Recent Work Press

Borderless: A transnational anthology of feminist poetry edited by Saba Vasefi, Melinda Smith, and Yvette Holt

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May 2022, no. 442

‘Borderless’ is ‘a transnational anthology of feminist poetry’, arranged alphabetically with no themed sections, that I read slowly, out of paginated order, and savoured. Is ‘Borderless’ a description or an ideal? I wondered, as I returned, between poems, to look at the cover image of a multi-coloured painted woman, a body located in no place I could discern. Does ‘Borderless’ refer to a poet’s ability to dissolve borders through imagination, or to a temporary state of flight or transgression? Perhaps, a borderless world is one akin to a poetry anthology with no hierarchy or divisions to order the poems and their meanings.

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Damen O’Brien’s first collection is an exceptional accomplishment. His individual poems have won several competitions (including the 2017 Peter Porter Poetry Prize). O’Brien signals the emphases of Animals with Human Voices in his Afterword, stating that the world has become a ‘meaner’ place during the ten years of its completion: ‘a place of harsh politics, that values outrage over kindness, tribalism over empathy’. He concludes: ‘Like the animals of the title, the poems are voices for human problems and troubles, for the little moments and cares of the human condition.’

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Divining Dante edited by Paul Munden and Nessa O’Mahony

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December 2021, no. 438

How would we have viewed the seven hundredth anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death if there had been no Covid-19? The editors of Divining Dante are candid about their fears that the pandemic might narrow their celebratory anthology to poems of doom and disaster. After all, the cosmic system of Dante’s Comedy is one of the few fictional creations to match the scale and reach of the pandemic. Dante’s souls are aware of their insignificance among millions, but their pain or bliss is unique and absolutely meaningful. Punishments or blessings are matched to their deeds; character is fate. Today we, too, are confined to private places and must face whatever we find there. The times suit that side of Dante.

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Paige Clark’s She Is Haunted (Allen & Unwin, $29.99 pb, 264 pp) opens with the story ‘Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’, a title that alludes to the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – that inform the rest of her début collection. Clark doesn’t explain why the narrator feels anxious about the survival of her unborn child and its father. The reader is left to assume that the prospect of too much undeserved happiness impels her to embark on a series of amusing and escalating bargains with a capricious God. That the narrator bears the losses with equanimity is indicative of the deadpan humour with which Clark deflects serious matters.

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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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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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Maria Takolander’s fourth book of poetry, Trigger Warning (University of Queensland Press, $24.99 pb, 100 pp), is a sharp and arresting collection, fierce in its emotions and determination to make language do the hard work of speaking that which hovers at the edge of articulation. This is a poetics that traces everywhere the lurking presence of the disruptive – in domestic life, in global crises, even in our most intimate experiences. Takolander’s courageous poetry becomes both a landscape in which to inscribe what is unbearable and a sphere in which it might be, at least partially, managed.

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Few books blur the line between beauty and ugliness more than Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912). The novella follows the ageing writer Aschenbach, whose absurd over-refinement – born in part of repressed homosexuality – is dismantled by Tadzio, a beautiful boy he encounters on holiday in Venice. His obsession with Tadzio represents the displacement of mortality (Aschenbach will soon succumb to cholera) through a wilful surrender to decadence and decay.

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Oliver Driscoll’s note on his first book I Don’t Know How That Happened (Recent Work Press, $19.95 pb, 74 pp) praises the inclusive flatness of David Hockney’s still life paintings, and it is to this inclusiveness that his poems and prose pieces aspire. Droll reported speech creates a comic atmosphere but also moves into Kafkaesque alienation where nothing seems to follow any pattern.

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Precise observation is considered a prerequisite for poetry, but there are limits as to what a surfeit of detail can bring to a poem, or even to an entire volume. Three new poetry collections, each different in tone and subject matter, deploy close observation to varying degrees of success across poems that scrutinise domestic tension, interspecies dynamics, landscape, and everyday grace.

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