Australian Poetry

It is disconcerting how the author of seven poetry collections can ambush the normally attentive reader of Australian poetry with such a forceful body of work as David Musgrave’s Selected Poems, which runs to more than two hundred pages. Musgrave’s individual collections have appeared with various publishers over the years since To Thalia back in 2004, but insufficient attention has been paid to them.

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Endings & Spacings by Pam Brown & >>> & || (accelerations and inertias) by Dan Disney

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January–February 2022, no. 439

‘Endings & Spacings’ opens with a confession: after several decades of ‘making connections / through strings of words’, Pam Brown is no closer to answering the question, ‘what does a poet / do’? In interviews, Brown tends to describe writing poetry as a kind of ‘benign compulsion’, an engagement with the world that must be critical to be interesting but that ‘can’t answer questions any better than anything else’, as she asserted in Meanjin in 2001 and has resolutely maintained ever since. In her latest collection, Endings & Spacings, even this benign compulsion – ‘dwindling now’ – comes under threat, its benignity troubled by the resemblance between arranging lines on the page and the curation of fragments in a virtual ‘museum / of imperial plunder’.

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Dropbear by Evelyn Araluen & TAKE CARE by Eunice Andrada

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November 2021, no. 437

There is a moment of reflexivity in Evelyn Araluen’s diary poem ‘Breath’, in which the poet, thousands of kilometres away, follows news reports of bushfires ravaging Australia, including the Dharug Country where she grew up. ‘I’ve started a book which seeks to tease the icons of Australiana that have been so volatile to this country. They, too, are burning,’ she writes. Several reviewers have focused on this dimension of Araluen’s début. Dropbear contains many poems that excoriate the tropes of colonial literary kitsch. This genre takes native vegetation and wildlife, and Aboriginal people, and transforms them into the cute, the twee, or the fearsome. Dropbear responds to May Gibbs’s Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Dorothy Wall’s Blinky Bill and Nutsy, D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, and Banjo Paterson’s poems and diaries, among other texts and films. In a scholarly essay (2019) that addresses the legacy of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Araluen has argued that we still underestimate ‘literature’s power to operate as a force of imperialism’. For the Bundjalung poet and academic, the personal in poetry is inseparable from the political – as well as from the historical and the literary-historical.

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Capacity by LK Holt & Theory of Colours by Bella Li

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November 2021, no. 437

These days, poetry is primarily a visual experience. So claims the American poet and theorist Cole Swensen, whose essay ‘To Writewithize’ argues for a new definition of ekphrasis. Traditionally understood to be writing about visual art, ekphrasis typically has a poet stand across from a painting or sculpture, in a kind of face-off, and write about it. To ‘writewithize’, however, is to take a different approach: this is not writing made about art but made with it. This is writing that, in Swensen’s words, ‘lives with the work and its disturbances’. Two new Vagabond releases by Bella Li and LK Holt are doing ekphrastic and intertextual work that is exquisitely disturbing. These are moody books of allusion and visual play by two of Melbourne’s most brilliant poets.

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Good poetry uncovers the secret in the manifest, and the manifest in the secret. Three new collections throw this paradox into vibrant, unsettling relief. Each book deserves a broad readership. Each beats back the lethargic thinking that has invaded society under the cover of the pandemic.

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I was surprised by the title of Melbourne-based Anne Elvey’s recent collection, Obligations of Voice (Recent Work Press, $19.95 pb, 89 pp). Though quite a mouthful, it’s bravely deliberate; Elvey wants you to slowly voice and feel the syllables. Several poems centre on the mouth or lips for political, theological, even surrealist ends. The poem ‘Afternoon Tea, Seaford Beach Café’ begins with the line ‘A woman stands’. Floating in the right margin is the phrase ‘at the back of a throat’. These fragments coalesce to describe the woman’s mouth or the mouth she’s lodged in. Breathing and ‘charcoal’ gums are collaged with the ‘Dark // corrugations’ and the landscape of the sea. The last line surprises by changing tack: ‘A skiff // bounces on a swell.’ This clipped linguistic dexterity, with a flash of painterly movement, characterises Elvey’s nuance and facility.

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To those who have followed Alex Skovron’s poetry since The Rearrangement (1988), it’s not a surprise to learn that he has been the general editor of an encyclopedia, a book editor, a lover of classical music and chess, an occasional translator of Dante and Borges, and the author of six well-spaced poetry collections, a stylish novella, and a collection of short stories. He can often seem the very embodiment of the European/Jewish/Melburnian intellectual (despite an adolescence spent in Sydney).

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In the epigraph to this collection, a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre on Edmund Husserl suggests that we are entering a poetic that challenges the possibility of conscious knowledge; consciousness is itself a maelstrom that extrudes the intruder and has ‘no inside’. What follows is both a refutation and embracement of this assertion in chatoyant language that is as thoughtful and melodic as it is powerful. The reader is obliged to work hard to navigate the narrative, and I have rarely read poetry where the search for meaning has been felt so deeply.

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What We Carry: Poetry on childbearing edited by Ella Kurz, Simone King, and Claire Delahunty

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September 2021, no. 435

On her explosive, feminist début album Dry (1992), a young P.J. Harvey sang ‘Look at these my childbearing hips’, proudly proclaiming women’s strength and physicality. The word ‘childbearing’ conjures strong feelings and images for many of us – whether of childbirth, sleep deprivation, devotion, or a whole new way of life. It signifies much more than childbirth itself and is a fitting choice for the subtitle of this anthology, Poetry on childbearing. This emotionally powerful collection covers an expansive range of experiences: infertility, conception, pregnancy, birth, and life with a baby (or not).

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The Gleaner Song by by Song Lin, translated by Dong Li & Vociferate | 詠 by Emily Sun

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September 2021, no. 435

The Chinese poet is so often a wanderer and an exile. The tradition goes back to Qu Yuan (c.340–278 BCE), author of ‘Encountering Sorrow’, the honest official who was banished from court and drowned himself in a river, and it continues to our time. During the Sino–Japanese war (1937–45) a group of patriotic early Chinese modernists were displaced from their Beijing universities to an improvised campus in the south-west, where they read avant-garde Western poetry.

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