St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2011, 162pp.
If Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets gave a large number of poets a brief, walk-on appearance, this anthology of John Leonard’s presents far fewer poets at much greater length. The generation reflected here is also slightly younger than that in Thirty Poets since Simon West, the oldest, is a venerable thirty-seven. Presenting only seven poets has both advantages and disadvantages. On the debit side the selection of the poets to be included becomes less inclusive and hence more contentious. Leonard deflects this courteously in his preface by implying that his choice is one of informed subjectivity – “the poems in this anthology impress me as having a true distinction in quality and, personally, they move me” – and avoiding any comments about omissions or about the way this group might realte to other groups of poets of a similar age which could have been chosen. The enormous advantage is that readers get a twenty-page slab of poetry by each of the poets, enough to get some kind of idea as to what their poetry is actually like.
This leads me to the first of a couple of issues. The first is: Who exactly is the book for? At first I thought of it as a generous sampler for the John Leonard Press since three of the poets – Elizabeth Campbell, LK Holt and Petra White – have each had two books published by that valuable enterprise. But the tone of the Preface, focussing on the experience of reading contemporary poetry, looks very educational and it may be that this is a book imagined for undergraduate or better high school students. It would be nice for it to be successful if that is the case since what is happening now amongst writers young enough to be an older brother or sister of their reader is always more enticing for that reader than what has been done by generations before. The problem is, of course, that the contemporary is always difficult since it hasn’t had time to be fitted into a reading culture. The other objection to choosing a book like this as an educational text is that students need to be exposed to a full tradition, but this is nicely deflected when Leonard points out that this generation of poets, more perhaps than most, is informed by the poetry of the past and the possible connections it can make with that poetry. At any rate, this would be a good project to repeat for the next generation of poets, perhaps in ten or fifteen years.
The second issue doesn’t so much relate to the book per se but is a reviewer’s problem. How does one deal with a selection made up of few poets and large selections? Anthologies like the recent Australian Poetry Since 1788 and Thirty Poets ask to be considered externally. They are not really reading experiences so much as constructs that one wants to explore. If the reviewer is good enough, there will be some generational or national generalisations to be made. But you aren’t likely to find yourself talking about individual poets, let alone individual poems. The emphasis in Young Poets is squarely upon the output of seven poets and one is, at least at some stage, going to be talking about poets and their poems. Since I have written elsewhere on this site about all of these poets apart from Bonny Cassidy and LK Holt, I have used this opportunity to do some revisiting and some rethinking. I suspect that, as I write, the book in which they appear will melt away in favour the poems and poets which appear in it, almost as though it were no more than a group of pamphlets.
To begin with the first of the two poets I haven’t previously written about in detail, the poems of Bonny Cassidy are probably the most challenging in the book. They are in what is usually called a “post-Poundian” mode that is always going to be at odds with the kind of explorative free verse of contemporary Australian poetry, reflected in the work of the other poets of this book. In fact “post-Olsonian” might be more accurate though the amount of personal detail would have irritated a man opposed to the “lyrical ego”. You might find a connection with some of the poems of Laurie Duggan but his is really a kind of poetic anthropology, absorbed by cultures and their signs and seeing geology, say, more as a determining frame than a subject in itself. At any rate, Cassidy’s poetry is marked by its experimenting with an unusual mode and I am, consequently, on its side. This kind of poetry never takes itself for granted and so, whether it is talking about Margaret Stones’s botanical art or about the “recent” geological history of New Zealand, it will always have, as an undertone, the theme of what it is doing, how it is seeing. “Range” is a good example of this, beginning with sight and sound and quickly moving into a kind of self-directed imperative:
A bird breaks itself down, ties its rune into a knot. Always begin with a bird, like ruling a line that stretches into angles . . .
This five-part poem is about the act of describing (it ends, “describing what you have seen”) and as such is about “creativity”. But even more it is about profoundly metaphysical issues since it seems to presume a particular relationship between the natural world and the observer. On the basis of the twenty pages of poetry here, it seems to reflect that American perspective of the way the self interacts with nature, but Australia has no tradition of transcendentalism or even of the kind of observer represented by someone like Ammons, so one wonders whether it is a model that has been, can be, or was intended to be, transported across the Pacific. Certainly the long section fom “Final Theory” included here (a Prologue and the first of four parts) seems quite distinctive, largely because it contains such a personal element – in fact, in many respects it seems as much a love poem as a registering of the geography, culture, botany and geology of New Zealand. The dynamism of the poem seems to derive from its exploration of scales, the delicious disjunctions between geological time-scales, for example, and the lives of the couple which the poem traces. It is certainly an issue that the poem returns to regularly:
That new space was dense with actuality. Its absurd dimensions became acceptable, for instance, everything was middle ground. Distance arrived from above and stayed until cloud locked us in. . . . . .
