he continues, the latter, that impossible poem, “stretches its fingers toward you” and you can maybe, just, feel what that poem might actually be:

as Adam might have felt it
when God reached across the Sistine ceiling
toward his touch.

In this impossible poem, all things – a warm stone, a stranger’s smile – become a word or a phrase, a kind of living language we can learn to appreciate even when we can’t quite fully comprehend it.

In Gillian Telford’s Moments of Perfect Poise (Ginninderra Press 2008) the poem “Hunted” is a standout. Taking up an activity dear to the heart of Dorothy Porter – driving fast, that is – the speaker is “alone / late at night” with a pack of of cars close behind and “coming closer”: and that’s when you know, the poems ends shifting gears into metaphor, “how it is / for a gazelle / losing ground”. There’s a sense of urgency, too, in Susan Hawthorne’s Earth’s Breath (Spinifex 2009), which takes  cyclones –  local and mythical – as its subject. Perhaps one of the most haunting poems in the collection is “Storm Birds”, which opens with the image of storm birds at rest, looking like “a boat stranded in a tree / in flight a crucifix”. In part two of this poem:

Curlews are calling
presaging wind wail out of stillness.
Silent for weeks
their cry is an agony
the keening wind of dispossessed souls.

With Birds in Mind (Wombat 2009), Andrew Landsdown joins Judith Wright and Robert Adamson, among others, in dedicating a whole book largely to poetic birds. But it’s as much a book about the imagination and memory as it is about animals: “Now they’re gone I see them / again”, the speaker says in “Kangaroo Crossing” – “kangaroos bounding / through the troubled water // and a heron flying up”. Birds abound – cockatoos, corellas, pelicans – in unexpected water in Mark O’Connor’s Pilbara (John Leonard Press 2009). Meanwhile Vivienne Glance goes underwater in her collection of luscious and imagistic poems, The Softness of Water (Sunline 2009), as best seen in the end of “Desire”:

A golden fish
brushes her leg
slips into the folds
of her floating dress.

By contrast Nathan Shepherdson, enigmatic poet that he is, sometimes seems more concerned with unseeing than seeing in his second book, Apples with Human Skin (UQP 2009). Poems for Shepherdson are not images, nor are they answers, nor even questions: they are simply possibilities and alternatives. Like a zen koan, a Shepherdson poem can be pondered for months or it can be grasped in a flash – there’s no telling when it will release its ore. The idea, the axiom, the paradox is paramount in his work, as asserted in section “5” of “the easiest way to open the door is to turn the handle” – a long but straightforward title for a poem whose numerical sections run, quite naturally, backwards:

The idea of a wall
is defeated when the wall is built
tearing it down does not defeat the idea of tearing it down

Perhaps the most handsome books in the catchment are the signed and limited-edition chapbooks produced by Whitmore Press. Barry Hill’s Four Lines East (Whitmore 2009) –  rife with the “incessant vigor of thought” – is a small book intent on interrogating big realities. Hill is not afraid of abstractions – “no self no soul no being no life” – but he always drags them down to earth, as in the gorgeous poem “Noodles” that succeeds in shattering such concepts with its final image:

In a blue sweater, pants maroon
like Tibetan robes
the man stands with a golden net
hauling it up like noodles.

Also from Whitmore Press’s chapbook series, The Pallbearer’s Garden (2008) by A. Frances Johnson is, to use the words describing her Auntie’s garden, “caught by wind / and singed by fire” (“Floracide”). Each poem is a “repeatable beauty”, even when the poet is in the midst of grief and horror. The heavyhearted poem “Pallbearer” ends with unexpected levity: “I lift, helft and hold – shore up / howling lightness, lifting”. Then there’s Brendan Ryan’s Tight Circle (Whitmore 2008) which, though a compact chapbook, carries the weight of a full-length collection. The collection is named for a devastatingly good poem the centres on an uncle’s burial: the undertakers ask the family “made straggly with grief” and who “need distance from the hole” to form a tight circle around the grave. They “mutter / through the Lord’s Prayer” as the farmer-undertakers “lower [the] uncle into darkness”. The poem ends with a portrait of the speaker’s father (the dead man’s brother) that proves that life moves in concentric circles:

Burying has aged my father
softened his handshake.
He wakes in the night to exercise his new replacement knee.
Each afternoon he leans against the front fence
with his crutches talking to anybody who’ll stop;
he has to know what’s going on,
and when he’ll be allowed to drive out to the farm
to see the cows
bunched up in the yard
in a tight circle.

Sadly,  there are two posthumous books – in addition to Dorothy Porter’s discussed earlier – in this year’s catchment: la, la, la (Five Islands 2009) by Tatjana Lukic and Beautiful Waste (Fremantle Press 2009) by David McComb of the post-punk band, The Triffids. Although she published four books of poems in her homeland, the former Yugoslavia, la, la, la is Lukic’s first collection of poems in English since she migrated to Australia in 1992. The title poem appears to be a conversation, perhaps by telephone, in which she assures a worried querent that, no, she was “not in the square when a grenade hit”; nor was she “forced from her home” nor taken to “the camp”. But she did see “corpses floating along the river” and “someone changed the locks and lay in [her] bed”. “Yes”, she admits, she “remembers everything” but, like survivors who want to survive must, she tucks the memories in a place in her mind where the trauma cannot hurt her:

the whole day
what did I sing?
about a cloud and a bird
a wish and a star,
la la la,
yes, nothing else

The speaker’s levity may not convince, but the psychological realism is chilling. Lukic writes of her war-torn homeland with such directness that even when she turns her attention to her new life in the sleepy Canberra suburbs, the scarring – darkened by the contrast – still shines through. Lukic  died of cancer in 2009.

Many of the poems in McComb’s book (written over the course of his short life) hold a fascination with mirrors: doubling is everywhere. It is as if speaker can’t quite hold himself together in a single psychology. In “You’re My Double” the speaker is scared to sleep by the mirror; in “You My Second Skin” the speaker wants to “peel you off me”; and a quatrain called “Nature’s Warning” has the poet driving through the mist of Northern England imagining his “belated and her substitute” for him, lying in “a double bed somewhere, kissing”. If you like Leonard Cohen’s music you’ll enjoy Beautiful Waste. The two lyricists share an aesthetic that embraces the ceremonies of suffering, finding great beauty in trauma and addiction, full release only in brokenness. In “Ode to January 1989”, McComb writes that “everything sins, suffers, grows”.

Which brings to mind the closing lines of the first poem in Chris Mansell’s sixth book, Letters (Kardoorair 2009), which puts the reader by the Mediterranean Sea, drinking “thick, sweet coffee” and thinking of those “who have gone before”. Then the poem would have you “visit Cavafy’s house / and think”:

why poetry is filled to the heart
with humanity and this grief
shall be long and strong
and you will weep
one more time and the world
will be laughably fresh
as it has been
this old world
all along.

Originally published in Westerly 55.1 (July 2010): 21–38.