It is fitting that ‘Waking’, a poem that links waking with birth, opens this inspired début collection from Emma Jones: ‘There was one morning // when my mother woke and felt a twitch / inside, like the shifting of curtains. // She woke and so did I.’ So the narrator-poet announces her arrival. The birthing theme continues in the next poem, ‘Farming’, in which pearls are ‘shucked from the heart of their grey mothers’. The same poem also foregrounds the poet’s interest in Ballard-like submerged worlds – oyster farms and shipwrecks, but also entire cities – and in the polarities of sky and sea. Indeed, this collection as a whole engages imaginatively with many dualisms: worldly/other worldly, internal/external, being/not being, self/other. Jones’s method is one of controlled playfulness, and despite many allusions to biblical themes and imagery, she avoids the didactic dualism of good/evil.
‘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.
Despite the deadly title, this anthology of twenty-eight poems from the 2008 Newcastle Poetry Prize is replete with gems. Assembled from 423 entries by judges Jan Owen, Philip Salom, and Richard Tipping – effectively the anthology’s editors – it is a brilliant sampler that few anthologies can match for the legroom offered to the longer poem and poetry sequence.
Peter Skrzynecki’s substantial Old/New World comprises selected work from his eight previous collections plus a new collection. From it we could extract his autobiography. We find the youthful son of Polish migrants; his growing awareness of his migrant ‘otherness’; his employment as a teacher in New England; the birth of his first child; the ageing and death of his parents; his passage through middle age and growing sense of his own mortality. Halfway through, ‘Letters from New England’ posits the poet as ‘the stranger from Europe’ – a surrogate title for this often moving compilation. Skrzynecki’s Polish parents came to Australia from Germany in 1949, and exile, for their four-year-old son, would be a recurring theme.
Dominique Hecq and Brian Edwards are well versed in the contingencies of language, roaming in their poetry between experimentation and high tradition – at least in terms of content, if not so much in form. Both target the self-reflexive play of language early in their latest collections: Hecq in her title poem, with ‘words spreading / like couchgrass after summer rains / on my tongue’; Edwards even more demonstrably in ‘Reading Althusser on Marx’, where ‘Standing between objects and meanings / the language: there are only partial truths’.
The American poet William Carlos Williams often admitted how much he owed to the ‘little magazines’ that first published him. As they lapsed in and out of existence, he regarded them all as essentially the one publication and was grateful for the lifeblood they gave his (at first unpopular) writing. It is to be hoped that Australian literary magazines of various political shades and aesthetic proclivities, from Quadrant to Overland, are doing something similar. Indeed, when so much else is in flux in the publishing world, it is amazing how enduring Australia’s top literary magazines have been, despite their often small subscription lists. Even Island magazine, which is something of a junior compared to Meanjin, Southerly, and Westerly, has been around for twenty-seven years. Space: New Writing, on the other hand, has just appeared in its third number. To judge from the best material in the current issues of both magazines, Australian literary culture is not being ill-served here. If not everything is of equal interest (how could it be?), there is plenty of satisfaction to be had in both.