Poetry

As the world realigns itself in the wake of a global pandemic, ABR turns its thoughts to the various forms – individual and institutional, material and more intangible – that recovery may take. In 'Poetry in times of recovery', we asked a number of Australian poets to share the works that best capture how recovery can look, sound, and feel. Today’s episode builds on the popularity of our ‘Poetry in troubled times’ episodes, released in 2020.

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A Thousand Crimson Blooms by Eileen Chong & Turbulence by Thuy On

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The biographical note to A Thousand Crimson Blooms observes that Eileen Chong’s first book, Burning Rice (2012), is ‘the first single-author collection of poetry by an Asian-Australian to be studied as part of the NSW HSC English syllabus’. Having run many writing workshops for students and adults over the years, Chong takes her pedagogy as seriously as her poetry. It’s no surprise, then, that A Thousand Crimson Blooms, Chong’s fifth collection, is replete with scenes of instruction. In ‘Teacher’, the poet corrects her mother’s pronunciation (‘I say TEAcher, then, I say teacher.  / … I feel like an arsehole’) only to stand corrected by memories of her mother’s gentler tutelage. The collection’s dedicatee, Chong’s grandmother, metes out corporal punishment in ‘Hunger’, but has her own body disciplined in ‘Float’. The poet learns the meaning of ‘thole’ (Scottish for ‘to endure / what is barely bearable’) and after surgery discloses the origins of her nurse’s name. If there is pathos evoked by these anecdotes, much of it has to do with the way knowledge – how to care for the body, where to look for the roots of words – helps the poet overcome the inertia occasioned by violence, whether racial, sexual, or medical.

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Only one manuscript of Beowulf has survived. It was in Sir Robert Cotton’s library. Cotton had been a student of that careful genius William Camden, who, through a lifetime’s work, formulated a different view of history: not the record of victory but the recollection of lost worlds and times. He and his fellow Antiquarians searched out fragments and ruins: Roman urns in the fields, Saxon burials under St Paul’s, a giant’s thigh-bone under a London cellar. They collected ancient manuscripts.

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Few books blur the line between beauty and ugliness more than Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912). The novella follows the ageing writer Aschenbach, whose absurd over-refinement – born in part of repressed homosexuality – is dismantled by Tadzio, a beautiful boy he encounters on holiday in Venice. His obsession with Tadzio represents the displacement of mortality (Aschenbach will soon succumb to cholera) through a wilful surrender to decadence and decay.

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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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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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Prose Poetry: An introduction by Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton

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May 2021, no. 431

It speaks volumes that almost a century and a half after Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen announced the modern prose poem, James Longenbach influentially defined poetry as ‘the sound of language organized in lines’. An otherness, bordering on illegitimacy, pervades what Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington argue is ‘the most important new poetic form to emerge in English-language poetry since the advent of free verse’. The book vindicates this claim. No less compelling, however, is the way the prose poem, long defined in negative terms, here becomes the whetstone over which old assumptions – about the prosaic, the poetic, and the daylight between the two – are run to a fresh sharpness.

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These three new poetry collections are works by established poets at the top of their game in terms of poetic craft and the honing of insights into both life and art. These are voices developed across a significant number of previous collections, allowing for an emergence of innovation, confidence, and ease of style and mood.

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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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Dislocations is a product of the Irish diaspora. Its editor is a Western Australian who claims his Irish heritage from Carlow and Wicklow; its subject was brought up on the border between counties Armagh and Tyrone in Northern Ireland, and emigrated to the United States in 1987. There is, then, a biographical precedent for John Kinsella’s sharp characterisation of Paul Muldoon’s work as ‘a liminal poetry that lives both sides of any given border … in an ongoing state of visitation with its roots in linguistic and cultural reassurance’.

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