It’s a flourishing time for Western Australian poetry and publishing. We have seen the well-publicised launch of Terri-Anne White’s press Upswell (responsible for Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s 2023 Prime Minister’s Literary Award’s shortlisted Clean) as well as the retention and success of UWA Publishing (who are currently bringing us the collected works of John Kinsella), while existing houses Magabala Books (home to Charmaine Papertalk Green, Ambelin Kwaymullina, and Elfie Shiosaki) and Fremantle Press (Andrew Sutherland’s 2022 Paradise: Point of Transmission having just been shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year) go strength-to-strength.
A book-length poem can offer the best of two worlds: the thematic and spatial breadth and depth of an epic-style length on the one hand, the delineation of units and fragments via the physical space of the page on the other. The poem can be read as one long piece, but also becomes chunks, giving the reader gentle permission to find their own flow without the designation of titles or sections.
Slow Loris Series 1 slouched onto the scene back in 2018, as a Puncher & Wattmann chapbook series edited by then Newcastle-based (now Bega-based) poet Chris Brown. Akin somewhat to the EP, the slew of titles now accruing on the website remind me of browsing through record bins as an adolescent: Daniel Swain’s You Deserve Every Happiness, But I Deserve More (Series 2, 2019) or Duncan Hose’s Testicles Gone Walkabout (Series 3, 2020) give an indication of the pith and pitch of this welterweight form.
In her Cordite essay “What Blooms Beneath a Blood-Red Sky: A Year in Aotearoa Poetry”, Rebecca Hawkes, author of Meat Lovers writes: “Poetry is so hot right now, the bright young rhapsodists proclaim (if largely to a devoted audience of each other). Are we just saying, we’re hot now, evidencing the glow-up since high school, the already-anxiety of what it will mean for our newness to fade when we’ve truly emerged and the first-book fetish fades?”
The last poem of Pam Brown’s Stasis Shuffle, ‘(fundamentals)’ begins with the lines: “make a distinction / between imagery / & reality” (103). As much as the distinction in question evokes the verisimilitude of the fake, a need to separate unreliable image from truth, Stasis Shuffle’s interest in reality and authenticity goes deeper.
Published by Recent Work Press in 2022, the following two debut collections of poetry I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with are both stylistically and gestationally distinct from one another. Natural Philosophies by Michael J. Leach is an eclectic mixture of poetic experiments that nobly attempt to marry science and medicine with art and poetics. Theodore Ell’s Beginning in Sight, gracefully vintaged in its composition and heavily focused on the primacy of the visual, is a haunting and considered meditation on time as it unfolds beneath the eye.
Your house burns down. You reconstruct yourself in elements. It’s how you emerge into a new world of coherence, through gathering and articulating the fragments. Your body merges with others: you are fluid and combustible at once. You dispense with time and exist in multiple layers of space. You evolve from the fire. A final resolution remains out of reach.
When I first read this book, I was taken aback by all the foxes, deer, and horses. These types of animals seemed cringy, stereotypical, Disney. Why isn’t she talking about kangaroos or koalas? I thought. Native animals have more weight, more depth, more inflections. After reading it again, I realised it was me being cringe, pretending as if colonisation didn’t happen, as if I wasn’t white—a little princess—as if I wasn’t really a person and I didn’t really exist.
Both these strikingly strong recent poetry publications Body Shell Girl and Inheritance, from Australian poets of feminist inflection, deal at least in part with North American and Canadian experience. While Rose Hunter navigates with a highly effective, raw, and unsentimental diction her often traumatising experience as a sex worker in Toronto and Vancouver, Nellie Le Beau practises an innovative and, at times, a more radically challengingly poetics to send reader perception veering into uncanny encounters with our places in space-time.
In And to Ecstasy and Fugitive, Marjon Mossammaparast and Simon Tedeschi testify to psychic realities concurrent with place, realities that overflow Australian and international borders. Both books hinge on altered states of consciousness. Both are arranged in segments self-described as “pastiches” or “fragments” (Tedeschi 20; Mossammaparast 87).
Since 2015, Recent Work Press has published a consistently high standard of poets with years of accomplished adventure including Paul Hetherington, Peter Bakowski, Anne Casey, Damen O’Brien, Phillip Hall, Anne Elvey, Jennifer Compton, Rico Craig, Heather Taylor-Johnson, Cassandra Atherton, Jen Webb, Adrian Caesar, and so many others.
Both of these considerable books, The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt and At the Altar of Touch by Gavin Yuan Gao, arrived into my hands, out of their padded envelope, with all of the gravitas of prize-winners. They are, both of them, winning books—they shine with sincerity and reach and craft—and they won me over with minimal resistance on my part.
