Australian Poetry

Umberto Eco once described the text as a ‘lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work’; to contribute, in other words, to the production of meaning. Poetry has a particular reputation for being demanding, but Tracy Ryan’s tenth poetry collection, Rose Interior, isn’t challenging in the way that Eco envisages. It is less about engaging readers in the masculinist energy of the ‘machine’ and ‘work’ than about inviting them into a feminine world of domestic spaces and quotidian phenomena ...

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Ann-Marie Priest’s My Tongue Is My Own, published by La Trobe University Press and reviewed in our June issue, is the first authorised biography of the Australian poet Gwen Harwood (1920–1995). Unsurprisingly, this was not the first attempt to record the life of one of Australia’s most loved and admired poets. In an exclusive feature for ABR, John Harwood reflects on the conflicting motives behind his literary executorship of his mother’s estate – an estate holding the secrets to an at-times fractious marriage between two opposing temperaments.

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Acanthus by Claire Potter & Glass Flowers by Diane Fahey

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June 2022, no. 443

Virginia Woolf, in her seminal essay on modern fiction (1919), might have been describing Claire Potter’s method in her fabulous and highly original new collection: Acanthus.  These poems seem to break apart consciousness before it becomes encoded, crystalised, as syntax. As a consequence, they have an uncanny and richly compelling ability to lead you away from the dimension in which you think you have entered the poem, in its opening lines, into something entirely different by the time you have reached the end. Somewhere between the beginning and the end something can be depended on to have shifted – mood, pace, imaginative compass bearing, subject plane.

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The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt

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June 2022, no. 443

I first encountered Sarah Holland-Batt’s poem ‘The Gift’ in The New Yorker. It begins, ‘In the garden my father sits in his wheelchair / garlanded by summer hibiscus / like a saint in a seventeenth-century cartouche’ – an unremarkable opening, I thought, to a poem of personal anecdote, a genre too ubiquitous among our contemporaries. Rereading the poem in the context of her third collection, The Jaguar, I became acclimated to her style and manner, and admired the alertness of its verbal performance. If the new book remains a personal memoir, narrating the devastating illness and death of her father, it is also charged throughout with a strong writer’s intelligence and vulnerability. ‘I will carry the gift of his death endlessly,’ she writes, ‘every day I will know it opening in me.’

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Running time by Emily Stewart & Inheritance by Nellie Le Beau

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June 2022, no. 443

The lyric subject, literature’s most intimate ‘I’, has vexed critics for centuries. Is it the poet? Is it a fiction, a device? Or is the relation between author and speaker, as Jonathan Culler suggests, ‘indeterminate’, such that ‘any model … that attempts to fix or prescribe that relationship will be inadequate’? Two new award-winning Australian poetry collections offer fine-grained considerations of personhood and the poem’s capacity to represent it.

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Since his first collection, Letter to Marco Polo (1985), Adam Aitken has been at the forefront of the diversification of Australian poetry as it moved, slowly but irreversibly, to incorporate multicultural and transnational voices. Aitken has always been a world citizen. He was born in London in 1960 to an Anglo-Australian father and Thai mother, with his childhood thereafter spent between the United Kingdom, Thailand, Malaysia, and Australia. As a young man, he attended Sydney University and embarked upon a long career as a poet, editor, and teacher which was recently recognised with the 2021 Patrick White Award.

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The reader of Stasis Shuffle is immediately confronted with the collection’s naming convention. Titles of poems and sections are parenthesised, for example, ‘(best before)’, ‘(weevils)’, ‘(& then). More than simple stylisation, this convention suggests that every poem is a fragment, a meander through consciousness. The first poem, ‘(best before)’, begins ‘liberated / from the drudgery / of usefulness’, a quote from Walter Benjamin. From there, Stasis Shuffle wanders flâneur-style through language, politics, and many different kinds of plant life. The central arc of Stasis Shuffle, however, is its self-consciousness about subjectivity and process. ‘(best before)’ asks ‘is your slowly accreting poem / morphing into a larger cloud yet’? As the collection unfolds, poems begin to comment on themselves and the writing process.

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J.S. Harry and her lapin alter ego, Peter Henry Lepus, would assuredly have had ‘words to say’ about the war in Ukraine and its manufacture by a group of human beings. Peter, a Wittgensteinian, would have pondered hard the nature of the war ‘games’ that preceded use of arms: games in which each ‘move’ was a crafted piece of language and (dis)information, known as ‘intelligence’ or ‘diplomacy’, but where the ‘endgame’ and ‘stakes’ would involve the disposition of human flesh and blood. ‘The dead do not have a world ... / A human’s world is language: “logic” & “words”, Peter thinks’ (‘After the Fall of Baghdad’).

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Ken by Anthony Lawrence & Aflame by Subhash Jaireth

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April 2022, no. 441

Australia has a stylish new poetry press. The two books reviewed here by Life Before Man, the poetry wing of Gazebo Books, preference book cover art and poem above all the usual paraphernalia: publishing details, barcodes, author notes – even the epigraph – are tucked into a back page, and there are no apparently distracting contents pages or page numbers. Most of the poems sit neatly on the right side of the page with a private blank beige page buffer. There’s orientation in a contents list, and I trust the poets have a choice about whether they want one. That said, there’s a holiday-like liberation in slipping through unmoored. It’s a subtle reading experience, but do these aesthetic somewhat precious innovations justify the use of extra paper?

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In the Room with the She Wolf by Jelena Dinić & Beneath the Tree Line by Jane Gibian

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April 2022, no. 441

In an impressive first collection, the South Australian poet Jelena Dinić incorporates her Serbian heritage and memories of war-affected Yugoslavia into an Australian migration narrative of clear-sighted beauty. William Carlos Williams wrote in the introduction to Kora In Hell: Improvisations (1920): ‘Thus a poem is tough … solely from that attenuated power which draws perhaps many broken things into a dance giving them thus a full being.’ Although far from improvisational, Dinić’s poetry compositionally integrates both fragility and strength as it draws together diverse experiences of war trauma, cultural displacement, the petty administrative routines of immigration departments, a Malaysian writing fellowship, Australian icons (such as the rainwater tank), folklore, and bathing in the Adriatic Sea.

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