First books often suffer most in a Selected Poems as the poet who finally emerges from the possibilities explored in the poems of the first book retrospectively weeds out those poems that are not in what becomes the dominant mode. This certainly happens in the case of Dennis Haskell’s Acts of Defiance ...
Since her début in 1971, Pam Brown has been a consistently intelligent and engaging presence in Australian poetry, if too often under-represented in those reputation-establishers, the anthologies. One pragmatic reason for this may lie in a further element of consistency, the formal structure of her poems. Poems that spin their way down the page, resolutely short-lined, or ones that fragment lines and thought into zigzag patterns across the breadth of the page, are faithful to the characteristics of the New Australian Poetry celebrated in John Tranter’s 1979 anthology of that title. They are characteristics that Brown has honed finely over the years. They are also, from the point of view of anthologists and, more powerfully, their publishers, wilfully heedless of that most brutal constraint, the number of pages available for any given anthology.
This book follows Michael Brennan’s brilliant début collection, The Imageless World (2003). I do not make this connection lightly; Unanimous Night shares almost everything with its predecessor: themes, methods and tone of voice. They even share the same structure: groups of shorter poems (‘Letters Home’) are punctuated by some tightly organised extended sequences.
‘I could give ’em / enough social comment to fill a car park’ proffers the narrator in ‘Busking’, halfway through Tim Thorne’s I Con. In many ways, this book delivers on that promise. Thorne’s targets include war, colonisation, inequality, political deception, capitalism and celebrity. One moment he juxtaposes Dannii Minogue’s career with descriptions of police brutality; the next he bowls a bouncer at former Australian cricket captain Kim Hughes for touring South Africa during the apartheid era.
In her other life, Judith Bishop works as a linguist. A passionate concern with the intricacies of language, with the visceral effect of words on the tongue, aurally, and as they are knitted and unravelled on the page is manifest in her first collection of poems, Event. These poems are deeply immersed both in a complex observation of, and engagement with, the natural world, in particular with the ways in which poetic language can intervene in the world of perception, experience and desire. ‘You have to lean and listen for the heart / behind the shining paint’, Bishop writes in ‘Still Life with Cockles and Shells’, which won the 2006 ABR Poetry Prize and which Dorothy Porter included in The Best Australian Poems2006. Like the beautiful illusions of the still-life painting, Bishop’s poetry creates an aesthetic surface which mimics the stasis of death and also harbours the ‘flutter in its flank’, the pulse of possibility visible to the attentive reader–observer. Look closely, her poetry exhorts, yield to the currents of language and image, become witness to death and life in intimate and endlessly renewing ‘events’ of struggle and embrace.
These are the final lines of a poem entitled ‘Endings 111’ in Tom Shapcott’s recently published collection of poetry, The City of Empty Rooms. The poem is included in the final two sections of the book devoted to memories of a Queensland childhood, more particularly recollections of growing up in the inland town of Ipswich. As David Malouf suggests in the blurb, ‘this is a late book that sometimes sharply, sometimes forgivingly looks back, but always with the freshness of things felt and seen anew in a living present’.
If I hesitate to declare delight in Blister Pack, David McCooey’s first volume of poetry, it may be because McCooey himself casts a shadow over the word in ‘Succadaneum’, a sequence of sardonically sad glimpses of the failed love that constitutes the theme of Part II of this collection – ‘Delight, it turns out, / is a lawyer / staying back at work / kicking off her shoes / and opening a bottle of red’, abandoning clients’ disasters to files ‘locked / in metal cabinets’.