Australian Poetry

Revenants by Adam Aitken

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May 2022, no. 442

Since his first collection, Letter to Marco Polo (1985), Adam Aitken has been at the forefront of the diversification of Australian poetry as it moved, slowly but irreversibly, to incorporate multicultural and transnational voices. Aitken has always been a world citizen. He was born in London in 1960 to an Anglo-Australian father and Thai mother, with his childhood thereafter spent between the United Kingdom, Thailand, Malaysia, and Australia. As a young man, he attended Sydney University and embarked upon a long career as a poet, editor, and teacher which was recently recognised with the 2021 Patrick White Award.

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The reader of Stasis Shuffle is immediately confronted with the collection’s naming convention. Titles of poems and sections are parenthesised, for example, ‘(best before)’, ‘(weevils)’, ‘(& then). More than simple stylisation, this convention suggests that every poem is a fragment, a meander through consciousness. The first poem, ‘(best before)’, begins ‘liberated / from the drudgery / of usefulness’, a quote from Walter Benjamin. From there, Stasis Shuffle wanders flâneur-style through language, politics, and many different kinds of plant life. The central arc of Stasis Shuffle, however, is its self-consciousness about subjectivity and process. ‘(best before)’ asks ‘is your slowly accreting poem / morphing into a larger cloud yet’? As the collection unfolds, poems begin to comment on themselves and the writing process.

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J.S. Harry and her lapin alter ego, Peter Henry Lepus, would assuredly have had ‘words to say’ about the war in Ukraine and its manufacture by a group of human beings. Peter, a Wittgensteinian, would have pondered hard the nature of the war ‘games’ that preceded use of arms: games in which each ‘move’ was a crafted piece of language and (dis)information, known as ‘intelligence’ or ‘diplomacy’, but where the ‘endgame’ and ‘stakes’ would involve the disposition of human flesh and blood. ‘The dead do not have a world ... / A human’s world is language: “logic” & “words”, Peter thinks’ (‘After the Fall of Baghdad’).

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Ken by Anthony Lawrence & Aflame by Subhash Jaireth

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April 2022, no. 441

Australia has a stylish new poetry press. The two books reviewed here by Life Before Man, the poetry wing of Gazebo Books, preference book cover art and poem above all the usual paraphernalia: publishing details, barcodes, author notes – even the epigraph – are tucked into a back page, and there are no apparently distracting contents pages or page numbers. Most of the poems sit neatly on the right side of the page with a private blank beige page buffer. There’s orientation in a contents list, and I trust the poets have a choice about whether they want one. That said, there’s a holiday-like liberation in slipping through unmoored. It’s a subtle reading experience, but do these aesthetic somewhat precious innovations justify the use of extra paper?

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In the Room with the She Wolf by Jelena Dinić & Beneath the Tree Line by Jane Gibian

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April 2022, no. 441

In an impressive first collection, the South Australian poet Jelena Dinić incorporates her Serbian heritage and memories of war-affected Yugoslavia into an Australian migration narrative of clear-sighted beauty. William Carlos Williams wrote in the introduction to Kora In Hell: Improvisations (1920): ‘Thus a poem is tough … solely from that attenuated power which draws perhaps many broken things into a dance giving them thus a full being.’ Although far from improvisational, Dinić’s poetry compositionally integrates both fragility and strength as it draws together diverse experiences of war trauma, cultural displacement, the petty administrative routines of immigration departments, a Malaysian writing fellowship, Australian icons (such as the rainwater tank), folklore, and bathing in the Adriatic Sea.

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Borderless: A transnational anthology of feminist poetry edited by Saba Vasefi, Melinda Smith, and Yvette Holt

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May 2022, no. 442

‘Borderless’ is ‘a transnational anthology of feminist poetry’, arranged alphabetically with no themed sections, that I read slowly, out of paginated order, and savoured. Is ‘Borderless’ a description or an ideal? I wondered, as I returned, between poems, to look at the cover image of a multi-coloured painted woman, a body located in no place I could discern. Does ‘Borderless’ refer to a poet’s ability to dissolve borders through imagination, or to a temporary state of flight or transgression? Perhaps, a borderless world is one akin to a poetry anthology with no hierarchy or divisions to order the poems and their meanings.

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Fifteeners by Jordie Albiston

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March 2022, no. 440

Every poet has his or her addictions: words they use over and over again, ones they own ‘by right of obsessive musical deed’ (to quote Richard Hugo). For Emily Dickinson, it was thee, thou, and Death. For Sylvia Plath, it was him, nothing, go, and gone. For Gabriel García Lorca, it was sangre, lagrimas, negro, and corazón. For Jordie Albiston, it just might be world, the word that aims to contain everything.

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Life Before Man (LBM), the poetry imprint of Gazebo Books, was founded by artist and publisher Phil Day in 2020. To date, seven books have been published, including works by Subhash Jaireth, Cassandra Atherton, Anthony Lawrence, Gary Catalano, and Alex Selenitsch. Forthcoming is a substantial international anthology of prose poetry, titled Alcatraz.

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Damen O’Brien’s first collection is an exceptional accomplishment. His individual poems have won several competitions (including the 2017 Peter Porter Poetry Prize). O’Brien signals the emphases of Animals with Human Voices in his Afterword, stating that the world has become a ‘meaner’ place during the ten years of its completion: ‘a place of harsh politics, that values outrage over kindness, tribalism over empathy’. He concludes: ‘Like the animals of the title, the poems are voices for human problems and troubles, for the little moments and cares of the human condition.’

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‘The flag’s taking off for that filthy place, and our jargon’s drowning out the drums.’ A. Frances Johnson’s new collection begins with this quote from Rimbaud, which immediately betrays her appreciation for both the European avant-garde and the viral nature of the context from which it emerged. Johnson is a poet, painter, novelist, and academic acutely sensitive to such colonial haunts, perhaps largely due to the delight she takes in the other tones offered up by historical subject matter. She has displayed this previously in Eugene’s Falls (2007), an expansive novel about Eugene von Guérard, and in exhibitions dealing with the ambiguous textures of botanical empire building. Interestingly, though, her layers of historical literacy have led to a skilful inspection of her own aesthetic fetishes, writing as she does in a time when ever more bilge-water seems to be issuing from the half-drowned ship of Western culture.

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