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 ...
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.
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.
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’).
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.
‘Wasn’t sexual expression a principal motivation of gay and queer dancefloors … Isn’t that the freedom we were fighting for? To be kinky dirty fuckers, without shame; to not sanitise ourselves in the bid for equality?’ So exhorts DJ Lanny K in 2013, reflecting on his time spinning discs at down-and-out pubs in ungentrified Surry Hills in the mid-1990s as part of Sydney’s fomenting queer subculture. Lanny K, Sydney-based Canadian immigrant, is one of a handful of artists – performance artists, dancers, even a tattooist – interviewed by Fiona McGregor in her collection of essays Buried Not Dead. Mostly written between 2013 and 2020, each essay is based on a rolling interview with an artist and draws out their recollections of early practices and careers, several united by reference to a specific time and place – Sydney’s emergent gay scene in the mid-1990s.
No contemporary Australian writer has higher claims to immortality than Gerald Murnane and none exhibits narrower tonal range. It’s a long time since we encountered the boy with his marbles and his liturgical colours in some Bendigo of the mind’s dreaming in TamariskRow (1974). There was the girl who was the embodiment of dreaming in A Lifetime on Clouds (1976). After The Plains (1982) came the high, classic Murnane with his endless talk of landscapes and women and grasslands, like a private language of longing and sorrow and contemplation.
In July 1999, ABC’s 7:30 Report ran a story on the Western Suburbs Magpies, an NRL club struggling financially and playing out its final season before a merger with the nearby Balmain Tigers. For that human touch, the story featured shots of a family decking out their children in the Magpies’ black and white, their relationship with the ninety-year-old club described as ‘something in the heart’. It was all very warm and fuzzy, at least until the camera cut away and a voiceover delivered a neoliberal sucker punch: ‘love does not necessarily deliver dollars’. Set in the same Western Sydney suburbs still mourning the loss of their team, Max Easton’s terrific début novel, The Magpie Wing, tracks a trio of Millennials as they similarly battle to retain their identities in a rapidly gentrifying world.
What meaning can be drawn from an individual life? Most of us will disappear without much trace, forgotten by all but friends and family. Writers may hope for more, leaving their art behind for posterity. Performance artists, though, live their art in the moment.
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.