And, inevitably, like “Range” we expect it to foreground the processes of its own creation. When it does this the self is there again, not a purified self or an observing infiltrator but a “full-scale” emotionally-engaged-with-one’s-partner self:
Here is the poem, slowed by oil and grit, to be shed and worn as a skin. Form may once have had some salvaging power, but these days we let form whirl out of hand like a camera in a Frisbee; and see that order and delay cannot be made from space and time, how could they? All my words are gunning for extinction, all they can tell us is: live more. The photos you retrieve are a scream - heart-battering reams of fortune, shadow and sleep, as if "the sun fell . . . or leapt." Your fidget-bone shrinking the aperture, the flint of your lens against glacial gates impose a double: lichen and hubcap printed across one another like two hands braced against the light, a herald for the Anthropocene.
I like “Final Theory” as I do the other poems in this twenty-page selection. I can understand that many readers won’t and would prefer poems more like those produced, say, by Caroline Caddy’s trip to the Antarctic. I can also understand that many readers will, sourly, claim that an extended sequence like “Final Theory”, as well as the longer sequences here by Elizabeth Campbell and Simon West are part of the corruption of the modern world in which poets need to write long sequences either (a) to meet the (understandable) requirements of valuable prizes (b) make a coherent project for a Creative Writing higher degree dissertation or (c) make a coherent project that will attract (what a mysterious metaphor that is!) Literature Board funding. But there is a lot of intriguing puzzling about poetry itself in “Final Theory” - not only covering how it should be done but also what it is and how it is generated by the cultures of the people who come after the geology is, more or less, completed. I find it challenging and exciting and want to see the other three parts.
Reading the two books of LK Holt is quite an experience. On the surface all one can see is the enormous confidence in her own poetic processes. She is the kind of poet for whom dramatic monologues or narratives from the point of view of an engaged and dramatically conceived narrator seem the natural habitat, possessing, as they always seem to, a Browningesque rhythmic drive and a fullness of poetic imagination and empathy. In a series of sonnets here, taken from her second book, we meet the Kafka of “Metamorphosis” just waking, a drunk who has walked into a door, a protestor who has just been struck in the head by a rubber bullet, someone beginning work in a ship-breaking yard, Lorca at the moment of execution, a boy out of control with rage who is shot by police and Douglas Mawson at an especially sticky moment. There is also a poem from a sequence spoken by Goya’s housekeeper and a long sequence, “Unfinished Confession”, spoken by a pre-op sex change patient. I’ll quote the opening lines of the first of these – the Kafka poem – as being in some way typical of what I’m trying to describe:
It is a mandible language, ours; one of release or grasp; a byzantine binary of yes, no (yes); the shellac click of stag beetles all het up. Dear Franz you should love whom you want to and hard - forget about the world's wanton fathering and mothering . . . both will bear on past your little momentous death. Our parents always outlive us in a sense . . .
This is terrific stuff – I especially like “your little, momentous death” – but sheer confident monologic energy like this always induces doubts in the reader and leads us to wonder whether it might not all be just a particularly impressive kind of dramatic rhetoric. What we need is some kind of indication of what the poet’s stake in these monologues is. Or, at least, the conviction that somewhere underneath there is a stake. It is hard to imagine a biography which is in some way engaged with all the poems I’ve sketched in above. I’d like to believe that the tension beneath them is not one of content but rather of form: that they represent a kind of public face to a poet who does actually have doubts. Perhaps they are doubts about the very ease with which they seem to have been written. We know in the case of other poets – I’ve already mentioned Browning – that the poems of most certainty are often the poems of most doubt. But you would have to know a lot of a poet’s biography before you could speak cponfidently about generative mechanisms as profound as this.
All this will lead to the fairly obvious conclusion that I like best those poems of Holt’s which are personal and slightly weird. Amongst the sonnets there is a lyric (which I deliberately omitted in my list) describing how an old door is transformed to a table and then a garden bench. It has the same confident assertive style as the monologues and is, I suppose, not much more than a brief allegory (what was recently marked out as a feature of contemporary poetry: “the significant anecdote”) but it still has resonances and intriguing tensions (between, for example, denotative description and a rather more high-flown conclusion) that are harder to find in the monologues. Two poems, “Poem for Nina” and “Poem for Brigid” seem to me to stand out in this selection. They are personal poems about the author’s very stake in the friendships they describe and they are complicated and not at all predictable: always a good sign in a poem.
