Briohny Doyle Reviews Five Islands New Poets Series 12

19 May 2008

Five Islands Press New Poets Series 12 by Ella Holcombe, Angela Costi, Sarah French, Craig Billingham, Nandi Chinna and Adrian Robinson
Five Islands Press, 2007

There are about 75 poets in Australia today whose first collection was published as part of the Five Islands New Poets Series. I arrive at this figure taking into account the number of years that the series has been published, allowing for what is referred to in several places as the 'slight hiccup' of 1997. If it is a little inaccurate it hardly matters. Let's say 72ish and then step back, inhale deeply and exhale a respectful 'gee, that's a lot.'

It is significant to calculate this now. Ron Petty's departure from Five Islands Press has necessitated a significant paring back of operations. New Poets 12 – consisting of chapbooks by Ella Holcombe, Angela Costi, Sarah French, Craig Billingham, Nandi Chinna and Adrian Robinson – represents the final run of the series.

Of course, the trouble with a tagline like 'New Poets' is that it saddles the reader with expectation. It's easy to start banging pots and pans, clamoring and yowling about 'originality' and the need for everything to be 'fresh'. It's hard to head into the work with a level of trust you may afford gratis to a known poet or collection. Yet Ella Holcombe's Welcome/ No Vacancy has breaths of freshness. Her strength is in writing through the miniscule moment of the every day, taking the bus-stop-reflection or the sad-pavement-happening and teasing it out into a surrealist cartography of popcorn, baby teeth and rainbow-bright balloons. Her voice is incredibly sincere however some pieces, notably her prose poems, feel occasionally unresolved and tend towards triteness, blemishing the collection, as in this example:

He couldn't quite pin point when his disease had first surfaced. He'd felt it was there for years, a dull shadow, mirroring his moves. He grew to hate parties, his words tangled and tumbled, he often hid. His face hurt when he saw people kissing.

On my first read I thought Holcombe needed to pay more attention to the overarching feel of the book. Multiple readings have convinced me that she has done exactly that, perhaps to her detriment, attempting to showcase technical variety at the expense of consistency. Her 'Accelerator', a loose, frenetic poem of image and association rumbling for streetlight supremacy, is, however, a poem apart. Raw and evocative, it sits oddly with the rest of this collection. The rhythm of this poem of highway, neon signs and shadows holds me through its restless night, leaving me wondering whether Holcombe has more of this or if it is just a 3am sleep deprivation and cheap wine experiment that went strangely right:

got slow organ music and the dread of nights alone
sitting there with the faceless
watching bodies wash up on sands
like we're watching a sunset

There is undoubtedly more pressure on 'New Poets' to impress and surprise while stalwarts are afforded the luxury of being predictable – for better or worse. The poets in this series work for your praise, though sometimes individual collections suffer under the weight of the poet's labour, becoming antipasto tempter plates, striving to sell you the writer's future in just 32 pages and convince you to take an early stake.

In Storytelling, Craig Billingham is also concerned with the everyday, though his poems are much more controlled and self assured. Billingham crafts narratives about relationships, travel and discovery. His tone is light and smooth, and his characters -mostly girls he likes – are delicate. 'Four Sonnets' and 'The Eighth Day' stand out, flagging the poet's skill in a longer form, where he has space to move, weaving in and out of image, memory and observation and tumbling into sweet, clever humour:

The cinnamon cakes were a month
past their used by date; the cork broke
like a tooth. You sighed, but silently
above the upper reaches of glass on glass.

Look, if you're not coming back,
can I wipe your ghost from the mirror?

'Exposing the threads', the opening poem of Adrian Robinson's The Slow Country, reads like a manifesto, following a reverent nod to Czesław Miłosz in epigraph:

The poets declare their superiority
like cats preening themselves

on the new philosophy
but what's the use of poetry

that goes straight for the intellect
bypassing the heart?

'Gifts' continues with this (exposed) thread, starting a dialogue which runs through the collection: 'I want the stars / But only the hint of stars'. Robinson's poems are explorations. He explores art and language through historical figures, taking a considered look at the world through the lens of John Cage, Robert Forster and Joseph Beuys. He explores music and its relationship to language beautifully. Later in 'The condition of roads', the most accomplished piece in the volume, he explores the dessert in a contrapuntal movement channelling John Stuart. Many attempt to get the dusty outback poem right; Robinson has succeeded. His poem follows Stuart's journey from Adelaide and on to Alice Springs, navigating both the unforgiving country and the mythic figure of the explorer:

through fields of yellow the highway
points true north,
past tinsel town suburbs and the empires of shopping
to the inland sea

Nandi Chinna knows the harsh south Australian landscape too. It is a voiceless but ever present family member in the poetic fragments of her rural childhood where violence lurks in the abandoned bodies of rusted out cars, high school toilets, ploughed earth. The poem 'Ngurrinderi Bones' is a carefully rendered allegory about denial and ignorance towards indigenous history in white rural Australia:

The farmer yelled that the bones were a nuisance
Getting caught in the plough tines
when the steel teeth cut them from the earth

Dad put some of the bones in the back of the Landrover
and took them home. They lay in a Hessian sack
in the cool limestone darkness of the shed,
small children crept in, playing games with string
trying to tie the bones back into a person

The malady that Chinna is concerned with in our only guide is our homesickness is not romantic, nostalgic longing. Rather she works at unravelling the fragile conception of home. An innocent country childhood is lived across a brutal, parochial milieu, the quiet suburban home conceals the hopeless, suicidal neighbour; it is not uncharted territory, but Chinna crafts it into sensitive and surprising poems.

Angela Costi on the other hand openly embraces romance and nostalgia. Her collection, Salt & Honey, is filled with sensual, languid poems addressing her identity as a Cypriot Australian and unpacking its contrasts. 'The blood rose and the artichoke heart' shows how adept she is at spinning a tale. The poem's images stayed with me for weeks after the first reading, drawing me back into the pages to absorb her clever narrative and rich rhythm. In this poem Costi is a young 'scraggy-pup' girl, dragged to the end of the train line to harvest wild artichokes and memories with her Cypriot Pappou. In a twist her grandfather injures himself with the blade and Costi sees 'red roses spread over his arms'. It's a terrific narrative poem about mortality and loss in which you can almost hear the poet's voice, as in song. There are strong characters like this poem's Pappou throughout Salt & Honey and Costi meticulously tailors their edges with sharp lines, making her chapbook bright and precious like a photograph album:

She's the only thing worth the effort of being
poor and clean, she's half his age but no mole.

In Songs Orphans Sing, Sarah French delivers dense and rhythmic poems that don't hang off their abundant impressive lines, but dance across and through them, as in 'Kiss':

The only thing
Your nudity
Is mine

Between touch
& intention
To touch

Every slip
Of the tongue
Is a lover's

French's images are startlingly vivid and she holds her humour through observation and simile in a way that allowed me quite a few satisfying 'that's so true' moments. Often her perspective is wonderfully original and, dare I say, fresh: 'A vegemite stripe / down a spiderman t-shirt, everything becomes an echo/ photographs process you'. But freshness is not a term to be offered up ubiquitously. The grunginess of 'Kiss Off' just annoyed me:

Al her nights are chucking
up orange/ fucking up badly
Sexual forgery

But then French could be being self consciously Eighties and it's going straight over this reviewer's head. I am, at any rate, sorry to imagine the debut collections which will not be published now that the Five Islands Press New Poets Series has ended.

Briohny Doyle makes the zine largeflightlessbird and has received commissions from Red Room Company and the MCA.

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