Australian Poetry

Melbourne Elegies by K.F. Pearson & Body-Flame by Michael Heald

by
June 1999, no. 211

The problem with K.F. Pearson’s Melbourne Elegies is that Goethe – on whose classic of sex­tourism, Roman Elegies 1788–1790, these rhetorical, literary poems are loosely based – is Goethe: difficult to translate, still little read in English. It gives him problems. Pearson, to my mind, is not attempting a Poundian ‘replacement’ of an ancient text within the frame­work of a contemporary poetics. That would require a reckoning with the original poem’s logistics and context similar to the way that Pound’s Propertius speaks electrifyingly in the context of an Empire much later than the Roman one he wrote for; or in the manner that Christopher Logue has recently converted excerpts of Homer into a form of late 20th century literary cinema. Such replacement requires that the contemporary poem convince us that the original work’s ‘loss’ – a ‘loss’ produced equally by its inaccessible aesthetic no less than by our contemporary lack of language-skill and culture – should matter to us.

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Just when you have been assured, and have believed, and have claimed in print in The Sydney Morning Herald that mainstream publishers no longer bring forth volumes of verse by individual poets, along comes Allen & Unwin to confound you. Well, it is good thus to be confounded. I might not have pointed out, but the publishers remind us, over Luke Davies’ name and over his title, running with light, that this book is ‘from the author of Candy’ (also published by Allen & Unwin). So, we have a case of prose piggybacks poetry, which is all right by me. Those who read Candy, that antipodean version of Romeo and Juliet on smack, for prurient reasons may, however, find running with light not their cup of tea or drug of choice. Those, on the other hand, who responded to Mr Davies’ absolute control over and cool towards his fevered material, will warm to this collection of poems. Candy was, assuredly, a poet’s novel.

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State of mind: it’s a simple phrase but it is one which has always interested me. ‘State of mind’ is about what? Sets of feelings? Predispositions and moods? Or perhaps more it’s a term to do with the groove which thoughts regularly follow along. A state of mind is one which makes you respond in a particular way: you tend to act in a particular way; you have recurrent feelings.

The phrase interests me because it defines a feeling so intimate – so normal and everyday. Indeed, it is so intimate that it becomes difficult to say what a state of mind is. What are its boundaries? Where does it stop? Is this mind-set just mine or is it something to do with events out there, the latest news about the economy, the extravagant telephone bill which has just arrived, the relaxed feeling of walking along a beach, a recent argument, an enjoyable dinner party? For however influential and pervasive states of mind are, they are also fluctuating, amorphous things.

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If presence in literary journals, anthologies and at writers’ festivals may be taken as an indication of a poet’s importance, Anthony Lawrence has for some time been regarded as one of Australia’s foremost poets of the post-­’68 generation. He has published five books of poetry, all of which to my knowledge have been well received, and he has also been the recipient of many prizes, most recently the inaugural Gwen Harwood Memorial Prize and one of the Newcastle Poetry Prizes for 1997. With the publication of his New and Selected, Lawrence seems to have been canonised.

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The poet John Forbes died suddenly in January 1998. He was not glamorous, but his work was, for reasons that are not immediately apparent. Certainly, he was the most accomplished, along with the immensely learned Martin Johnston, of the young poets who swam into orbit in the 1970s. He was also the writer who most convincingly bridged the gap between a radical art and the relatively conservative, yet difficult, kinds of cultural theory which are expounded in the universities. Such newly collected poems as ‘post-colonial biscuit’, ‘Ode to Cultural Studies’ and ‘Queer Theory’ body forth, in their disembodied way, this concern to be a bridge-maker between academic talk and the melodious realms of poetry.

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‘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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