I have looked at length in past reviews at Elizabeth Campbell’s poetry. She looks strong no matter how or where her poems are presented. Here, by virtue of the fact that the poets of the book are organised alphabetically, she is the lead-off voice and her poems look more than comfortable in that responsible position. Given that Error, her second book, was published last year, it’s reasonable that only one of these poems is new. That poem, “Black Swans”, is intriguing because it is a meditation on error – in the sense of inheriting a way (through ideology or cultural tradition) of seeing things which determines what we see – that takes one of the most famous of the Ern Malley poems as its core context. This, of course, is yet another testimony to the unkillableness of an imaginary poet who died thirty-seven years before Campbell was born and Campbell’s generation is one of the first (of many, presumably) for whom the story of Ern Malley, Max Harris and the hoaxers will not be one soaked in the irritations of literary polemics. The Ern Malley poem in question here, “Durer: Innsbruck, 1495″ is, itself, a version of a poem of McAuley’s which he was unhappy with, a poem which is about a painting and in which the poet finds himself a “robber of dead men’s dream”. If this poem is about artistic revenancy then “Black Swans” is about conceptual revenancy for although she is an avenging angel, coming to destroy:
we still hope to cut her open and find bedded neatly inside goose, duck, chicken, quail: all the known unknowns. Poetry, philosophy, economics: the mind repeats, in its ignorance, the vision of others: all swans are white, all swans are white.
The other poems selected include two of the horse poems from Letters to the Tremulous Hand as well as two of the best poems in Error, “The Diving Bell” and “Brain” – both strong poems about various glitches in body and brain. These two poems, together with the sequence, “Inferno”, lead one to think that Campbell (together with West and White) might be trying to work out answers to the question of what a body/soul distinction for the twenty-first century could look like. We also get a chance to revisit that difficult sequence, “A Mon Seul Desir”, based on the famous series of late fifteenth century tapestries. It is a far from straightforward sequence and, as I’ve labored over it in my earlier review, I’ll spare readers a revisiting. John Leonard’s comment in the introduction, perhaps concerned that readers might run aground on the sequence which, after all, appears quite early in the whole book, recommends reading it as a poem about love, rather than an exploration of obscure late medieval art, and I suspect that that is a good tactic, at least for initial readings.
Sarah Holland-Batt is the author of perhaps the most likeable set of poems in this book, though that adjective has no implications, good or bad, about quality. It’s just that her work seems to be nicely pitched between accessible and questing. She also has (together with Graeme Miles) the highest percentage of new work after her debut volume Aria. If I had to hazard a guess as to the direction of this newer work – always dangerous when based on such a small sample - I’d say that it is definitely less emotionally expressionist than the earlier. Many of the complex poems in Aria seemed at heart, either opportunities for lament or opportunities for celebration. The self is present in these new poems but not at such a dominating level. An exception is “Rain, Ravello” which seems in the earlier mode: a long description of rain eventually establishes itself in the reader’s mind as a sympathetic exterior response to internal misery and the poem finishes, “Art is not enough, not nearly / enough, in a world not magnified by love”.
The other poems seem a lot breezier, focusing on life sciences and art. “Orange-Bellied Parrot” is like a cross between a Robert Adamson bird poem and Bruce Dawe’s “Homecoming”, enacting an imaginary return made by a stuffed parrot in the British Museum (surely the ultimate in exilic misery) to his homeland. “Botany” recalls the school experiment of mapping the spores of various mushrooms, while the poet interprets the results differently, seeing “a woodcut winter cart and horse / careen off course . . .” But one wouldn’t want to take these too sunnily. A brilliant poem, “The Quattrocento as a Waltz” celebrates the freedom of a new art style in abandoning the tyranny of the religious – here a sun-dominated, top-down world of stiff madonnas – and celebrating the real of the world, even if that real is a world of misery:
Let the darkness shake out its bolt of silk. Let it roam over us like a blind tongue. Let it bury its razorblades in the citrons and its hooks in the wild pheasants. Open the window: outside it is Italy. A fat woman is arguing over the artichokes, someone is dying in a muddy corner, there’s a violin groaning in the street.
And other poems such as “Primavera: The Graces” and “Medusa” slide the poet into the poems as an allegorical and not necessarily positive figure – here too the emphasis is on suffering and death. “Persephone as a Whistling Moth”, far from the best poem in the group, is perhaps the clearest in that it takes a mythological figure who oscillates between the dark and the light (as so many of the poems of Aria do) and crosses her with another poetic myth of the moth and the flame.
