Poetry

There is probably no book in a poet’s career more important than his or her first Selected Poems. It is here that poets have the opportunity to display the best of their work in all its variety over several decades. Individual collections are a mere step on the way. Collecteds tend to be posthumous and of interest mainly to scholars, reference libraries, and a cluster of devotees.

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Peter Boyle’s Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness (Vagabond Press, $25 pb, 82 pp) is a book-length elegiac poem dedicated to his partner, the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose (1946–2018). Unlike other works lamenting the illness and loss of a spouse, Boyle’s collection largely avoids representing the day-to-day demands of suffering from (or caring for someone suffering from) an incurable disease. Instead, Boyle’s poetry sequence offers a more metaphysical approach to the uncertainty and grief that he and his partner faced.

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A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett

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April 2020, no. 420

Felicity Plunkett has being doing good works in the poetry sphere for some time now. She has edited for UQP a recent series of new and established poets; she reviews a wide variety of poetry in newspapers and magazines, as well as writing evocatively, in this journal, about influential figures in popular Australian poetics like Nick Cave and Gurrumul Yunupingu. Valuably, she has also made practical contributions to poetry teaching in the secondary English curriculum. Now she has published a second volume of her own poetry, a varied collection of highly accomplished poems.

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W.H. Auden once rebuked Percy Shelley for characterising poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. To think this way is to confuse hard with soft power, coercion with persuasion. Poetry, as Auden famously wrote, ‘makes nothing happen’; he instead bestowed Shelley’s epithet upon ‘the secret police’. But in an age of surveillance and information warfare that has militarised the channels of everyday communication, the line between hard and soft becomes more difficult to draw. The very notion of a random or innocent signal seems laughably naïve as we are inundated by new suspicions and suspicions of news. But the state of mind in which there is always more meaning to be had is one that poetry invites us to inhabit. For Shelley, poems were ‘hieroglyphs’ and the poetic imagination an ‘imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man’. Is the poet an agent, then, of this secretive control? Perhaps Shelley was on Auden’s side all along.

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Sandstone by Andrew Taylor

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May 1995, no. 170

On my most recent visit to Warrnambool in December 1994, the newspapers carried a tragic story about some local youths who had been digging in the coastline dunes and sandstone cliffs outside the town. One of them had died when their cave collapsed. It is this wild, unpredictably dangerous but attractive coastline that features in the title sequence to Andrew Taylor’s new book. In Sandstone, the blurb on the back cover tells us, Taylor returns ‘to the sight [sic] of his childhood’.

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The assertion that ‘love is strong as death’ comes from the Song of Solomon, a swooning paean to sexual love that those unfamiliar with the Old Testament might be startled to find there. Songwriter and musician Paul Kelly has included it in this hefty, eclectic, and beautifully produced anthology of poetry, which has ‘meaningful gift’ written all over it. 

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Heide is the final instalment of an epic trilogy that began with 24 Hours (1996) and was followed by Fitzroy: A biography (2015). It also marks a departure for π.O. In this third volume (the only one in the trilogy not to be self-published), the unofficial poet laureate of Fitzroy turns his attention away from the migrant and working-class characters of his beloved suburb toward the names that line the bookshelves and gallery walls of the nation’s most august institutions.

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The kind of writing that is to be found in Ania Walwicz’s collection Boat is the kind that angers many people. Eschewing punctuation as benevolent and therefore inferior signposts to meaning, Walwicz’s prose is uncompromisingly difficult. Plot is virtually absent. Syntax defies convention. The ugly, both visually and verbally, is preferred to the beautiful.

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Ashbery Mode edited by Michael Farrell

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November 2019, no. 416

The recent death of Les Murray can be likened in its significance to the passing of Victor Hugo, after which, as Stéphane Mallarmé famously wrote, poetry ‘could fly off, freely scattering its numberless and irreducible elements’. Murray’s subsumption of the Australian nationalist tradition in poetry, including The Bulletin schools of both the 1890s (A.G. Stephens) and 1940s (Douglas Stewart), has delineated an influential pathway in our literature for more than fifty years. Yet the death in 2017 of the American poet John Ashbery might be viewed as equivalent in its effect, given the impact of his work on several generations of local poets, which has in many respects constituted a counter-stream to Murray’s often narrowly defined nationalism. Ashbery’s voice has been infectiously dominant in English-language poetries over several decades, in a manner similar to T.S. Eliot’s impression on poets of the earlier twentieth century. Critic Susan Schultz, the publisher of this volume, has charted the dynamics of its transcultural influence in her aptly titled collection, The Tribe of John (1995)

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In her latest collection of poems, Empirical, Lisa Gorton demonstrates – definitively and elegantly – how large, apparently simple creative decisions (employing catalogues or lists; quoting from the archive; engaging in ekphrasis or description) can produce compelling and complex poetic forms.

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