Emily Stewart is the author of numerous chapbooks, including Like and The Internet Blue. Her debut poetry collection Knocks (Vagabond Press 2016) won the inaugural Noel Rowe Poetry Award and reflected an assuredly varied approach as it experimented with multiple voices (not just in monologues but polyphonic within poems), erasure as a feminist poetics (with homage-like condensations of Lydia Davis, Helen Garner, Susan Sontag, Clarice Lispector and more), post-digital affect (extracting poetic value from online idioms in particular, though sometimes overwhelming the poetic value), all while interleaving themes of climate change, the cost of living, and more in an exploration of what it means and feels like to live in so-called Australia in the Anthropocene.
Translation and Experiment and Translation: Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From by Sawako Nakayasu (and Friends)
This review concerns poet Nakayasu’s most recent major collection (as of March 2022), the self-translated hallucination that is Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From (2020). Some Girls is one of the most advanced realizations of an experimental writing practice informed by modernist approaches to literature explicitly between languages, sensitive to a multilingual compass.
Bella Li’s hybrid poetics of text and image are instantly recognisable. Her third collection Theory of Colours follows on structurally and stylistically from her well-received earlier works: Argosy (2017, Vagabond Books) and Lost Lake (2018, Vagabond Books). Here, as with her previous collections, alchemical concoctions of form and genre blend source materials into sequences with a commitment to the surreal and uncanny.
In ‘Wintering’, the closing poem from her posthumous collection Ariel, and the last in her quintuple sequence about bees, Sylvia Plath writes: ‘will the hive survive, will the gladiolas/Succeed in banking their fires/To enter another year?’ At the time of editing, Plath was enduring one of the coldest English winters on record, one so cold that the Thames froze over.
White Clouds, Blue Rain (2021) is Oliver Driscoll’s second poetry collection, appearing a short year after his 2020 I Don’t Know How that Happened. Like his earlier work, it is concerned with the everyday: small moments of domesticity and care; conversations both mundane and profound; fleeting interactions with, but more often, observations of, an outside world whose parameters are undefined, but which nonetheless feel tightly bound, contained. To say that this is a result of the pandemic, which has certainly imbued domesticity and its imaginary with a gravitas denied to it when it was considered womanly, would be incorrect insofar as Driscoll has always had an eye for the ordinary, has always been pulled by the intimate, the close.
Petra White’s poetry has been highly and widely praised, celebrated for its seriousness, its engagement with poets like Petrarch, Dante, Coleridge and Donne, its ability to ‘recall’ these famous European names and their famous poems. She is presented as a serious poet, and has managed to get her ‘kind of Collected-poems-so-far’ onto the VCE Literature text list.
‘The actor is a heart athlete,’ Antonin Artaud wrote in 1958. He was writing about theatre, but I wonder if the same could be said of the poet. ‘To arrive at the emotions through their powers instead of regarding them as pure extraction, confers a mastery on an actor equal to a true healer’s. A crude empiricist, a practitioner guided by vague instinct. To use emotions the same way a boxer uses muscles. To know there is a physical outlet for the soul. (93 – 95).
Gareth Morgan’s Dear Eileen, is a focused yet restless collection of epistolary-poems addressed to the American poet, Eileen Myles. Published in 2020 in Puncher & Wattmann’s poetry chapbook series, Slow Loris, it is the Naarm-based poet’s first title.
There is a humour to Slow Walk Home that interrupts solemn atmospheres with a wry warmth, comedy and tragedy unfurling like contrasting petals of the same bloom. The second collection of verse by Young Dawkins, an American-born poet who has lived in Scotland and now resides in Tasmania, Slow Walk Home also pays homage to Beat poets of his generation, evident in poems such as ‘The Real Lion—Ginsberg’ and ‘Kerouac, Raton Canyon’.
Experience of mental illness presents a paradox that feels impossible for representation in language: it is at once both too personal and yet too universal for easy translation. Everyone has a measure for how it can be done; from Sylvia Plath to My Chemical Romance to Robin Williams, if we have not experienced mental illness ourselves, we have seen a multitude of others grapple with it and have become (we think) discerning arbiters of the real.
In the ‘Reflection from the author’ at the beginning of Dona Juanita and the Love of Boys (Buon Cativi Press, 2020), Gabrielle Everall states: ‘The main struggle of the novella is about the protagonist’s love of boys. Some of the poems are written about two guys I had crushes on’, as well as, ‘there is lesbian erotica … as my best sexual experience was with a woman.’
The writer Phillip Hoare, celebrated author of The Whale and self-confessed sea obsessive, once wrote: ‘Our bodies are as unknown to us as the ocean, both familiar and strange; the sea inside ourselves.’