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Poetry collection

A Slant of Light by Paul Kane & A Tight Circle by Brendan Ryan

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October 2008, no. 305

Anthony Lynch, enterprising editor of the notable but short-lived Space magazine, also produces signed, limited-edition chapbooks under the moniker of Whitmore Press. Paul Kane’s A Slant of Light and Brendan Ryan’s A Tight Circle join a list that features Maria Takolander’s Narcissism and Cameron Lowe’s Throwing Stones at the Sun (both 2005).

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On a first reading, the accomplished poetry of Tracy Ryan seems spiky, colloquial, earthy and enjoyable. But the more subtle accomplishments of the poetry lie in wait on a second reading: the musicality, the careful crafting, an honouring of the traditions of poetry, the rhythms and experiences of the everyday and the bodily. To name her themes draws us into the poetry: motherhood, the vicissitudes of the body, childhood and parenting, work, love, poetry, death. But it is in beginning to hear the musicality of Ryan’s metaphoric language that a second step can be taken. Alliterative, demotic, formally playful, morally serious, the poetry of Scar Revision is craft and presence finely balanced.

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Lucy Dougan’s recent collection of poetry, White Clay, demonstrates a considerably wider range than her first collection, Memory Shell (1998), while reaffirming how centrally preoccupied her poetry is with the potency of lost time, and also with finding the truth behind appearances, locating what is hidden or marginal and tracking down family ghosts.

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John Mateer’s Elsewhere is a collection of poems from elsewhere – other small-press publications – and about elsewhere. The book is divided into three parts: ‘Azania’, which documents Mateer’s return to his homeland, South Africa; ‘Medan and Zipangu’, which contains poems inspired by travels in Asia; and ‘Americas’, which takes the United States and Mexico as its subjects. In ‘Uit Mantra’, one of the poems in the collection, Mateer describes the poet as ‘another name for emptiness’. As he traverses the various landscapes and cultures that inspire him, Mateer acts as a cipher for both the tangible particularities of experience – landscapes, history, people – as well as the unsayable and the unsaid – the repressed, metaphysical and hallucinatory.

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Jack by Judy Johnson & Navigation by Judy Johnson

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April 2008, no. 300

Narrative, historical narrative in particular, figures strongly in these recent books from Judy Johnson – one a new collection of poems, the other a welcome reissue of her verse novel. Jack was first published in 2006 by Pandanus, shortly before that imprint’s demise. It won the 2007 Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry, and is republished now by Picador. With its lonely, embittered, one-eyed captain, its miscellany of onboard characters and Coral Sea setting, it is not without potentially cliched romantic elements – which the Picador cover, with its Blue Lagoon-like scene and blockbuster typeface, is happy to trade on. But Jack compels.

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Commendations from celebrities and authorities have become a standard feature of cover designs for books of poetry: sometimes one wonders whether the writers have actually read what they puff so assiduously. How refreshing it is, then, to find Clive James and August Kleinzahler recommending Stephen Edgar’s latest volume so perceptively. Kleinzahler’s phrase ‘voluptuous elegance’ goes to the heart of Edgar’s way with words. James’s comment will strike a chord with anyone who takes the time (and time is needed – these are not poems to skim through) to engage with Other Summers:

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Annual anthologies of Australian poetry are, or should be, a good way to get an overview of the local poetry scene, as well as an opportunity to greet new poets and to keep in touch with established ones. This selection from more than a hundred poets fulfils that function pretty well, having a range of old and new names, styles and themes, even if the sourcing of the poems does seem weighted in favour of Quadrant, of which Les Murray is poetry editor. It’s the hubris in the title – Best Poems – that makes one cantankerously inclined to point to incomprehensible omissions. Readers with a mind to play that game can scrutinise some of the contenders that Murray passed over by reading Peter Porter’s rival anthology (David McCooey reviewed UQP’s Best Australian Poetry 2005 in the October 2005 issue of ABR). We have to accept, I think, that any anthology cannot help but bear signs of its editor’s preferences and prejudices, and no anthologist can hope to read every poem of the year. What matters, bearing in mind the need to be reasonably representative, is whether the chosen poems are good ones (although Some Good Australian Poems of 2005 might not be a highly marketable title).

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Philip Salom’s tenth collection of poems offers readers an experience akin to falling over the edge of a well into a frightening subterranean world. The Well Mouth is dark, allusive, ironic, brutal, perplexing and confronting, and so it can be alternately rewarding and irritating. Readers should not miss the explanatory paragraph before the prologue; otherwise they risk being as disoriented as the central narrative consciousness, a woman murdered by corrupt police and dumped down a well. She makes the collection cohere as a kind of ghostly medium, channelling the voices of the newly dead, some of whom are described as ‘whistleblower, brothel madam, long-distance driver, woman lost in the bush, old solider’.

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Kathryn Lomer’s Extraction of Arrows is a fine first book. It is more unified than most, but with a varied enough poetic base to make one interested in the poems that Lomer will write in the future. Its essential feature is a tight focus on the self; as lyric poetry should be, it is ‘self-centred’, without any of the pejorative overtones of that phrase. At almost all points, we are aware of the poet herself, a body existing alongside a compendium of moods, experiences and emotions. It is a carefully observed body, especially in a poem such as ‘Linea Nigra’, which begins:

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A Tasmanian Paradise Lost by Graeme Hetherington & Other Gravities by Kevin Gillam

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December 2003–January 2004, no. 257

In the first part of his new collection, Graeme Hetherington returns to the cultural territory he presented, differently registered, in In the Shadow of Van Diemen’s Land (1999). This is the west coast of Tasmania, reconstructed this time, in ‘West Coast Garden of Eden’, as the provocative place of his childhood, an Eden after the Fall in which innocence has long before succumbed to temptation. The twenty-seven parts of ‘For Boyd’ present Boyd as the narrator’s schoolmate, a son of working-class parents who has Paul Newman looks, a careless disregard for all forms of authority, an impressive and precocious sexual appetite, and a rebel’s capacity for mischief.

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