Five Islands Press

Vertigo edited by Jordie Albiston & Awake Despite the Hour by Paul Mitchell

by
October 2007, no. 295

Reading Paul Mitchell’s second book of poems during a bout of insomnia seemed apposite not only because of its title but also because Mitchell’s poetry occupies a strange middle place, somewhere between dream and reality. Awake Despite the Hour illustrates Mitchell’s interest in occupying both the ‘real’ (politics, family and the quotidian) and the extramundane (imagination, the surreal and the metaphysical).

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There has been something of a fashion in recent years to dismiss what might loosely be called ‘rural’ poetry because the vast majority of Australians live in cities near the coast. Nevertheless, ‘rural’ poetry keeps appearing, and not just in the works of Les Murray. A considerable number of Australian poets are only one generation away from the land (even John Tranter was born in Cooma), and their childhood memories can often be a rich resource. Admittedly, there are not many actually working it; the reasons for this are often at the core of their poetry. A few perhaps are inclined to be nostalgic (even sentimental) but there is also, as Craig Sherborne has observed, an ‘anti-pastoral strain in Australian poetry’. Among the more recent exponents of this tradition are the late Philip Hodgins, John Kinsella (in his wheat belt poems) and, to judge from A Paddock in His Head, the Victorian poet Brendan Ryan.

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Geoff Page’s latest poetry collection is a wide-ranging survey of some of the issues affecting contemporary Australian life. Underpinning Page’s poems of cafés, apartments, classical music, outback murders and domestic violence is a meditation on approaching mortality and the very idea of belief. In Page’s previous collection, Darker and Lighter (2001), the troubling nature of belief was hinted at in ‘Credo’: ‘The dark-night-of-the-soul-agnostic / prefers the right to doubt. / The world’s too much beset by those / who know what they’re about.’ Five years later, Page’s reflections on belief and the loss thereof return like echoes from a bell. In the fine poem ‘At Tosolini’s’, Page contrasts the diners’ penchant for coffee with the sound of bells ringing at a nearby church: ‘The sound of bells in autumn air / has long since been a thing / that we can never quite believe / and yet we don’t despair.’ Page’s use of the inclusive pronoun ‘we’ assumes much, and perhaps speaks for those who no longer believe.

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‘Some meteorites make it to the surface simply because they’re so small that they literally float to the ground. There are thousands of these interplanetary particles in the room you’re in now, stuck to your clothes, in your hair, everywhere.’ This startling piece of information introduces Aileen Kelly’s ‘Notes from the Planet’s Edge’ in her new book, City and Stranger (Five Islands Press, $16.95 pb, 88pp), whose cover features Russell Drysdale’s iconic image of Woman in a Landscape. This bushwoman, then, is stuck with interplanetary particles or, as Kelly puts it, ‘the invisible sift of space’. Drysdale’s woman is transformed from the Australian legend in the dirt-coloured smock, wearing those oddly impractical white shoes, into a figure framed by an immense and moving universe. We look for this in poetry – the breaking of frames, the pleasure of surprise and discovery, and the contest between language and experience.

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