The poems of Graeme Miles seem a long way from those of his first book, Phosphoresence, though, probably, there are evolutionary links I can’t, from a superficial rereading, trace. He seems a poet anchored in the mundane, especially the mysterious mundane of family and ancestors, but at the same time obsessed by the presence of things within other things. A fine sequence, “Photis”, deals with a painter in whose portraits animals continuously seem to emerge and from whose body a child eventually emerges, whose “soft skin is full of animals”. Ghosts of relatives past emerge from the liminal spaces in “Verandah” and in “At 30 Clifton Street”, the house seems to induce visions of its own ghosts. As one can imagine, dreaming is an important part of this world since dreams are yet another sort of poem with a complex and usually unresolvable relationship with the waking world and a poem about sleep, “Mineral Veins”, concludes with:
Better to turn down, find you can breathe easily under a world's weight of earth, and that air was no more your element than the endlesss vacancy it fades to.
As one can also imagine there is a lot of interest in transformation, Ovid’s obsession: it occurs at the level of myth in “Isis and Osiris” and at the level of a kind of humorous surrealism in a poem like “Talking Glass” (I went to find pasta for the wary / to prepare their pianos. I tried to speak, / knowing that I’d spoken pasta / in the past, but now there was broken glass / between my teeth . . .”
So in the case of this poet, ordinary events in life are likely to produce poems whose interests and structures are not at all obvious ones. A good example is the final poem, “Where She Went”, which is about the death of his grandmother (at least I assume it is: one has to be careful about making casual unequivocal assumptions about relationships. It is a marker of how young these poets are that the deaths which occur to them are those of their grandparents. Very soon it will be the deaths of parents and, in no time at all, the deaths of friends and contemporaries!):
Shade inks a human on the surface of the water, brings it from a lostness so complete that only this skeletal light and athletic paperbark are lean enough to reach it. It's reformed by remotest coincidence of lines, dreamed by shade from the bones up replaced where it never was. Skinny land and paperbark are the brassy echo of a wooden room beside a deeper lake, where the same figure saw her face shift in the mirror like a friend she couldn't trust. Rooms were closed then and vigils sat through. Strangers covered the mirrors she'd left and motes of dust fell one by one precise as the knife-thrower's act in a circus. They waltzed the wardrobe back from the doorway and sold her clothes. And she passed the white rock which some said was a headland too steep for goat's feet, and some said was a marker stone set into grey soil dry as ash, a white stone just big enough to overfill palm and fingers, cool as liquid overflowing and with weight to make you think of fractures.
This a poem that moves in four magical stages from the shadows on the water suggesting the woman (not in a simply Rorschach way, but in a much profounder movement from the deeps to the surface). Then it moves to the woman’s room and her funeral and then, surprisingly, to a description – which sounds like the Classical world – of moving beyond a boundary stone. But it doesn’t end there because the stone is imagined declining in size from headland to marker to fist-sized. These are unusual emphases and markers of a very distinctive poetic mind.
Simon West is a tricky but impressive poet who seems highly sensitive both to dislocation and also its opposite: the moments when – and processes whereby – we emerge from a dislocated state. It’s a poetry where we always seem to be crossing thresholds. “Out of the Woods of Thoughts” – whose title seems to allude simultaneously to Dante’s selva oscura (an image that recurs in this poetry) as well as the wood of the suicides of Inferno XIII – is a good example.
We woke with the crook of our arms empty. Each morning the triple-cooing turtle-dove would probe about our yard, "coo-ca-cai?" A nag and clamour I couldn't help but hear as "cosa fai?" Mostly summer turned away, tightened to a knot of roots at river's edge, where earth erodes from a red gum, unable to grip things, and strangely exposed. No use saying "it was him not me", or "dispel the senses and repeat, The mind lies". Even the faintest trails led back to that weight cradled in the stomach's pit. What was it doing? What did it have to say?
These seems an excellent introduction to the West-world especially its quality of being simultaneously precise and yet slippery. It’s a world where we move from sleep to waking, dreams to everyday, from natural speech into language, from the constructing, rational mind to the immanent natural.
A precious eight pages of the allotted twenty are devoted to a long and difficult sequence, “A Valley”, which is obviously central to where West’s poetry is at this point and which recalls many of these processes. It is not an easy sequence to get a handle on and consequently – if a reader is honest – not an easy set of poems to like. It is, like “Out of the Woods of Thought” about emerging from a dark wood, an emergence that happens in the last two poems. But the nature of the valley in which the protagonist is trapped for the other fifteen poems of the sequence is difficult to feel confident about. To what extent it is a conceptual one, and to what extent it is emotional (even, allegorically, personal) is really difficult to determine though, if Dante is the model, I suppose the same could be said of the Commedia. It is perfectly possible that it is imagined to be a valley of monolinguality broken out of by mastering a second language.
