Angus and Robertson

If any volume of Selected Poems must be in part the autobiography of an imagination, it is subject to the vicissitudes and ironies which attend all autobiography. One gazes at it and finds familiar lineaments, but one also finds mobilities and stands made more evident than a more partial acquaintance can show. The very title is a warning that the whole story –whatever that might be – is not to be found here: a ‘Selected Poems’ is the outcome of recurrent options.

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At seventy-one Judah Waten is not just another old soldier who refuses to fade away. Nor is he a man who keeps writing books out of habit. He is a born storyteller who writes when he has something to tell us. And the more he writes, the more powerful and persuasive his fictions become.

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One of the challenges confronting the writer of poetry is the balancing of public and private modes in an engaging and satisfactory whole. In these three collections the precarious possibilities of balance, of confiding and confronting, are attempted in very different ways.

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In a way, two words suffice for Plumb. Read it. It would be fair to add, ‘Make yourself read it.’ The inexorable, old man’s voice of its narrator George Plumb may irritate you, but before long you will respect his unrelenting and unsparing honesty with himself and his memories, and you will realise that everything he says has its place in this splendidly fashioned novel. At the end, he writes: ‘I thought, I’m ready to die, or live, or understand, or love, or whatever it is. I’m glad of the good I’ve done, and sorry about the bad.’

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The task of reading these three books together provided more than I was anticipating. Their perspectives of decades of Australian society and writing practices cover the past, the personal and the politics. The writers come from three different generations (born 1903, 1923, 1940), and represent particular writing intentions or schools, certainly different genres. The connecting thread, probably the only one, is that each of the books is written form such a particularised stance. Each is written in the first person, and flirts to varying degrees with the confessional mode. The tensions between restraint and letting it all hang out, what gets said and what comes out in the not-saying, interested me.

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The reasons for rhyme, and the rhyme of his reasons, can be found in the prose work in the pieces ‘Poems and Poesies’ and ‘Poemes and the Mystery of the Embodiment’, the general underpinnings of which are outlined in ‘Embodiment and Incarnation’. He argues that art is a product of a trinity: the forebrain (the seat of waking reason), the limbic reptilian brain (the dream) and the body (the dance of ecstasy). God can reach us through all three, and poetry is a uniquely placed art which exploits all of these areas. Any deep integration of the three is a poem. Hence a theology (Christianity), an ideology (Marxism), or a breath-taking design (Porsche cars) can be a poem. Using the analogy from phoneme, Murray calls this large unit a ‘poeme’. ‘Poem’ he reserves for its traditional meaning, arguing that a poem is the most perfect and integrated art-form there is.

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Bobbie Kaye Gledhill reviews 'Nero’s Poems' by Geoffrey Lehmann

Bobbie Kaye Gledhill
Thursday, 03 September 2020

What a delight it is to read a collection of contemporary poetry which is not only good but entertaining and capable of arousing emotions – and the delight is intensified because the experience is so rare. Most Australian poets that I have read recently seem to think that the exercise of writing, for example ‘happy days / lost in lust’ justifies them in putting ‘poet’ instead of ‘esq.’ after their names. Geoffrey Lehmann is not one of these. On the strength of his recent book, Nero’s Poems: Translations of the Public and Private Poems of the Emperor Nero, published by Angus and Robertson, it can be seen that Mr Lehmann justly deserves the title ‘poet’, even though, for the duration of the book, we are asked to suspend our belief and attribute the poems to the Emperor Nero himself.

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Exiles at Home is a fascinating work by a feminist of the 1970s about a group of anti-fascist feminists of the 1920s and 1930s. From it we learn as much about the world view of the author as we do about the politics of its subjects. A serious book, about serious writers, it examines novels for their historical rather than for their literary interest. It offers no real criticism of writing styles, and no comparison with modem feminist authors. Nor is it a book to be read in the hope of rediscovering almost forgotten characters from our literary past.

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What is more common than the indicative mood, and what is more uncommon than the way Les Murray uses it? His Christian finger ‘scratches the other cheek’ (‘The Quality of Sprawl’) but more often points out tracks seen from the air, but invisible on the ground: a hibiscus becomes ‘the kleenex flower’ (‘A Retrospect of Humidity’); the shower an ‘inverse bidet,/ sleek vertical coruscating ghost of your inner river’ (‘Shower’); a north-coast punt ‘just a length of country road / afloat between two shores’ (‘Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman’). You see it in his use of the demonstrative pronoun – ‘this blast of trance’ (‘Shower’); the definite article – The man imposing spring here swats with his branch controlling it’(‘The Grassfire Stanzas’)’; the deictic use of ‘I’ and ‘we’ to get his readers looking in the same direction as he points out where we are and where we’ve come from – ‘So we’re sitting over our sick beloved engine / atop a great building of the double century / on the summit that exhilarates cars, the concrete vault on its thousands / of tonnes of height, far above the tidal turnaround’ (‘Fuel Stoppage on Gladesville Road Bridge in the Year 1980’).

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It is 116 years since Charles Harpur, Australia’s first poet of real eminence, died with his own collection of his works unpublished. Except for a couple of small selections – the most recent of which, made by Adrian Mitchell in 1973 and containing only about 120 pages of the poetry, was the most comprehensive – and the infamously corrupt 1883 ‘collection’, it has remained so. This has been a blot on the reputation of Australian critical and academic workers and a loss not only to Australian literature but to Australian history. Now Elizabeth Perkins, of the English Department of James Cook University, has handsomely remedied a long injustice.

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