Poetry

Andrew Taylor’s Selected Poems opens with rain and a quote from Rilke’s first elegy, collects new poems from 1975–80, touches his The Cool Change (1960–70), Ice Fishing (1970–72), and The Invention of Fire (1973–75), and ends with an epilogue the final image of which is a night watchman whittling a wooden deify which ‘Glows like a storm lantern / burning all night’. It’s night and the poet has gone to bed and closed the shutters, and the nightwatchman of the subconscious gets to work.

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The Fremantle Arts Centre Press is an example of what a state-oriented press can do. Under intelligent guidance and with sympathetic but not irresponsible state funding assistance, it has now established a solid reputation for publishing good­looking and worthwhile books. If west coast writers are now better known in the east than they were several years ago, this is only partly due to their qualities as writers, good though some of them undoubtedly are. It is also because the Fremantle Arts Centre Press has actively encouraged and promoted west coast writers, giving them the confidence that only professional book publication can.

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What is more common than the indicative mood, and what is more uncommon than the way Les Murray uses it? His Christian finger ‘scratches the other cheek’ (‘The Quality of Sprawl’) but more often points out tracks seen from the air, but invisible on the ground: a hibiscus becomes ‘the kleenex flower’ (‘A Retrospect of Humidity’); the shower an ‘inverse bidet,/ sleek vertical coruscating ghost of your inner river’ (‘Shower’); a north-coast punt ‘just a length of country road / afloat between two shores’ (‘Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman’). You see it in his use of the demonstrative pronoun – ‘this blast of trance’ (‘Shower’); the definite article – The man imposing spring here swats with his branch controlling it’(‘The Grassfire Stanzas’)’; the deictic use of ‘I’ and ‘we’ to get his readers looking in the same direction as he points out where we are and where we’ve come from – ‘So we’re sitting over our sick beloved engine / atop a great building of the double century / on the summit that exhilarates cars, the concrete vault on its thousands / of tonnes of height, far above the tidal turnaround’ (‘Fuel Stoppage on Gladesville Road Bridge in the Year 1980’).

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Katherine Gallagher, who has lived in London since the 1970s, has now published six books of poetry, all but two of them with British or American publishers. This book selects poems from her earlier books, together with twelve new poems. As a whole, it gives the sense of a writer’s development over a period of thirty-five years, with some slight shifts of style over that time.

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Jennifer Maiden is a great experimenter – in a specific sense. In a 2006 interview in The Age she said: ‘I have always found poetry a useful tool for tactical and ethical problem-solving … I suppose it’s a laboratory for testing out ideas.’ Maiden works from an ethical stance, but not, as some critics and readers have assumed, a facile leftist one (whatever ‘left’ means in the twenty-first century). The poems in this latest book are mainly discursive, and many address political situations, issues and, more specifically, public figures and personae.

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It is 116 years since Charles Harpur, Australia’s first poet of real eminence, died with his own collection of his works unpublished. Except for a couple of small selections – the most recent of which, made by Adrian Mitchell in 1973 and containing only about 120 pages of the poetry, was the most comprehensive – and the infamously corrupt 1883 ‘collection’, it has remained so. This has been a blot on the reputation of Australian critical and academic workers and a loss not only to Australian literature but to Australian history. Now Elizabeth Perkins, of the English Department of James Cook University, has handsomely remedied a long injustice.

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From the very beginning of The Rearrangement the reader is involved in themes which will play repeatedly through the poems: learning, knowledge and memory, and the way in which these work to satisfy, or frustrate, a metaphysical sense of order, even truth. 

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‘The constant loss of breath is the legacy.’ So wrote poet Ali Cobby Eckermann in 2015 for the anthology The Intervention. The eponymous Intervention of 2007 in the Northern Territory was, in the long history of this continent, the first time that the federal government had deployed the army against its own citizenry. As I write this review, in the United States police are using tear gas, traditionally reserved for warfare, against those protesting the worth of black life, while the president flirts with the idea of calling in the military. Some of us gasp in shock. Some, in suffocation.

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This collection of poetry is similarly accommodating. It is shaped by four quite different tonal movements: ‘All Blues’ (eight lyrics closely observing the ‘still life’ within season, art-work, society and self), ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (a travelogue of past times and places where conscious reflection momentarily counters the movement and cross-currents of historical process), ‘Dogs’ (where Diogenes’ cynicism is invoked to ‘lower the tone’, reminding me of the blues singer’s injunction to ‘laugh just to keep from crying’) and ‘More Blues’ (where episodic vistas of ‘blue hills’ unfold from Tailem Bend to Mount Segur). The collection ends with a nine-part retrospective called ‘The Front’ which is partly about the art of making poetry or music in the face of ‘prevailing imagery’. Here a littoral between performance and reputation is reached as today’s determined play with a language is set against inherited ‘fixed ideas’.

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The prospect of reviewing a ‘Survival Manual for Live Poets’ was daunting enough, but became positively intimidating when I came across its author’s views on critics. Critics, he says, are like leeches and there’s only one way to deal with leeches: ‘take a small stick and insert it into the ... anus of the leech, pulling the leech back over the stick like a condom, impaling it, inside-out, like a shiskabab, ready to heat’.

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