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Poems

Andrew Sant is a substantial yet somewhat elusive figure in contemporary Australian poetry. Born in London, he arrived in Melbourne with his parents at age twelve in 1962. Over the years, he has published at least eleven collections, co-founded the literary magazine Island, and been, for a time, a member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. More recently, Sant has lived and worked in the United Kingdom, but he clearly retains links with Australia, particularly Tasmania, where he first became known as a poet. 

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Too often poetry is valued as if it were prose, exclusively by virtue of its subject matter. Such discussions miss the poetry itself, which my wife calls ‘the speech that brings us to silence’, a kind of accuracy beggaring what we say about it. Simon West is a poet who understands this distinction. His essays collected in Dear Muses? (2019) explore ‘the uneasy way my allegiances lie with my language as much as they do with the places in which I dwell’. He knows how complicated such terms as language and place must be, so his landscapes – particularly riverine Victoria and Italy – never seem limitations. ‘The task of the poet is to scrutinize the actual world.’ I read him for the pleasures of both world and word.

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Read the five shortlisted poems for ABR's 2024 Peter Porter Poetry Prize.

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Chinese poetry has long been lost in translation. You only have to look at a line in an ancient Chinese poem and its inscrutability is plain to see: four or five characters across the page, each with several venerable meanings and without markers of tense, speaker, conjunctions or prepositions. Every translator becomes an adventurer, one who can only haul the poem onto the shores of difference.

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Judith Beveridge is one of the most brilliant image-makers in Australian poetry. She writes of rain ‘bubble-wrapping the windows’ and yachts making a sound ‘as if cutlery were being replenished on table tops’. Her images, exuberant and fantastical, hold a balance between the real and the imagined world – as Gwen Harwood’s poem, ‘Thought Is Surrounded by a Halo’, closes: ‘Picture two lovers side by side / who sleep and dream and wake to hold / the real and the imagined world, / body by body, word by word …’

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Reviewing Martin Langford’s Harbour City Poems in the November 2009 issue of ABR, I remarked on the absence from the anthology of new young voices. This is a criticism that cannot be made of Robert Adamson’s selection for this year’s Black Inc. Best Australian Poems. Adamson, distinguished poet and Hawkesbury fisherman, has cast a very wide net, departing from the practice among recent editors of this fine series by including unpublished poems; some of these are from established poets, but several are from new and usually young writers whose work bears witness, in the editor’s words, to ‘the power of the incoming tide’. Thankfully, the days have gone when blokes who wrote poems selected their mates’ work when they came to edit anthologies. Adamson didn’t set out to redress any perceived gender imbalances, but more than half of his selection consists of work written by women; this has been ‘the year of the women poets’, as he says.

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‘Sydney in verse’: this anthology, arranged chronologically, presents the country’s oldest European settlement in a variety of guises – from place of exile (‘Botany Bay’) to site resistant to the colonising discourses of English Romanticism (W.C. Wentworth, Charles Harpur) to new city viewed through the lenses of symbolism (Christopher Brennan) and modernism (Kenneth Slessor), and from there to the locus of the universal, crossnational themes of joy, suffering and loss.

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Apples with Human Skin is a collection of taut but detached poems. Well crafted, with superb use of diction coupled with tight and inventive forms, the poems remain, however, unrelated to anything in modern-day usage or consciousness. There is a coolness to the writing which can become relentless. Imagery and line structure are evocative and precise, and Shepherdson successfully invents a minimalist syntax in each of the longer chaptered poems. There are also shards of social comment hidden amongst the granite-like structures.

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The Bee Hut by Dorothy Porter

by
October 2009, no. 315

The Bee Hut, Dorothy Porter’s fifteenth book, is a collection of poems written between 2004 and her death in December 2009. Many poems address mortality: ‘nothing lasts / not Forster. not Cavafy’s eloquent doomed mediocrities. not you.’ Another important motif is travel and how it affects the traveller. There are two almost contrary themes in the travel poems: the recurring image of the artist as vulture or vampire, destroying what feeds it; and the stately museum or gallery preserving the past intact: ‘I hold in my hand / the greedy, bleeding / pen / that has always / gorged itself’ (‘Blackberries’); ‘Each new ghost in my life / living and dead / smells of mulch’ (‘Vampire’).

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This accessible new anthology collects the work of 125 women poets writing on the theme of motherhood. As well as having general appeal, it will introduce younger female readers of poetry to topics close to their own bodily, emotional futures.

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