Poetry

Despite the deadly title, this anthology of twenty-eight poems from the 2008 Newcastle Poetry Prize is replete with gems. Assembled from 423 entries by judges Jan Owen, Philip Salom, and Richard Tipping – effectively the anthology’s editors – it is a brilliant sampler that few anthologies can match for the legroom offered to the longer poem and poetry sequence.

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Another poet might invoke Edmund Burke’s famous treatise on the Sublime and the Beautiful as a piece of phraseology or a pleasing adornment, but with John Kinsella, such a title is dead serious. Elliot Perlman’s superb novel Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) ingeniously makes the reader think of William Empson’s, and the idea of plural signification it evokes, but not instantly to reread it. Kinsella’s use of Burke’s title prompts one to reread the original – ideally, in a Kinsellan métier, on the internet, late at night. Additionally, the ‘shades’ in Kinsella’s title is an important supplement – shades as variations, colourings, but also shadows, undertones.

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Until this morning
I’ve been woken up
by a red wattle bird
flinging himself
at the glass
of my half-open window
calling throatily
with raucous cheek
as he prances the wood
of my balcony rail ... (read more)

Having spent two decades or more writing massive verse novels – The Nightmarkets (1986) and The Lovemakers (2001, 2004) – it may seem that Alan Wearne, with his latest book of poetry, The Australian Popular Songbook, has finally returned to smaller forms and, as suggested by the title, a more lyrical idiom. But, as always with Wearne’s work, things aren’t that simple. The smaller forms were already present in the verse novels in the form of sonnets, villanelles and other verse forms buried in the sprawling architecture of the works’ narratives. The ‘lyrical idiom’ of The Australian Popular Songbook is ambiguous at best, offset as it is by Wearne’s characteristic attraction to the dramatic monologue, satire, vernacular culture and wrenched syntax.

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Event by Judith Bishop

by
November 2007, no. 296

In her other life, Judith Bishop works as a linguist. A passionate concern with the intricacies of language, with the visceral effect of words on the tongue, aurally, and as they are knitted and unravelled on the page is manifest in her first collection of poems, Event. These poems are deeply immersed both in a complex observation of, and engagement with, the natural world, in particular with the ways in which poetic language can intervene in the world of perception, experience and desire. ‘You have to lean and listen for the heart / behind the shining paint’, Bishop writes in ‘Still Life with Cockles and Shells’, which won the 2006 ABR Poetry Prize and which Dorothy Porter included in The Best Australian Poems 2006. Like the beautiful illusions of the still-life painting, Bishop’s poetry creates an aesthetic surface which mimics the stasis of death and also harbours the ‘flutter in its flank’, the pulse of possibility visible to the attentive reader–observer. Look closely, her poetry exhorts, yield to the currents of language and image, become witness to death and life in intimate and endlessly renewing ‘events’ of struggle and embrace.

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I was given to this body as haphazardly
As the monster of Frankenstein.

Lightning is a man’s metaphor,
But like fire it provides

A force alien to question.
Perhaps I am only this, this flesh,

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There has been something of a fashion in recent years to dismiss what might loosely be called ‘rural’ poetry because the vast majority of Australians live in cities near the coast. Nevertheless, ‘rural’ poetry keeps appearing, and not just in the works of Les Murray. A considerable number of Australian poets are only one generation away from the land (even John Tranter was born in Cooma), and their childhood memories can often be a rich resource. Admittedly, there are not many actually working it; the reasons for this are often at the core of their poetry. A few perhaps are inclined to be nostalgic (even sentimental) but there is also, as Craig Sherborne has observed, an ‘anti-pastoral strain in Australian poetry’. Among the more recent exponents of this tradition are the late Philip Hodgins, John Kinsella (in his wheat belt poems) and, to judge from A Paddock in His Head, the Victorian poet Brendan Ryan.

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A review is more like a conversation than an overview from an Academy, and conversations often start with a salient point leading on to judgement. I suggest readers of David Malouf’s new collection should turn straight to page twenty-five and encounter a spray of short poems, titled ‘Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian’ ... ... (read more)

Literary criticism is a rara avis in Australia’s publishing world, perhaps only to be hoped for under an imprint such as Australian Scholarly Publishing. Yet a search of its recent publications shows that among nineteen titles this is the only instance – and one facilitated by a Melbourne University publishing grant. Rightly so, for Cassandra L. Atherton’s is academic writing in the best sense of that abused adjective: argumentative, lucid, grounded in extensive research, sustained by a lively intelligence and harnessed to a bright idea. None of which means that I agree with everything she says, but then one function of good theoretical discourse is to provoke disagreement.

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These are the final lines of a poem entitled ‘Endings 111’ in Tom Shapcott’s recently published collection of poetry, The City of Empty Rooms. The poem is included in the final two sections of the book devoted to memories of a Queensland childhood, more particularly recollections of growing up in the inland town of Ipswich. As David Malouf suggests in the blurb, ‘this is a late book that sometimes sharply, sometimes forgivingly looks back, but always with the freshness of things felt and seen anew in a living present’.

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