Foreword: australian poetry journal 3.1 #animal

Screen shot 2013-09-02 at 8.32.21 AMHumans may prefer to distinguish themselves from all other multiccellular, eukaryotic organisms but ‘humans’ live only in the philosopher’s imagination. In the minds of biologists we are Homo sapiens of Kingdom Animalia. Questions of nomenclature notwithstanding, the human relationship to animals is under the microscope in the #animal issue of Australian Poetry Journal.

In addition to the myriad roles animals perform in human societies – as companions and workers, as food and objects of sacrifice – animals serve in the human imagination as harbingers of traits we aspire to achieve: football teams, as John Kinsella points out in his poem ‘Zoo’, are called ‘The Falcons, The Eagles, The Seagulls, The Tigers, The Lions, The Kangaroos’. In Judith Beveridge’s poem, ‘Back in the Monastery’, a speaker prays to the dark goddesses, Elephant-Face and Lion-Face, who sit at the threshold of time; and in Ron Pretty’s poem on Marco Polo’s first encounter with a unicorn – ‘or so / he called’ the rhinoceros – ‘myth segues into armour-plated gut’.

Horses run through many poems: sometimes as machinery – ‘a workhorse in a dark field’ in Todd Turner’s ‘Bonsai Wattle’ – or as instruments of war. Waterborne horses are ‘backed against bad weather’ in Angela Gardner’s ‘Ilium’ and horseborne Carbineers ride through Geoff Page’s ‘Marginalia’. But who’d have guessed that goats would dominate a selection of contemporary poems? Among various appearances, mountain goats climb cemented rocks to look down ‘on over-excited human children with disdain’ – again, Kinsella’s poem – and in Kristin Hannaford’s ‘Elegy for Lost Goats’ a nineteenth-century Inspector of Nuisances slits the throats of 400 feral goats to use as fertiliser in the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens.

Less noble perhaps yet no less common, invertebrates abound: the ‘orange domes’ of jellyfish sail through Robert Adamson’s ‘Sugarloaf Bay’, and a bluebottle trawls its tentacles through ‘streets of coral’ in Pretty’s ‘Kiss’. Stephen Edgar’s rhyming couplets materialise ‘the silver scripture of the snail’, and David Brooks’s ode to garden slugs – ‘young, just-antlered elk / crossing fresh-fallen snow / leaving their silver trails’ – raises the ethics of the human-animal relations. Prior to a conversion that would see the speaker coax slugs onto lettuce leaves and deliver them into the long grass, he would have sprinkled them with salt.

Strong identification with an animal, particularly if you intend to eat it, does not lead to an easy conscience. Dark humour is David McCooey’s way out: ‘what will cure him’, he wonders in ‘Sandwich Meat’, of his taste for ‘thinly sliced animals’. But the animal bites back: a dark fin cuts a pathway to civilisation; a black snake brings complexity to the woodstack. In her poem ‘Inheritance’ Maria Takolander ratchets up the primal fear of being eaten when an old man tells the speaker that her father has been eaten by pigs. ‘Only some bones and rags were left.’

Few poets, Adamson included, can avert their eyes from the spectacle of birds: macaws ‘flaring with reds / and blues’ take centre stage as the white haze lifts. ‘The slow peel of apple skin under a prized chef ’s steady hand’ is how B.R. Dionysius describes six wedge-tailed eagles riding a thermal to an immovable feast. ‘Syrinx’ by American poet Devin Johnston is an ode to the vocal organs of birds, while in ‘Ameraucana’ all praise goes to the hen who lays ‘a perfect form of incompletion: [the] first egg of the year’.

Zooming from microcosms to cosmologies, Melissa Ashley reviews John Kinsella’s Jam Tree Gully and M.T.C. Cronin’s The World Last Night. McCooey frames the human animal in Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen and finds Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity populated by saints, among them Rumwold of Buckingham – a Medieval baby who lived for three days and spoke like an adult. In his review of The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945, edited by Jennifer Ashton, Martin Duwell stares down ‘the strange beast’ of postwar American poetry, while Anthony Lawrence shines a ‘Spotlight’ on Australia’s much-loved Philip Hodgins, whose poetic imagination was formed under the intense emotional pressure of being diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of 24. Meanwhile, high in the Andes, in a small town called Uspallata, Stuart Cooke considers the fates of felines, big and small, in his ecopoetic essay, ‘A Poetics of Strays’. Elsewhere in this mad menagerie a cat named Caesar philosophises in Burmese and dreams you into the afterlife.

