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: The Best Australian Poetry 2005

One matter worth celebrating is the fact that the editor of this third anthology is one of the most distinguished poets writing in English. Peter Porter was born in Toowoomba, settled early in England, and over the last thirty years or so has renewed poetic contact with Australia to the point where he edited an important anthology of Australian poetry, The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse, in 1996.

Guest Editor: Peter PorterGuest editor: Peter Porter
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

One of the tasks of these series editors’ Forewords is to map (or, at least, to sketch) what has happened in Australian poetry in the year under review in the anthology. In previous anthologies this seems to have involved us in lamenting the deaths of major poets and so there is a certain relief in discovering that this year has been one of few births and deaths. True, we have to mourn the closing of the journal Salt-lick: New Poetry – entirely devoted to poetry and thus responsible for publishing large numbers of poems, and good poems at that. And we note also the closing of Duffy&Snellgrove, which since 1996 has published books of poems by a number of Australia’s finest poets, including three poets found in this year’s anthology: Les Murray, Peter Goldsworthy and Stephen Edgar. Both these closures are indeed unfortunate, but we remain hopeful that new ventures will arise in their place. Sometimes it is good not to live in ‘interesting times.’

One matter worth celebrating is the fact that the editor of this third anthology is one of the most distinguished poets writing in English. Peter Porter was born in Toowoomba, settled early in England, and over the last thirty years or so has renewed poetic contact with Australia to the point where he edited an important anthology of Australian poetry, The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse, in 1996. And he has been a regular revisitor ever since. He has also had a lot to do with the writing careers of a number of younger poets. He has proved to be a sympathetic mentor to these poets and has been a generous supporter of many others while at the same time keeping an eye on what is happening in poetry in Australia. So the perspective he provides in this anthology is animated not only by his own stature as a poet but by a genuine interest in the literary life of the country of his birth.

His most recent book, Afterburner, published by Picador in 2004 is the sixteenth in a book publishing career which began in 1961 with Once Bitten, Twice Bitten. As a poet, Porter has a reputation for metaphysical daring, an immersion in European culture, and an almost morbid fascination with death and dissolution. This reputation is not entirely undeserved but it is worth noting that he is also one of the wittiest poets ever to have written in English. Some of these interests are inevitably carried over into the selection he has made for this anthology. Many of the poems here derive from contemporary Australian poetry’s renewed engagement with intellectual speculation.

Another feature of this selection, perhaps not out of keeping with this, is the number of long poems. The works of J.S. Harry, John Jenkins, John Kinsella and Fay Zwicky are all different kinds of long poem and exploit its different potentials. One is a surreal journey into a kind of Lewis Carroll-like environment in which philosophical positions can be looked at from an actualised perspective. The second is an imaginary meeting between a gangster and a great poet in a setting so associated with the poet that it seems like an externalisation of his mind (Stevens was, of course, obsessed by the relationship between the mind and reality and also with the nature of fictions). And the other two are more personal narratives distinguished by the fact that the former moves outward towards social documentation and the latter moves inward to register the effect of the alien on the young traveller. Then there are poems such as those by Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Geoffrey Lehmann which are extended works made up of individual units often providing different perspectives.

So it is good to see the long poem make a comeback of sorts. Generally Australia’s poetic tradition has avoided both minimalism and really extended poems although the verse narrative did re-emerge in the 1980s in the work of John Scott, Alan Wearne, Les Murray and Dorothy Porter. Rereading John Tranter’s important anthology of 1979, The New Australian Poetry, it is always a surprise to see how many long poems it contains: the twenty-two pages devoted to the work of Martin Johnston, for example, comprises two poems: ‘The Blood Aquarium’ and ‘Microclimatology’ and the whole of Robert Adamson’s ‘The Rumour’ is included. Not only are there a high percentage of extended works but now, in retrospect, they seem to form the backbone of the collection.

Introducing the collection in this way, with an emphasis on its editor’s preference for speculation over lyric celebration might be something of a misrepresentation. Many of the poems in this selection demonstrate a profound interest in the human sphere and it reminds us that Porter, in a recent lecture (republished in the Australian Book Review, 266), has emphasised this contribution from the ‘huge Commissariat of Poetry’:

We tend to think of poetry as descriptive, pastoral, lyrical or rhetorical – above all as lapidary, concerned with its own means, with language at unconsciousness’s most intrinsic borders. But it would get nowhere without its human subjects, the material of social life, material closer to home than trees, cataracts or sublimities of Nature.