“Out of the Wood of Thoughts” contained an odd middle section where the roots of a red gum are “strangely exposed” by erosion and West is very sensitive to the texture and grain of wood. “The Apricot Tree” seems on the surface a poem about childhood where the environment is symbolised by a rather grotesquely split apricot tree used as a set of cricket stumps by the boys. It begins, significantly, “I try to home in on this” but the poem’s conclusion takes it away into the inner life of the split and exposed wood:
I'd seen that wound open in wood. Under a hard rind the core's gore colours lay like a deep bruise: a reversal or confirmation from within of stone fruit, and equally alive.
In “Door Sill”, another childhood memory poem, that piece of wood is an unpainted slab of redgum which marks the boundary between the domestic house and the outer world:
It was a threshold we loved to tilt ourselves on the rim of, leaning forward on tiptoes . . .
The selection includes “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri” from West’s first book. On first reading that looked very atypical, even positively out of place. But now seems more central because it concerns art and the way art deals with the conceptual maps we put over the endless flux of the universe. As such, this genuinely incomprehensible painting seems like a gateway to a quantum world and reflects West’s interest in the texture of the worlds revealed by the dissolution of surfaces.
Petra White seems to be a poet who continually wants to connect a fraught self with the outside world. From the poems in this anthology we can sketch in a childhood amongst people at the dottier end of protestantism, depression and despair, and a seriously sick lover. The first of these appears in the first poem, “Grave”, but also in “Trampolining” where the speaker and her brother save for a trampoline while the adults take part in a suburban prayer meeting. The experience of the trampoline is one of ecstatic movement in the world, significantly oscillating between earth and sky, taking place “in the present-tense, / cast off by the adults for the kids to play with”. The desire to connect self with the world raises a lot of issues. Like Elizabeth Campbell, she is interested, for example, in the relationship between the self and the natural world. “Ode to Coleridge” deals with the body/soul distinction but not in any academic way: the issue of whether a sick soul sees the world only as dull and lifeless (Coleridge’s position) or whether the world can heal the soul (Wordsworth’s) is a crucial question in White’s poetry.
The poem which engages with the world at its most “social” is “Southbank” an eleven part sequence based in a Melbourne work situation. At first it seems a minor piece of social recording but rereadings show it to be far more complex and engaging. Amongst the parodies of business-speak – “I am pleased to announce that Wayne Loy / joins the Networks & / Infrastructure Team to give cover . . .” – there is an examination of what it means to be a suited worker in an industry designed to provide aid to people in need “out there”. The answer, I think, lies in the Heidegger comment, included in the poem, that we only see how things work when they break down (a statement that expresses, after the event, the entire rationale of Modernism as a broad cultural phenomenon). The Melbourne office is, in the last poem, “a portal, / point of stillness from which the world extends” and many of the poems want to explore this movement from a shakily-secure self into wider worlds of experience. We see it schematically in both “Woman and Dog” and in ”Kangaroos”. In the latter poem the rows of dead kangaroos by the roadside are tribute to the fate of those moving through experience who make the wrong choice, “one wrong leap against / thousands of right ones; thousands of hours / lived hurtling through space with no notion of obstacle”. They act, finally, both as guardians of new worlds and as psychopomps for humans:
Always turning to leave, wider to go - they emerge in dissolving light as if they carry the Earth in their skins, as if they are the land they inhabit . . . it stares at you through them, looks through you in the shared-breath stillness, their telepathic here now group hesitation. As if something's deciding whether to let you in or through. As if there was an opening, a closing. Then turning away again, loping off into that open where death stands to one side (you imagine) and each leap is a leap into deeper life, deeper possession.
It’s a constant movement in this poetry to desire a deeper life, starting, as it does, from a vulnerable self. There is a profound difference between the young girl in “Ricketts Point” who, playing at the water’s edge “suddenly marvels at how the world / tips open to a broad deep space, not fearsome” and the damaged self of “St Kilda Night” for whom the beach is a nightmare experience:
Stripped to the soul, squatting at the shoreline, thoughts prey like sharks but never bite, no voice inside the skull sounds right. O listen to the tiny waves crash their hardest, as a lap-dog yaps its loudest to be loud. Pitched past pitch of grief: how far is that? . . . . .
Whereas many of the poems in this anthology derive their strength from complex conceptual approaches to life and writing, White’s are strong because of the fractures that generate them. There is nothing sensationally “confessional” about them but the underlying dis-ease makes all the issues – self, world, society – crucial ones.