Foreword: australian poetry journal 2.1 #technology

There are two types of people, I once wrote in a poem that riffed on the classic binary: those who are turned on by cutting-edge technology; and those who warm to it only after it is obsolete. The latter, the poem continues, ‘often exhibit great affection for manual typewriters and vinyl records’. Of course, the human relationship to technology is infinitely more varied than this construction would allow, yet it is not unreasonable to speculate that Luddism, as a viable response to our machine-mad world, is in dramatic decline.
Technology (from the Greek tekhnē, meaning ‘art, skill, or craft’) refers to both the tools by which we live – computers, televisions, cars, pianos, pens, heart monitors, fertilizers, machine guns – and the thinking behind them.

volume 1 issue 1

2012

There are two types of people, I once wrote in a poem that riffed on the classic binary: those who are turned on by cutting-edge technology; and those who warm to it only after it is obsolete. The latter, the poem continues, ‘often exhibit great affection for manual typewriters and vinyl records’. Of course, the human relationship to technology is infinitely more varied than this construction would allow, yet it is not unreasonable to speculate that Luddism, as a viable response to our machine-mad world, is in dramatic decline.

Technology (from the Greek tekhnē, meaning ‘art, skill, or craft’) refers to both the tools by which we live – computers, televisions, cars, pianos, pens, heart monitors, fertilizers, machine guns – and the thinking behind them: information technology, music technology, biotechnology, medical technology, and so on. Technology influences not only how poets generate and compose poems –  NASA’s ballpoint pen or an Apple computer – but also the modes and processes by which we distribute and consume them. Paradoxical by nature, poetry is at once our most low- and high-tech of literary arts. For millennia poetry has lived with little more than the human body as its instrument (and warehouse), yet while other literary artforms – the novel, say, or the play – struggled to imagine a home in an online world, poetry logged on, making easy concessions and tweaking software to its design and purposes.

Ideally, an initial reading of the poems in this (or any) issue of Australian Poetry Journal would be unencumbered by a thematic frame so that the poems may be appreciated for their full spread of ideas and refracting nuances. Later readings, with the theme held in mind, might then open the poems to additional interpretations. Some poems in this selection are pointedly concerned with technology (or its lack): John Carey’s ‘Money’, for instance, laments currency’s sonic shift from the concrete jingle of coins and rustle of notes to the abstract and super-silent highways of electronic transfers; Amy Brown’s ‘Lungs Like Birds’, takes consumption – that merciless killer of nineteenth-century poets – as its subject and stages a ‘miracle cure’ (long before the advent of antibiotics: the greatest life-saving technology in the history of modern medicine); while John Kinsella’s ‘Grantchester Genetically Modified Plough Play’ – which will be staged in Cambridge around the time of this issue’s release – employs a plough-play in verse (traditionally performed in fields by farmhands) to skewer biotech giant, Monsanto, who has been busy making machines of our food.

Other poems only glimpse the theme: Dominique Hecq’s ‘Portrait in Conversation’, for example, is principally a rumination on angel wings, but its conversation is triggered by a print reproduction of da Vinci’s Annunciation. Likewise, technology in Cameron Fuller’s suburban pastoral, ‘Stress Fractures’, is present only as soundtrack – the groan of a lawn mower, distant sirens after a fight – to the poem’s main event of memory and self dissolution. Sometimes technology makes its way into a poem only to nestle as a curio inside the line: there’s an AK-47 in Geoff Page’s ‘Archetypes’; a rifle in Mal KcKimmie’s ‘Twins’; a Heckler & Koch in Ron Winkler’s ‘And Later On’; and magazine debris, shells, and shrapnel in Sudeep Sen’s stunning ‘Kargil’ poem, set ten-years on from the India-Pakistan conflict of 1999. Likewise, instruments of malice are showcased in Mike Ladd’s ‘Museum of Memory’, and elsewhere technology detritus shows up in Julie Maclean’s ‘Farina Farina’ with ‘the shell of a Holden’ nudging the ‘corrugated lean of a water tank’. For some readers, Ron Winkler’s ‘Berlin’ will be seen as a technology-free haven, but only to those unburdened by the responsibility of keeping a city lawn watered and green.

