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Chris Wallace Crabbe

To celebrate the best books of 2005 Australian Book Review invited contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Morag Fraser, Peter Porter, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Nicholas Jose and Chris Wallace-Crabbe.

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Being from a young nation you find that dawn beguiles you

onto the exhausted saltmarsh,

miles of morose vacuity clad

in couch grass, cottonweed, random puddles, wire

and the odd, triumphant

                     flourish of pampas grass

featherily trying to tell dead factories,

                               Look here,

something fans, even at the far edge of Europe

where large gulls crowd and abruptly dip, although

the fish have all gone home to bed.

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Imagining Australia collects nineteen essays from a 2002 conference on Australian literature and culture at Harvard University. Of course, as the proceedings of a conference, it is on occasion hard work. There is something about conferences – the dedication of their audiences, perhaps, or the vulnerability of their speakers – that encourages a somewhat defensive formality. That said, almost every essay in this collection repays a reader’s investment with interest: in describing the history of Australian literary journals; offering a new direction for Australian pastoral poetry; providing surprising perspectives on popular Australian myths; or looking at how contemporary poets use form.

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To celebrate the best books of 2004 Australian Book Review invited contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors included Dennis Altman, Brenda Niall, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Morag Fraser and Chris Wallace-Crabbe.

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The word ‘collected’ on a book of poems has its embedded dangers. Collected Poems are like autobiographies: they encourage readers to confuse them with the writer’s flow of life. And we can all see what’s wrong with that, I hope. That cagey old player, W.H. Auden, issued this injunction:

Great writers who have shown mankind
An order it has yet to find,
What if all critics say of you
As personalities be true?
You had the patience that survives
Soiled, shabby, egotistic lives …

He also refused to write an autobiography.

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Greenly, intensely, oddly
It is the day you wake up walking in
A scape you wandered bluntly through
Several hundred dreams ago
                                       or so:

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Art is a strange posing of discoveries, a display of what was no more possible. For it is the task of the creative artist to come up with ideas which are ours, but which we haven’t thought yet. In some cases, it is also the artist’s role to slice Australia open and show it bizarrely different, quite new in its antiquity.

Half a century ago, Sidney Nolan did just this with his desert paintings and those of drought animal carcasses. I recall seeing some of these at the Peter Bray Gallery in 1953 and being bewildered by their aridity: a cruel dryness which made the familiar Ned Kelly paintings seem quite pastoral. Nor could I get a grip on his Durack Range, which the NGV had bought three years earlier. Its lack of human signs affronted my responses.

The furthest our littoral imaginations had gone toward what used to be called the Dead Heart was then to be found in Russell Drysdale’s inland New South Wales, Hans Heysen’s Flinders Ranges, and Albert Namatjira’s delicately picturesque MacDonnells. Nolan’s own vision was vastly different: different and vast. It offered new meanings and posed big new questions.

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The Underside of the fish is just as tasty as its upper flanks. Life is also like that. And leadership is not just a matter of will, power and grandeur not just like A.D Hope’s image of such power when he writes in ‘Pyramis’:

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By and Large by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

September 2001, no. 234

Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s new book, By and Large, is, despite its hundred pages, a thinner book than most of his recent volumes. The familiar features are there: a baroque and intense intellectual ambit combined with playfulness; a deep love of the sharp ‘thinginess’ of the world combined with a love of the expressiveness of the words we use to contain it; and, last but far from least, enjoyable phrasemaking. It is just that, in By and Large, the reader’s pleasure seems more attenuated.

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Peter Goldsworthy, doctor and poet, is a writer of significant style and concision. This new selection of his lyric poetry lives up to its jaunty, graffitied, lavender cover; it bespeaks lightness. And lightness is damned hard work. You don’t get there just by smiling and going to book launches ...

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