Puncher & Wattmann

In the wake of other recent compelling débuts – Paige Clark’s meticulously crafted and imagined She is Haunted being a standout – three new short story collections, varying markedly in tone, style, and setting, offer bold and unsettling visions of twenty-first-century life.

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Acanthus by Claire Potter & Glass Flowers by Diane Fahey

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June 2022, no. 443

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.

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Running time by Emily Stewart & Inheritance by Nellie Le Beau

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June 2022, no. 443

The lyric subject, literature’s most intimate ‘I’, has vexed critics for centuries. Is it the poet? Is it a fiction, a device? Or is the relation between author and speaker, as Jonathan Culler suggests, ‘indeterminate’, such that ‘any model … that attempts to fix or prescribe that relationship will be inadequate’? Two new award-winning Australian poetry collections offer fine-grained considerations of personhood and the poem’s capacity to represent it.

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‘The flag’s taking off for that filthy place, and our jargon’s drowning out the drums.’ A. Frances Johnson’s new collection begins with this quote from Rimbaud, which immediately betrays her appreciation for both the European avant-garde and the viral nature of the context from which it emerged. Johnson is a poet, painter, novelist, and academic acutely sensitive to such colonial haunts, perhaps largely due to the delight she takes in the other tones offered up by historical subject matter. She has displayed this previously in Eugene’s Falls (2007), an expansive novel about Eugene von Guérard, and in exhibitions dealing with the ambiguous textures of botanical empire building. Interestingly, though, her layers of historical literacy have led to a skilful inspection of her own aesthetic fetishes, writing as she does in a time when ever more bilge-water seems to be issuing from the half-drowned ship of Western culture.

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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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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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Toby Davidson’s first collection, Beast Language, was published nine years ago. That feels surprising: its freshness then makes it feel more recent now. Much of the movement in that book is present in his new collection, Four Oceans (Puncher & Wattmann, $25 pb, 93 pp), literally so, as we begin with a long sequence aboard the Indian Pacific from Perth to Sydney. It’s his younger self again, leaving home for the ‘eastern states’, but with an esprit de l’escalier twist, as that younger self gets to see and describe everything with the eye and language of the older, freer, more assured Davidson.

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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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Hear the way these poets use moonlight. According to a delicious detail in Jill Jones’s thirteenth full-length collection, Wild Curious Air (Recent Work Press, $19.95, 76 pp), ‘The moon’s light takes just over a second to reach our faces.’ In the context of meaning, note the length of the sound in the word ‘faces’. Jones affectingly contrasts this second with the light that left a star, centuries ago: ‘Always a past touches us, as this hot January forgets us.’

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