Anthology

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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I guess every reviewer comes to a book with expectations, especially when the author’s reputation precedes him or her. On opening this collection, I knew that Les Carlyon (who died in 2019) wrote well. I remember my parents reading him in The Age and murmuring approval of his lyrical style and, sometimes, the content. I knew he loved horses, the track, and the punt. To me these were disappointments to overlook: I have hated horse racing since I was a kid driving around with my grandfather in his Datsun, windows up and the races on. My grandfather never wound down the windows, presumably so he could hear the call: perhaps it was the lack of fresh air that poisoned me against the sport. And I knew that Carlyon had written huge tomes on war and the Australian experience: Gallipoli (2001) and The Great War (2006) won acclaim, sold well, and left some military historians with reservations about his scholarship. My expectations, mostly, were realised. I sped through A Life in Words, encountering witty and whimsical delights along the way.

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This collection of short pieces by fifty writers is about long players in more than one sense. Not only are they discussing LPs, but also albums that have been long played.

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Sarah Holland-Batt’s Fishing for Lightning is a book about Australian poetry. As such, it is a rare, and welcome, bird in the literary ecology of our country. It is welcome because poetry, like any other art form, requires a supportive culture that educates and promulgates. Not that Holland-Batt, herself one of our leading poets, is ‘merely’ didactic, or a shill for the muses. Holland-Batt, who is also an academic, writes with great authority and insight, and she is a fine stylist, penning essays that are packed with humour and playfulness. These essays cater for all kinds of audiences, from newcomers to poetry experts, which is no small feat.

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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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One of my favourite characterisations of the short story comes, unsurprisingly, from Jorge Luis Borges. In a 1982 interview with Fernando Sorrentino, Borges attributes the short story’s strength to its economy; to its muscular form, trimmed of all fat. A three-hundred-page novel, he says, ‘necessarily contains a certain amount of padding, pages whose only purpose is to connect one part of the novel to the other. In a short story, on the other hand, it is possible for everything to be essential, or more or less essential, or – at the very least – to appear to be essential.’ One might say the same about a good anthology: there is no space for filler, no room for error; every story must be essential, or – at the very least – must appear to be essential.

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Racism: Stories on fear, hate and bigotry edited by Winnie Dunn, Stephen Pham, and Phoebe Grainer

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July 2021, no. 433

Sweatshop, based in Western Sydney, is a writing and literacy organisation that mentors emerging writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Racism, their ninth anthology, brings together all thirty-nine writers involved in their three programs – the Sweatshop Writers Group, Sweatshop Women Collective, and Sweatshop Schools Initiative. 

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Where is home for a feminist? ‘I carry “home” on my back,’ wrote poet and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), a protective response to the many layers of discrimination she experienced as a queer Chicana woman. ‘Home’, for Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan, writing in the 1970s, was a place of confinement, where women’s movements ‘strongly resembled those of domestic poultry’. The home has rarely been a safe place for women (never mind feminists), who have for millennia dared to ask for better accommodation.

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‘Experimental writing’ can sometimes seem like a wastebasket diagnosis for any text that defies categorisation. Even when used precisely, it begs certain questions. Isn’t all creative writing ‘experimental’ to some degree? Isn’t the trick to conceal the experimentation? And what relationship does it bear to the ‘avant-garde’? If avant-gardism implies a radical philosophy of art, where does ‘experimentalism’ fit today? Is it not part of the valorisation of novelty, of innovation for innovation’s sake, which has gripped the literary establishment in recent decades? (When books like Milkman [2018] and Ducks, Newburyport [2019] fall victim to the cosiest of literary prizes, where have the real radicals gone?)

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The Library of America has published massive anthologies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American poetry that include work from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds, so why now another large book devoted exclusively to African Americans? Because it needs to be said and said again just how profoundly American this poetry is, how it enriches culture and should not be ignored among the more conventionally canonised. The fact that this book appeared in 2020, the year when Black Lives Matter protests went global, only underlines its importance as a historical marker. Poetry by Black Americans is not only unignorable but central to American literary life. Reading African American Poetry: 250 years of struggle and song may change your way of reading poetry, particularly modern poetry. It is that rare thing among anthologies, a moving book, enlivened by fire and soul.

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