Australian Poetry

‘Academic poet’ signifies, primarily, male academic poet. So, does the adjective ‘female’ in ‘female academic poet’ more intensely qualify ‘academic’ or ‘poet’? And what happens when that female academic poet is a teacher and student of feminist theory and women’s writing? Predictably enough, her work tempts the taboo-laden conjunction of politics and poetry.

It must be said that the poems in Tierra def Fuego, the new and selected poems of Jennifer Strauss, exhibit little anxiety about either of these issues: the role of women in academia or the threat politics might offer to the lyric, Strauss’ poetic home base. The trademarks of the academic poet have an established place in Strauss’ work: the new poem ‘Life 301 – Birthday Tutorial’, for example, picks up a theme from ‘Life 101 – Lecture’ from her first collection, Children and Other Strangers, of 1975, using the classroom as a metaphor for other kinds of learning.

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It’s been four years since Fay Zwicky’s Selected Poems 1970–1992 was published by the University of Queensland Press in their long-running poetry series with the infamous pencil portrait covers. The Gatekeeper’s Wife is one of two books in a poetry series by a relatively new publisher. The design is reminiscent of the wonderful Cape Editions edited by Nathaniel Tarn in the sixties. Brandl & Schlesinger have established this series with Fay Zwicky and Rhyll McMaster, two of this country’s major poets. They have done well by them with these fine looking books.

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It is a truism that poets don’t need to write their autobiography. Roland Barthes, with his ‘death of the author’, may have thought otherwise but in Barbara Giles’ new book, Poems: Seven Ages, published in her eighty-seventh year, there is no mistaking the autobiographical core.

Though neither the title nor the blurb suggests it, Poems: Seven Ages is really a ‘selected’. Giles has gone back over her four earlier books, chosen what she (or perhaps her editor, Judith Rodriguez) thinks are the best poems and arranged them in chronological order according to subject, rather than date of composition or publication. Thus we have sections corresponding with her childhood in England, her earlier married life, her mid-life preoccupations, and the poems on women’s ageing from which she has been most anthologised.

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Broken Land is a collection of twelve poetic sequences which record five days spent in the small outback New South Wales town of Brewarrina (the Bre of the title). It’s a drama, almost operatic in complexity and intensity, in which the central players are Dad, a Bre man who lives in solitary retirement and ‘doesn’t own much, but he likes it that way, he likes to make do, doesn’t want a new heater or a mattress, just wants to listen to the radio, roll a smoke and check on lotto …’, and Coral, the stranger in town:

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The introduction to this collection(Horns of Dilemma, Papyrus Publishing, $14.95 pb, 108 pp), and the poems themselves, make it clear that Helene Brophy is a woman of much compassion and experience in the humane realms of feminism, teaching and social work, as well as in the more personal spheres of serious injury, illness and death.

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Every so often you come across a book of poetry which is just plain friendly, a book without tensions or terrors or angst to seize you – but which is consistently good poetry throughout. Seeing Things is such a book. It is so accessible in its straightforward diction and low-key tone that reading it is to feel very much spoken to, acknowledged. This is not a poetry foregrounding language or form so much as a series of poems which almost coalesce during reading into an intimate reportage of the quotidian. Intimate in the sense of almost being there, sharing the observations. It is language as transparency. From ‘Painting Session’ referring to the poet’s two-year-old daughter:

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This is Caroline Caddy’s sixth collection of poetry. It comes to us after her well-received Antarctica, which the publicists mention in terms of her interest in ‘hinterlands and extreme land­scapes’. Working Temple is not so much about that, it seems to me, as the sensual encounter one might have with exotic puzzles and puzzlement. It is a collection that almost advances a notion of experience as a temple within which the signs of that experience are worked and worked again.

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In Tracy Ryan’s poems there are no safe houses, the walls of domesticity keep falling in and she is the clear-eyed tightrope walker negotiating a perilous foothold. Her lines zigzag across the page:

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Mortal Divide is an anti-oedipal odyssey, Joycean roman à clef, migrant memoir, and Orphic mini-epic. Nemerov’s self-reflexive Journal of a Fictive Life is one of its inspirations. George (Yiorgos) is a first-generation Greek translator working at the Multicultural Broadcasting Service. Victim of the media machine, he begins to hear and see things that aren’t ‘real’, including his spectral double Yiorgos Alexandroglou, and plunges videoleptically into dreams whenever he closes his eyes.

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Salt: Volume 10 edited by John Kinsella

by
September 1997, no. 194

When a poet reviews a poetry magazine, it can be like walking out over a virtual minefield. I have a few more books to write before they take me out, so let me say straight away, I come in peace. These are cynical times, so maybe nobody will be taken in by this tone. After all, Salt is published and edited by John Kinsella, a highly successful poet who has established himself in record time. Let’s face it, this is poetry as strategy. As Hilary McPhee pointed out, the literary community in this country can be particularly vicious, and if anyone tries to hose that down they are having themselves on – the response McPhee got in relation to what she actually said proves the point really. It doesn’t have to be bland and polite though. There has been a lot of talk about the careerist approach to poetry lately. Ramona Koval noted at the first National Poetry Festival in Melbourne recently that some American poets have taken on this ‘professionalisation’ of poetry even down to their ‘Brooks Brothers suits and leather satchels’. Fay Zwicky replied, ‘I think careerism in poetry is contrary to how a poem comes into existence in the first place.’

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