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Contemporary Australian poetry has a complex and ever-evolving relationship with the land, both at home and abroad. Almost twenty-five years post-Mabo and entrenched in ongoing ecological crises, Australian poets explore new ways of experiencing and defining place. Where misguided nationalism sought to limit Australian poe ...

As popular culture has long understood (hello Priscilla, hello Muriel), there is something queer about Australia. Michael Farrell’s latest collection of poems, Cocky’s Joy, rewrites Australia as a site of almost-inherent queerness. ‘Cocky’ is antipodean slang for a farmer, but the term’s evocation here is surely a camp subversion of traditional, mas ...

Jennifer Maiden’s eighteenth book of poetry bears yet another title punning on war (remember Tactics, The Problem of Evil, The Occupying Forces, The Border Loss, Acoustic Shadow, Friendly Fire). Her umbrella themes – politics, power, evil, the public and private selves, war, and the role of art – are back. The title is ...

There was something of the alchemist in Albert Namatjira. Using the most liquescent of media, he created impressions of the driest terrain. Painting in watercolour involves the fluid dispersal of pigment. Yet in Namatjira we find colours distilled in such a way that each landscape glows with a quiet intensity. This evocation of light reveals the influence of Rex Battarbee, who, long before he began to tutor his famous protégé, voiced dissatisfaction with ‘traditional methods’. He developed a painting technique of his own, specifically designed to ‘achieve luminosity’. Like many an inventor, he was cautious about sharing his discovery, in part because he believed that artists should develop on their own terms. But Namatjira was so keen an observer of his then master that he would have realised if Battarbee had withheld information. So Rex decided to teach him everything he knew, both for the sake of Namatjira, whom he clearly adored, and more generally and altruistically ‘for the sake of the Aborigines’.

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In Charles Simić’s book about Joseph Cornell’s assemblages, Dime-Store Alchemy (1992), he quotes his own translation of Croatian poet Slavko Mihalić to describe Cornell’s sculpture ‘Deserted Perch, 1949’, noting ‘the very tiny crack in which another world begins and ends’. Simićmarvels at this ‘Illusionist art ... sleight of hand’.

In the absorbing introduction to the stories in Bapo, Nicholas Jose describes bāpò as ‘an unusual kind of Chinese painting that tricks the eye into thinking it sees a collage of fragments’. Under the disguise of collection and assembly, the painter’s hand creates a trompe-l’œil of torn, burnt, pasted fragments. Jose describes his version as assemblage, and like Cornell, who reinvented discarded scraps and oddments, he finds in bāpò an ‘aesthetic of illusion and salvage, of creative retrieval’.

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Seeking perfection or ‘enlightenment’ requires a monastic devotion to the life of the spirit and a rejection of material comforts. Judith Beveridge’s writings about the young Buddha and his cousin Devadatta bring out all the intricacies and contradictions inherent in such a quest.

This new volume, Devadatta’s Poems, holds up a kind of mirror to ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’, the middle section of her book Wolf Notes (2003), which depicted Siddhārtha Gautama’s travels and contemplations before he became the Buddha. The earlier work is marked by its quiet determination, matching Siddhārtha’s, to look precisely, without wanting, and to be simply an existence among all the others.

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Since the publication of Tamarisk Row (1974), Gerald Murnane has continued to shape his own peculiar literary landscape. With The Plains (1982), he perfected the novelistic expression of his style; since then Murnane has concentrated on hybrid forms better suited to his purposes. Landscape with Landscape (1985), Velvet Waters (1990), and A History of Books (2012) are high points of this phase, but his newest fiction, A Million Windows, is in every part their equal.

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Late in his first collection of anecdotal short stories, Luke Carman’s narrator, also named Luke Carman, realises that the magic in a book he loves, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, cannot be replicated in his own life. He is stuck in Australia, and ‘Australia is not the place for ecstatic truth.’ Stuck, to be precise, in Sydney’s western suburbs, depicted as an uncultured wasteland of ‘high-rises, methadone clinics and car yards’. A complicated patchwork of ethnicities blankets this terrain: ‘Fairfield is full of Latinos’, ‘Cabra’s all about Asians’, ‘Penrith is just scumbag Aussies’, etc. It is more melting pot than multiculturalism, as Carman shows the youth leading dismal lives of depressing homogeneity. On ‘bone-grey streets spare and grim’, they drift about, squawking broken, racist language at one another, the ennui lifting only when the war cry is bawled: ‘you wanna punch on?’

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‘As if cuffed by the ear, the Colorado river pulled me onward.’ The current that seized Kate Middleton can be felt throughout Ephemeral Waters, as she takes us from the headwaters of the Colorado, through the Grand Canyon, over the Hoover Dam, until the great river, all its water plundered along the way, expires a hundred miles from the sea. The fate that the ‘mighty Murray’ has barely avoided is accepted for the Colorado, with a few crocodile tears, because all the water stays in the United States, while the dried up ex-river is in Mexico.

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‘Without an indigenous literature, people can remain alien in their own soil,’ wrote Miles Franklin, initiator of an Australian literary prize that has been awarded to just two Aboriginal writers: Kim Scott for Benang in 2000 and That Deadman Dance in 2011; and Alexis Wright for Carpentaria in 2007. Franklin, of course, didn’t mean I ...