In the half year since APJ’s inaugural issue, we have received word of approximately 75 new poetry titles (unfortunately more than we could ever hope to review here). In ‘Forensics and Makeshift Rafts’, Michael Sharkey admires the technical achievements of three new collections: The Raft by Leopold Hass (editorial paranoia compels a nod to the pseudonym); Kingdom Animalia by New Zealand poet and botanist, Janis Freegard; and The Welfare of My Enemy, which Sharkey upholds as Anthony Lawrence’s most admirable collection to date. Jaya Savige sizes up the Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray treasury, Australian Poetry Since 1788, with an eye to learning ‘from whence we came’ – not from Queensland he concludes (among other things), having done the sums – and logs a request for greater accountancy in the ‘wild ride of the poetry stock-market’. In ‘McAuley’s “Lame Lyre Nets”’, Martin Duwell reviews a recent title in poetry criticism: The Sons of Clovis by David Brooks, whose detective work unearthed a French hoax – Les Déliquescences by ‘Adoré Floupette’ – as a likely precursor to the amaranthine Ern-Malley stunt. Finally, David McCooey’s feature article, ‘Poets, Apples and Androids’, surveys the latest offerings from the world of iOS poetry applications – in which poets and readers alike are described as ‘users’ – and speculates on the future of avant-garde poetics.

We live in an age captive to – and captivated by – technology. But not everybody is entranced. In ‘Success Kid Says What’, Liam Ferney writes: ‘if the future is twelve-lane / thoroughfares through downtown / & forty foot of engineered landscape / from pavement to doorway’ – as it appears to be in Beijing – ‘then I’ll check out yesterday’. With green technology still in its infancy, the question of our age is how to fuel our machines into the future. Cameron Fuller’s ‘Peak Oil Hour’ contemplates the ‘final tank of fuel’, while the small boys at the end of Ross Donlon’s ‘Midsummer Night’ look into a thousand years of shadows and cry, more diesel. More diesel.

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Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2009

The guest editor of this year’s Best Australian Poetry selection is probably best known for his huge verse novel, The Lovemakers, and for his recent collection of short poems largely inspired by local popular songs. He is, as I have said elsewhere, a master of the infinite complexity of Australian social life. He is endlessly inquisitive (in a way that used to be expected of novelists) about the details of an individual’s public and inner life, where the character derives from and how it expresses itself in details. The Lovemakers was not only a study of individuals but also of entrepreneurialism in business (and its counterpart, the drug trade), of Australian sport, and of the legal system, to name only the most important.

Guest Editor: Alan Wearne

Guest editor: Alan Wearne
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The guest editor of this year’s Best Australian Poetry selection is probably best known for his huge verse novel, The Lovemakers, and for his recent collection of short poems largely inspired by local popular songs. He is, as I have said elsewhere, a master of the infinite complexity of Australian social life. He is endlessly inquisitive (in a way that used to be expected of novelists) about the details of an individual’s public and inner life, where the character derives from and how it expresses itself in details. The Lovemakers was not only a study of individuals but also of entrepreneurialism in business (and its counterpart, the drug trade), of Australian sport, and of the legal system, to name only the most important. The earlier verse novel, The Nightmarkets, looked at the relationships between people, especially in political life, but, just as big business was counterbalanced by the drug trade in The Lovemakers, so the sex trade counterbalanced politics in The Nightmarkets. The ambition, the extraordinary sensitivity to telling detail in an individual’s life, and a command of the complex, larger structures in which these lives are lived, mean that Wearne’s work always makes me think of Dickens, the Dickens of Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son. I think I am right in saying that this is the first time he has been involved in editing – in the sense of making a selection of poems. He is better known, perhaps, as a teacher of writing; but teaching and editing are not dissimilar processes.

