David McCooey

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.

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John Kinsella’s new memoir, Fast, Loose Beginnings, may have been published by the august publishing house of Melbourne University Publishing, but it is nevertheless a garage-band of a book. It is, as its title signals, both fast and loose. Its rhythms aren’t always graceful, and its timbres aren’t always smooth. You can almost hear the hum of the amplifiers. The poet Jaya Savige, in his review of the book for the Sydney Morning Herald, commented on the book’s lack of polish.

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David McCooey reviews three new poetry collections

David McCooey
Friday, 20 March 2020

Peter Boyle’s Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness (Vagabond Press, $25 pb, 82 pp) is a book-length elegiac poem dedicated to his partner, the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose (1946–2018). Unlike other works lamenting the illness and loss of a spouse, Boyle’s collection largely avoids representing the day-to-day demands of suffering from (or caring for someone suffering from) an incurable disease. Instead, Boyle’s poetry sequence offers a more metaphysical approach to the uncertainty and grief that he and his partner faced.

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Artful Histories represents that extraordinary achievement – a learned critical study, based on a thesis, which is exhilarating to read. While it covers the expected ground, with careful accounts of Australian autobiographies of various types, it also addresses a core problem of current literary debate – the relative status of different literary genres, and the interrelation between writing and life. There is no mention here of The Hand That Signed The Paper or The First Stone (they are beyond the range of the discussion) but McCooey’s elucidation of the relationship between autobiography, history, fiction, and life bears directly on the issues which have kept Australian readers arguing over the past year. At the end of his chapter on autobiography and fiction, McCooey summarises the difference in a seemingly simple statement: ‘Fictional characters die fictionally, people die in actual fact.’ The implications of this are far from simple, and McCooey argues for the maintenance of the boundary between genres on the grounds of moral responsibility.

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In 1973, aged six, I heard the song ‘Rock On’ by David Essex. I was obsessed by its sound. While I couldn’t have put it into words, I half understood that the song was made sonically exciting not just through its inventive arrangement (a song about rock and roll with no guitars!) but also its production techniques, especially the use of reverb and delay to ‘stage’ the vocal and instrumental performances.

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Alan Wearne’s The Lovemakers is a book about overdoing it. Its characters have unwise love affairs, dream foolish dreams, drink too much, engage in criminal activity, amass (and lose) vast wealth, and talk incessantly (usually about themselves). Wearne’s characters usually deal with obsession and with the places you get to in life if you overdo things. Few characters in this second part of Wearne’s epic verse novel age gracefully, and some don’t get to age at all. But The Lovemakers isn’t just about over-doing it: it performs overdoing it. Wearne’s aesthetic is one of excess, of conspicuous idiosyncrasy. Part of its excessiveness and oddity is its oxymoronic status. Wearne’s books are simultaneously poetic and prosy, realistic and outré, stylistically heterogeneous and tonally homogenous.

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Having spent two decades or more writing massive verse novels – The Nightmarkets (1986) and The Lovemakers (2001, 2004) – it may seem that Alan Wearne, with his latest book of poetry, The Australian Popular Songbook, has finally returned to smaller forms and, as suggested by the title, a more lyrical idiom. But, as always with Wearne’s work, things aren’t that simple. The smaller forms were already present in the verse novels in the form of sonnets, villanelles and other verse forms buried in the sprawling architecture of the works’ narratives. The ‘lyrical idiom’ of The Australian Popular Songbook is ambiguous at best, offset as it is by Wearne’s characteristic attraction to the dramatic monologue, satire, vernacular culture and wrenched syntax.

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Jennifer Strauss reviews 'Blister Pack' by David McCooey

Jennifer Strauss
Friday, 11 October 2019

If I hesitate to declare delight in Blister Pack, David McCooey’s first volume of poetry, it may be because McCooey himself casts a shadow over the word in ‘Succadaneum’, a sequence of sardonically sad glimpses of the failed love that constitutes the theme of Part II of this collection – ‘Delight, it turns out, / is a lawyer / staying back at work / kicking off her shoes / and opening a bottle of red’, abandoning clients’ disasters to files ‘locked / in metal cabinets’.

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David McCooey reviews 'Empirical' by Lisa Gorton

David McCooey
Wednesday, 25 September 2019

In her latest collection of poems, Empirical, Lisa Gorton demonstrates – definitively and elegantly – how large, apparently simple creative decisions (employing catalogues or lists; quoting from the archive; engaging in ekphrasis or description) can produce compelling and complex poetic forms.

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David McCooey reviews 'Hoi Polloi' by Craig Sherborne

David McCooey
Friday, 07 June 2019

A laughing man, according to Flaubert, is stronger than a suffering one. But as Craig Sherborne’s extraordinary new memoir of childhood and youth shows, the distinction isn’t that simple. There is much to laugh at in Hoi Polloi, but this is also a book suffused with pain and suffering ... 

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