Sam Byfield Reviews the APC New Poets Series

30 November 2009

Canyon by Andrew Slattery
Little bit long time by Ali Cobby Eckermann
Evengelyne by Helen Hagemann
Awake During Anaesthetic by Kimberley Mann
Australian Poetry Centre, 2009

I read the four New Poets chapbooks with a high level of curiosity and expectation. Published by the Australian Poetry Centre, these collections represent the rebirth of the Five Islands Press New Poets Series, which published the first chapbooks of approximately 75 Australian poets until its cessation in 2007. The Five Islands Press series provided an important stepping stone for a number of poets who since their first collection have established themselves in the Australian poetry landscape.

These four collections are each quite distinctive in character, and vary somewhat in quality. Of the four poets, I was previously only familiar with Andrew Slattery, a fellow Novacastrian whose poems I'd read in literary journals and who has won or been highly commended in several major national prizes, most recently the Val Vallis. Overall, I've been impressed with some of the work I'd encountered previously, and had high hopes for Canyon. There are some strong individual poems in this collection, and at his best Slattery reminds of Judith Beveridge, with great control of language and eye for detail. At times, though, Canyon lacks cohesion, and in striving too hard for depth, Slattery verges towards bathos and confusion.

Canyon opens with ‘Brim', in which the narrator and his father are walking at the Arctic Circle in Sweden. The poem contains some interesting details, and like many other poems in the collection benefits from the restraint necessitated by consistent five line stanzas. ‘River Winter' and ‘Elk' finish off a self-contained, cold climate-set opening section. ‘River Winter' is particularly strong, image and syntax and story coming together very effectively:

… the sun is an alloy

of silica and static blue. Floating branches
have stilled and shadow the surface
like the underveins of a cloud. The river
is an allegory, better than most- universal
and exacting; an ice-tray; die cast

in elemental season, depth indeterminate.

The remaining poems in Canyon are a mixed bag – some are strong, but the broad range of styles and themes suggests a sample of possible directions Slattery might pursue in years to come, rather than constituting a particularly unified collection in this instance. ‘Heliocentury' bored me into submission half way through, though ‘The Slake', ‘Westerly' and ‘Lithographone' display a sureness of purpose and confidence of image that mark Slattery as a poet to continue watching out for.

Ali Cobby Eckermann's first collection Little bit long time is quite a revelation, and for me is the highlight of this series. Eckermann, an Indigenous writer who was a member of the Stolen Generation, has been described by Robert Adamson as a ‘lyric poet following the traditions of Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Lionel Fogarty', and has received rave reviews for her powerful performances at several recent festivals. I had the pleasure of seeing her at the 2009 Overload Festival in Melbourne, and was impressed by her rhythmic, confident reading.

Little bit long time details the hardships and challenges she and generations of other Indigenous people have experienced, and is a volume that deserves to be read not only for the power of many of the individual pieces, but also as an eye-opening account of events, places and people very much outside the experience of most white Australians. It reminded me of Sino-Australian poet Ouyang Yu's writing in its power and in the importance of its story.

‘The Mountain', the opening poem of this collection, demonstrates the value of a pared back approach, confident in its imagery and in leaving some things unsaid:

Lips crack

the mountain dries up
on my tongue.

Hands blister

the mountain rises up
on my fingers.

Prima facie, some of the poems in this collection suffer from overtly simplistic language. Yet as this collection unfolded, this feature grew on me. This medium allows for potent expressions of both joy and sadness, with little pretext or pretension to muddy the waters. ‘I Tell You True' is illustrative of a tenderness and compassion which permeates this collection. It tells a story of death, abuse, and tragedy, and the alcoholism which is a consequence of this, and finishes with:

So if you see someone like me
Who's drunk and loud and cursing
Don't judge too hard, you never know
What sorrows we are nursing.

The second last poem in this collection is the extended prose poem ‘Intervention Pay Back', which documents life in a remote community and some of the impacts of the Northern Territory Intervention. The Aboriginal English used in this poem makes for interesting reading, and the use of dialect here and throughout the collection is a powerful vehicle for the expression of Aboriginal identity.

I found the final two books less convincing. Helen Hagermann's Evangelyne and Other Poems explores memories from Hagermann's youth on the Central Coast of New South Wales in the 1950s and 1960s. Many feature family members, while several deal with young romance. Many of her poems suffer from a lack of detail and an abundance of cliché. In ‘First Sex', for example: ‘he fingered the little slit between my legs. / He was hard against me, giving off little grunts.'

Hagermann seems more assured when writing prose poems, which constitute a little under half of the collection. The form seems to allow her to better capture the details and images of the time and place, though on occasions these poems feel more like shopping lists. In ‘Corner Store', she manages to cram in more than 80 nouns, many of which are accompanied by modifiers. ‘Vincenzo's Garden' is similarly noun-ridden, and runs the risk of stereotyping the Italian immigrant whose garden the poem describes, without scratching below the surface to achieve any sort of deeper understanding.

Finally, Awake During Anaesthetic is Kimberly Mann's debut chapbook. Her poems cover a greater geographic and thematic span than Hagermann's, though they are undermined by the same shortcomings. The collection starts with ‘Terimbular', which details young love in a coastal setting. In this and following poems there's a lack of precision in the language and grammar that makes it hard work for the reader. It also dissolves into the same sorts of clichés that undermine Hagemann's love poems. And then there is the particularly weird ‘Under Water':

She has a sea urchin
between her legs, so soft
it opens for tiny fish'

I read and re-read this short piece in an attempt to attach significance to the images, but the end result is ultimately one of obscurity. This collection contains a number of short poems that don't say very much. ‘Thursday Kiss', ‘There's a prickle', ‘My Beard', ‘Granada after Noon' and other poems consist of only a hand-full of lines and seem more like sketches for possible poems. It's difficult to see them being published by a decent magazine, and hard to justify their inclusion in this collection, particularly since they don't really contribute to a broader development of themes or stories.

Mann recalls experiences from the poet's childhood, and like Hagermann's they feel distant and difficult to connect with. ‘Shoulder Ride, 1975', about traveling through Southeast Asia as a child with her father, is ripe with possibilities, but because of its vagueness and reliance on cliché fails to deliver. Yogjakarta's markets are merely ‘chaotic', and overall Mann fails to move beyond the kind of images that have been done plenty of times before and with greater depth and understanding.

One final element of the APC New Poets Series worth addressing is the overall quality of production. The chapbooks' dimensions and font sizes are noticeably smaller than others I have previously encountered. In Australia, publishers like Whitmore Press and Picaro Press have consistently produced chapbooks that are easy to read, in which the poems look good on the page and have space to breathe. American chapbook publishers, like Finishing Line Press and Pudding House, have mastered the art of publishing small collections that are a pleasure to behold. The four chapbooks under review, however, perhaps due to financial pressures, contain tiny font which even in good light is difficult to read, and the small dimensions lend an overall feel of insubstantiality to the publications. Furthermore, there are a number of typos which should have been picked up before publication, and several poems are mistakenly printed twice, undermining the professionalism of the endeavour.

Sam Byfield's next collection will be published in 2010.

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