It is an overused commonplace that poetry is double-faced in that it can look inwards towards itself, its own material – language – and its own craft, and, at the same time, look outwards to the social world. Some of the collections in our series have clearly favoured the latter view, sometimes emphasising the drama of lives, sometimes the process of living. Alan Wearne’s selection is one which might be considered rich in portraiture, indeed it might almost seem as though its function was to remind us that there are many radically different ways in which poems can portray lives. And when Wearne writes, in his introduction, of the surprises in the poems that he read for this volume, one cannot help but think that often this resulted from an expert being introduced to new possible ways of doing what he does habitually.

At one end of the spectrum are poems like John West’s ‘Chelsea Women’ and John Carey’s ‘Fidel’s Children’ which work by aggregating quick sketches into a portrait of a larger whole. Each poet’s feeling for the extraordinariness of the lives they capture dominates their poem and it is difficult not to feel that the individual lives are more significant than the social structure in which they occur, though to deal with questions like this – something poetry is perfectly entitled to do – is to enter a very conflicted corner of intellectual questioning. At the other end, so to speak, are poems which portray their writer in a way that we are used to in lyric poetry. The haiku series of Rosemary Dobson and Graham Nunn describe the self by rendering impressions. The poems by Kelly Pilgrim-Byrne and Katherine Heneghan portray the poet’s self by focusing on something tangentially but importantly relevant. Peter Steele’s ‘Mending Gloves at Anglesea’ is also a gentle self-portrait facing the large question of poetry’s function in the world of power and deciding that, though lightweights ‘in the contest for chief lout’, poets have their own function. Geoffrey Lehmann describes his marvellous, extended poem of travels in Peru as a contribution to the new and ‘suspect’ genre of Baedeker poems but, like all good travel literature, it, too, is a portrait of the self, made slightly ridiculous, slightly insignificant but hyper-sensitive in an alien environment, in the way of much good travel writing.

Other poems are straightforward portraits. In Ali Alizadeh’s cleverly titled ‘The Suspect’, in Kate Lilley’s ‘Pet’ and L.K. Holt’s ‘Menis’ we are given clear studies and suffer the important frustration of all readers in not knowing what the author’s relationship to the portrait is. And then there is Maria Takolander’s ‘Witch’, which seems to be a portrait of a hypothetical person constructed out of a set of prejudices, and Geoff Page’s ‘Dining with the Pure Merinos’, which is a generalised, witty and not too cruel portrait of an entire class.

The act of looking at this volume as a kind of anatomy of portraiture draws attention to those poems which are overtly about the issues of the portrait. Peter Porter’s ‘We Do Not Write What We Are’ focuses on the question of poetry as self-portrait, wondering which self – the self of dreams or the self of the ordinary daylight world – appears in poems. Geoff Goodfellow’s ‘Finding Myself’, which seems, initially, to be a poem about the self recovering from very serious surgery, finishes with an image of the razor scraping away all that separates him from being a clone of his father. In this respect, purely accidentally, Tom Shapcott’s ‘Sestina’ places itself at the centre of the stage since it worries – in that obsessive way that sestinas do — about how much our prized individuality is a result of a determinist genetic heritage; as the poem says:

We do not start with a blank sheet, our genes
See to that. There is an itch somewhere in the shadows.

It would not be possible to write about Australian poetry in this year without visiting the sad fact of the death of Dorothy Porter. Her passing, late last year, at such an early age has taken from the community of Australian writers and readers one of our most loved poets. Remarkably, and almost uniquely for an Australian poet, her death attracted obituaries in overseas newspapers. She is most admired, at the moment, for a series of verse narratives beginning with Akhenaten and climaxing in The Monkey’s Mask. Good as these are, I suspect that they draw attention away from books like Driving too Fast and, especially, Crete – which remains my favourite of all her works. She was, pre-eminently, a poet of passion and, though the verse novels dealt with this theme in larger contexts, I can’t help feeling that its natural mode is the explosive lyric. She was a master – or mistress – of such poetry. Poems like ‘Why I Love Your Body’ and ‘My At-last Lover’ are hard to forget, genuine contributions to poetry’s most fully stocked, and hence most competitive, shelf. I love her comment, in an interview, about poetry and the -isms which bedevil intellectual life: ‘I don’t hold an ideological brief when I explore love or passion, I just go in and see what happens’.

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Fine connections in touching lines

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

by Geoff Page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.’