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Robert Gray

According to his author’s note, Rain Towards Morning is ‘a definitive book’ of the poems Robert Gray wishes to preserve. Nameless Earth (Carcanet, 2006) is the most generously represented of Gray’s previous eight books. This is followed by his mid-career volume Piano (1988) in which he first began to publish a range of poetry with tight rhyme schemes and controlled rhythms. More than a third of the poems Gray has chosen for Rain Towards Morning are these formal or semi-formal compositions, indicating that he wishes to showcase this aspect of his work. Fewer poems have been chosen from his free verse books Grass Script (1978), The Skylight (1983) and Afterimages (2002), arguably his best books.

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Robert Gray’s new book continues the style of his previous one, Lineations, by interspersing poems with drawings: there are three panels of six drawings each, spaced throughout the book. It also contains a long meditation on things and thinginess, reality, consciousness (and all stops between) called ‘The Drift of Things’ ... ... (read more)

Cumulus describes itself as a ‘Collected Poems’, and though it isn’t quite that – far too many good poems from the earlier volumes have been omitted – there is a strong sense of cumulation and self-evaluation about it: it is a lot more than a set of copied contents pages sent to a publisher. And it is satisfying that the result, thanks to the high design standards of John Leonard Press, is physically the most attractive of Gray’s books.

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Australian Poetry since 1788 edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray

December 2011–January 2012, no. 337

Stumbling round the house absent-mindedly or in the off-hours, I wonder where the economy-sized fish tank came from; or the dictionary of some unexpectedly eloquent Oceanian language; or the errant slab of copper sulphate (did some friend or enemy leave it?). Then I remember that it’s the new Australian poetry anthology I am reviewing, the thick end of 1100 large pages – is it the format called royal? or republican?! – and I am in for another round of sleeplessness. It is even possible that, in the United States, I have read and written about the book mostly on Australian time.

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With 1086 pages of poems and critical biographies, Australian Poetry Since 1788 – the third anthology co-edited by Robert Gray and myself – is by far the largest anthology of Australian poetry to date, and at least twice the size of its predecessors. Perhaps controversially, it has fewer poets than many earlier anthologies, with only 174 named poets. But it covers the gamut of Australian poetry, including convict and bush ballads, translations of Aboriginal songs, humorous verse, concrete poetry, and generous selections of Australia’s major poets and of the younger contemporary poets. We have tried to be catholic, rigorous, and objective, while listening carefully (with our very subjective ears) to the many different voices from which we had to choose.

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As a poet Robert Gray is a magical storyteller. His first poetry collection, Creekwater Journal (1974), marked out his key territory of interest: the small towns, rural communities, landscapes, and people of the New South Wales north coast. Although he has travelled widely and written about other cultures, cities, and characters, his poetry’s richness is still tethered to the textures, talk, and rhythms of his country town childhood. His word pictures immediately transport the reader to another place. The idea that ‘eucalypts are the blue of husky voices’ or the recognition of a long jetty and ‘a few gull­molested fishing boats’ are the images of a beguiling writer.

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