Gig Ryan is something of a postmodern classicist, deftly balancing John Ashbery’s slippery indeterminacy and Anne Carson’s lyric innovation. She is also a complete original. It is difficult to think of another poet who has more consistently and resolutely fashioned beauty from flat, broken English ...
joanne burns has long been a force in Australian poetry. amphora, her thirteenth collection, builds on that legacy with the energy and vital idiosyncrasy with which readers have come to associate her work. The collection’s title – one of the sections of poetry – gives us a clue as to what we will find here. burns offers her reader an amphora, and thereby casts her book as a beautiful jar brimming with words and insights, stories from the past, sustenance for the present. William Carlos Williams wrote, ‘… men die miserably every day / for lack of what is found [in poems].’ Drink deeply, amphora urges us, because poetry contains the very stuff of life.
A declaration of interest is in order. I have twice appeared in the pages of HEAT. I am also in the latter stages of a doctorate, which I have been writing for the past few years under the supervision of HEAT’s editor, Ivor Indyk. Under normal circumstances, I would decline to review a new edition of the journal for these reasons. The latest edition is, however, of particular significance, for it is the last that will appear in print form. It is important to stress the qualification: Indyk has stated that he is interested in reinventing the journal in an electronic format. But it is difficult not to feel that the occasion has the sense of an ending about it. Whatever form HEAT may take in the future, its life as a printed journal, which began in 1996 and continued through two series of fifteen and twenty-four editions, respectively, is now over.
Jennifer Maiden is a great experimenter – in a specific sense. In a 2006 interview in The Age she said: ‘I have always found poetry a useful tool for tactical and ethical problem-solving … I suppose it’s a laboratory for testing out ideas.’ Maiden works from an ethical stance, but not, as some critics and readers have assumed, a facile leftist one (whatever ‘left’ means in the twenty-first century). The poems in this latest book are mainly discursive, and many address political situations, issues and, more specifically, public figures and personae.
Living as a displaced person in Berlin during the early 1930s was no picnic, especially if you happened to have a Jewish wife. This was the situation Vladimir Nabokov found himself in, so it is hardly surprising that at one point he considered emigrating to Australia. Had he done so, how different would our literature look today? Perhaps we would have more novels like Brian Castro’s latest, for The Bath Fugues is so stylish, cosmopolitan, sinister and funny that it could justly be called Nabokovian in its lineage. This is not so much a departure for Castro as an amplification. His narrators have always been a slippery bunch and his prose invariably lavish, but rarely has his tone been as darkly comic as it is in this new novel.
Kate Middleton’s accomplished first book, Fire Season, begins with ‘Autobiography’, where the child kicks against the perceived constraints and ambiguities of her sex: she could ‘make a half-decent boy’ only if the books she read were ‘full enough of war / or gunrunners, or treasure, or spies, or spoils / of piracy. No, I didn’t know how to hold a hammer.’ Middleton constructs a version of self defined by negatives: the narrator was not a ‘boy’, but does not explain why she sees ‘boy’ as the norm or as a preferred sex. Much of Fire Season explores some historical and mythical women, often in light of this shadowy definition (‘You once said // the visible and the invisible imply each other’, ‘Essay on Absence – Journal (with Judy Garland)’). In particular, Middleton invokes several movie stars – Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwyck, Doris Day, Clara Bow, Lauren Bacall, as well as Judy Garland – measuring her distance from these fabled figures, as well as investigating them as alternative lives.
The key theme of HEAT 19 is death. In 224 pages, a collection of Australian writers and academics pay homage to the departed in a range of essays, poems and short stories. The journal opens with Judith Beveridge’s moving and personal tribute to the poet Dorothy Porter. According to Beveridge, ‘Dot’ (as she was known to her friends) was a ‘consummate professional and her public performances were unfailingly polished’. However, Porter ‘also had a very fragile side, vulnerable to the pain of exclusion and rejection’. The title of Beveridge’s piece is ‘Trapper’s Way’, which is the name for a strip of land in the New South Wales suburb of Avalon where Beveridge once lived with Porter.
Self-evidently, the short story demands precision. The term ‘short story’ more than likely brings to mind the magazine-length sprint or the rapidly delivered epiphany. John Updike was a master of this demanding form. In his Olinger and Tarbox tales, characters are assembled quickly and sent to their fate with little delay. Never cursory, this was writing performed under haiku-like restraint. In the short stories of Wendy James and Tom Cho, we are presented with similarly brief and precise tales of two different Australian landscapes: one as small as a kitchen, the other as capacious as an arena. Why She Loves Him is James’s first story collection after two well-received novels. For the most part, the stories are quiet and domestic affairs. Her characters are frequently repressed and restrained, filled with rage that is rarely given voice. If the short fiction of some novelists feels too constrained, James’s evocation of despair is perfectly suited to these short bursts.
Faced with the publication of her first novel, the narrator of Stepping Out has a terrifying thought. ‘I was about to be unmasked,’ she realises. ‘End of my double life. Everyone was about to dip into my world and find out what was really cooking there ... I felt like I’d placed a bomb and was waiting, under cover, for it to explode.’
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.