Poetry

Marcella Polain’s latest book of poems continues her lyrical exploration of personal experience. Her earlier collections centred on immigrant life, shadowed by a violent history, in the adopted context of the Western Australian wheat belt. In the new poems, which occupy more than one third of the current volume, the emotional terrain has thickened, and the range of experience has expanded to include midlife concerns of failing health, ageing parents and death. ‘So this is what life is,’ Polain writes, ‘nausea, vertigo, migraine, cramps.’ One poem describes the extra chores of helping her mother, and ends: ‘Last Sunday you couldn’t remember who I was or / what you wanted me to buy for you.’

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Anthony Lynch reviews 'The Striped World' by Emma Jones

Anthony Lynch
Wednesday, 23 September 2020

It is fitting that ‘Waking’, a poem that links waking with birth, opens this inspired début collection from Emma Jones: ‘There was one morning // when my mother woke and felt a twitch / inside, like the shifting of curtains. // She woke and so did I.’ So the narrator-poet announces her arrival. The birthing theme continues in the next poem, ‘Farming’, in which pearls are ‘shucked from the heart of their grey mothers’. The same poem also foregrounds the poet’s interest in Ballard-like submerged worlds – oyster farms and shipwrecks, but also entire cities – and in the polarities of sky and sea. Indeed, this collection as a whole engages imaginatively with many dualisms: worldly/other worldly, internal/external, being/not being, self/other. Jones’s method is one of controlled playfulness, and despite many allusions to biblical themes and imagery, she avoids the didactic dualism of good/evil.

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One of the challenges confronting the writer of poetry is the balancing of public and private modes in an engaging and satisfactory whole. In these three collections the precarious possibilities of balance, of confiding and confronting, are attempted in very different ways.

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Richard Freadman reviews 'Autographs' by Alex Skovron

Richard Freadman
Friday, 11 September 2020

In one of these beautifully crafted prose poems, the speaker, recalling his childhood self, says that ‘I was gradually learning my own name, though there are times when the knowledge escapes me still, and another reveals itself’. This suggests complex trajectories of the self in time: self-knowledge comes ‘gradually’, but at times cedes to another, more profound, self-transcending form of knowing. Alex Skovron’s work, which includes four earlier volumes of verse and a novella, often counterposes two dispositions towards the self: a schematising impulse to ‘chart’ the ‘soul’, and a heuristic delight in the liberating processes of self-transcendence. Some of the ‘autographs’ – the accounts and traces of the self – that comprise this volume are of the first kind, others of the second. The book does not so much adjudicate between these kinds as embed them in a loose, fugue-like structure which is rich in delicate shadings, contrasts and variations. The book’s three sections – ‘Dance’, ‘Labyrinth’, and ‘Shadow’ – indicate axes of imaginative exploration rather than lines of narrative progression. Yet, cumulatively, the fifty-six poems in this collection nurture a passion for transcendence and a fear of excessive schematisation, the latter associated in this Jewish writer’s work with fundamentalism and totalitarianism.

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Jennifer Strauss reviews 'True Thoughts' by Pam Brown

Jennifer Strauss
Friday, 11 September 2020

Since her début in 1971, Pam Brown has been a consistently intelligent and engaging presence in Australian poetry, if too often under-represented in those reputation-establishers, the anthologies. One pragmatic reason for this may lie in a further element of consistency, the formal structure of her poems. Poems that spin their way down the page, resolutely short-lined, or ones that fragment lines and thought into zigzag patterns across the breadth of the page, are faithful to the characteristics of the New Australian Poetry celebrated in John Tranter’s 1979 anthology of that title. They are characteristics that Brown has honed finely over the years. They are also, from the point of view of anthologists and, more powerfully, their publishers, wilfully heedless of that most brutal constraint, the number of pages available for any given anthology.

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Lyn Jacobs reviews 'Excavation' by Gig Ryan

Lyn Jacobs
Thursday, 03 September 2020

This is a distinctive and unsettling voice, one that doesn’t have time for overly polite concessions to our finer feelings. You either keep pace (and it’s compelling) or stand aside as the spadework gets done. Reading this poetry, we are involved in an unearthing of past events and made witness to the laying bare of personal response. But there’s nothing self-indulgent or hollow about Gig Ryan’s disinterment. The poetry has a sometimes shocking immediacy, a curious mixture of fierceness and vulnerability that conveys feeling with integrity.

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The reasons for rhyme, and the rhyme of his reasons, can be found in the prose work in the pieces ‘Poems and Poesies’ and ‘Poemes and the Mystery of the Embodiment’, the general underpinnings of which are outlined in ‘Embodiment and Incarnation’. He argues that art is a product of a trinity: the forebrain (the seat of waking reason), the limbic reptilian brain (the dream) and the body (the dance of ecstasy). God can reach us through all three, and poetry is a uniquely placed art which exploits all of these areas. Any deep integration of the three is a poem. Hence a theology (Christianity), an ideology (Marxism), or a breath-taking design (Porsche cars) can be a poem. Using the analogy from phoneme, Murray calls this large unit a ‘poeme’. ‘Poem’ he reserves for its traditional meaning, arguing that a poem is the most perfect and integrated art-form there is.

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I have sat on these books longer than is reasonable for a review, yet have to confess that I am not satisfied with the readiness of what follows. I got the Porter first, but receiving the Johnston thought that they in some ways offered similar difficulties, perhaps similar rewards, to the reader, and that it might be neat to review them together.

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Bobbie Kaye Gledhill reviews 'Nero’s Poems' by Geoffrey Lehmann

Bobbie Kaye Gledhill
Thursday, 03 September 2020

What a delight it is to read a collection of contemporary poetry which is not only good but entertaining and capable of arousing emotions – and the delight is intensified because the experience is so rare. Most Australian poets that I have read recently seem to think that the exercise of writing, for example ‘happy days / lost in lust’ justifies them in putting ‘poet’ instead of ‘esq.’ after their names. Geoffrey Lehmann is not one of these. On the strength of his recent book, Nero’s Poems: Translations of the Public and Private Poems of the Emperor Nero, published by Angus and Robertson, it can be seen that Mr Lehmann justly deserves the title ‘poet’, even though, for the duration of the book, we are asked to suspend our belief and attribute the poems to the Emperor Nero himself.

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Australian Poetry 1986

Peter Goldsworthy
Thursday, 03 September 2020

I have never met Vivian Smith but respect him awfully. The remarkable thing about his editing of this new anthology of Australian poetry is that his own work is not in it. This is unprecedented among recent anthologies, and may of course be a printing error. Even that excellent poet of Buddhist leanings, Robert Gray, was unable to achieve such perfect nirvana some years back in his Younger Australian Poets. I think Vivian Smith could at least have included here his very fine poems ‘The Names’, which appeared in the most recent Mattara Award anthology.

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