Poetry

The invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941 caused massive destruction over a huge area. The number of deaths is uncertain, though a figure of around twenty-seven million is now widely accepted. The lives of many more millions were affected – as soldiers, as workers in war-related industries, as civilians in besieged and occupied territories, as refugees – and the experience of hardship and self-sacrifice in what is widely referred to in Russia as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ or the ‘Great Fatherland War’ continues to dominate the Russian historical narrative.

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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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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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In 1795, Friedrich Schiller wrote: ‘So long as we were mere children of nature, we were both happy and perfect; we have become free, and have lost both.’ For Schiller, it was the poet’s task to ‘lead mankind … onward’ to a reunification with nature, and thereby with the self. Central to Romantic thought, reimaginings like Schiller’s of Christian allegory, in which (European) humans’ division from a utopian natural world suggests the biblical fall, strike a chord in our own time of unfolding environmental catastrophe. Against such an unfolding, three new Australian books of poetry explore the contemporary relationship of subject to place.

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The Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry edited by Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington

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December 2020, no. 427

What is it about English language poetry that has proved so resistant to the lure of the prose poem? The French, it appears, held no such qualms, finding themselves besotted with the form ever since Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire began dispensing with line breaks and stanzas. Of course, the very existence of English-language works like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) or William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell (1920) could be used to argue otherwise, but such endeavours were considered too eccentric at the time to impart a lasting legacy. Perhaps if T.S. Eliot, whose antipathy towards the prose poem is well known, had given us a major cycle along the lines of Saint-John Perse’s Anabasis (1924), a work he admired and translated, things might have turned out differently.

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Robert Adamson is the fact that he is still alive. One of the ‘Generation of  ’68’ and an instrumental figure in the New Australian Poetry (as announced by John Tranter’s 1979 anthology), Adamson has continued to write and adapt while also bearing witness to the premature deaths of many of that visionary company. As Adamson’s friend and fellow poet Michael Dransfield (1948–73) once put it, ‘to be a poet in Australia / is the ultimate commitment’ and ‘the ultimate commitment / is survival’. The poems in this volume attest to the grace and burden of being one of Australian poetry’s great survivors – of the countercultural mythology of the ‘drug-poet’, alcoholism, and the brutalities of the prison system (recounted firsthand in his 2004 memoir, Inside Out). ‘The show’s to escape / death’, Adamson observes of the Jesus bird (sometimes called a lilytrotter), a lithe performer and canny survivalist that affords this most ornithologically minded of authors a telling self-image.

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There has as yet been no comprehensive critical study of the poets associated with the ‘Generation of ’68’, of whom Martin Johnston was perhaps the most naturally gifted and certainly the most intellectually expansive representative. This is because the project of these poets, to fully incorporate the stylistic innovations of modernist poetics and its development in postwar American models within local practice, is still ongoing. If we examine only those poets gathered in the 1979 New Australian Poetry anthology – in which Johnston’s lengthy experiment in parataxis, ‘The Blood Aquarium’, appears as a signature work – we find major authors even today in the process of developing their practice.

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Tony Page’s Anh and Lucien is an intricately plotted verse novel set in French Indochina during World War II. It centres on an unlikely same-sex love affair between Lucien, a colonial bureaucrat, and Anh, a young Vietnamese communist who supports Ho Chi Minh’s independence movement.

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Tilt by Kate Lilley

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October 2020, no. 425

‘Even if truth be drawn from the work,’ writes Maurice Blanchot, ‘the work overruns it, takes it back into itself to bury and hide it.’ This strange, poetic movement to conceal what is manifest brings to mind another statement, by the psychiatrist and author Judith Herman: ‘The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.’

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Change Machine is an exceptionally strong third collection. To the extent that a schematic of thesis–antithesis– synthesis applies to poets’ books, this one both exceeds and incorporates the work that came before. Intriguingly, the title poem seems a late addition, citing the pandemic in three clipped lines, borne on the shoulders of two innocuous words, should and but:

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