Phillip Hall Reviews Connie Barber, Meg Mooney and Jenni Nixon

By | 19 May 2016

The Edge of Winter, by Connie Barber
Ginninderra Press, 2015

Being Martha’s Friend, by Meg Mooney
Picaro Press (an imprint of Ginninderra Press), 2015

swimming underground, by Jenni Nixon
Ginninderra Press, 2015

These three poets, who exist outside university creative writing and humanities faculties, have ‘chosen’ a publisher independent of Australia Council arts funding and have been somewhat neglected by critical attention and awards recognition. All three poets collect richly lyrical and narrative poetry that praises the natural world and interrogates different aspects of our ability to live in it respectfully. All three collections are beautifully presented and feature stunning cover artworks that reveal each poet’s preoccupations and intentions.

The cover of Connie Barber’s The Edge of Winter features her own idyllic, if very conventional, painted winter creek-bend on the edge of suburbia. Meg Mooney’s book also has a bespoke artwork, by Sally Mumford – a drawn portrait of the poet smiling admiringly at her Indigenous friend, Martha. Swimming underground by Jenni Nixon presents an abstract expressionist picture by Rosemary Raiche that reverberates with all the energy of John Olsen’s Sydney Harbour landscapes. Each cover reveals a poetics of praise and a determination to communicate accessibly while locating in their respective settings the imagery necessary to explore such human concerns as relationships, old age and loss, environmentalism, racism, urban and remote living.

Nixon’s swimming underground opens with the energetically evocative and fast-paced Sydney poem, ‘harbour spin’, but Nixon is not content to just sit back and describe this ‘city that never comes to an end’. As she responds to the frenetic and culturally enriched urban space she also has a keen eye for its paradoxes of social justice:

sandstone and sparkling glass buildings
rasp the sky of infinite riches
lose yourself in a city of green park beauty.
trawl down deprivation alleys where the homeless beg
on pavements with cardboard signs the more enterprising
sell copies of The Big Issue.
this harbour city thumping under constant reconstruction
in a ‘bag lady’s waltz’ twirl of traffic through tunnels
burning rubber over buried shell middens
of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation
on to freeways and down thoroughfares into back alleys
in an eternal search for parking.

And while I would delete the full-stops from these lines that are written without other traditional punctuation markers (what do they add to a poem that is not already achieved by the line division?), Nixon is successful in juxtaposing the movement, wealth and poverty of a city like Sydney.

Nixon’s book includes many narrative poems that sensitively respond to the opportunities, and often-tragic consequences, of her family’s involvements in the First and Second World Wars. Of these poems, ‘a question of spirit’ is a real highlight. This poem opens with the unforgettable:

behind the iron gates wild-eyed men cry out in the night
queue of pink and white pills
within the mind electric currents pulsate
fuse thought     no money     no rights to a lawyer
thinking of the poet Francis Webb
in a carefully trimmed and well-tended garden asylum
time measured by the migration of birds
tree branches become monsters
a weeping fig draws sustenance from dry soil
splayed fingers search scatter rocks deep underground
dig at the foundations     lift sandstone blocks
turn drops of moisture as a Sannyasin would finger beads

my grandfather knew madness at Gallipoli
learnt the Latin names of trees
became a horticulturalist     a supplier of seed
cultivated delirium from the Book of Revelation
Turks no match for fear of his God’s reckoning

To these family memoirs, that situate the personal so effectively within Australia’s wartime past, Nixon adds historical narratives on such movements and people as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Arthur Stace (Sydney’s ‘Mr Eternity’) and the convict past. In ‘borderlines’ she also writes movingly of the current refugee crisis in Australian public policy and of the apathy of too many voters:

out-of-control bushfires burn red across the skyline
cricket bats     thwack     tennis balls     pock
in scorching summer heat     frolic in a pool
dive in the ocean     who cares about refugees?

Nixon advocates effectively and angrily:

next we must stop the birds
crossing sovereign borders
send them packing
process them in cages offshore
as the European pigeon said to an Indian mynah:
go back to where you came from.

While in ‘frontier wars’ Nixon juxtaposes memories of her Nanna knitting with the need for protest and resistance:

Nanna Mavis’s needles click release a stream of honey
her long golden scarf to toss across a bulldozer.

As Nixon says: ‘complaints grow woven together / strand by strand’.

Meg Mooney, in Being Martha’s Friend, also makes effective use of narrative form and juxtaposition as she writes her descriptions of fragile Central Australian arid environments, celebrating her time spent camping and collecting bush tucker with Martha and other Indigenous friends. And, again like Nixon, Mooney is not content to merely recount and praise, as she also develops a subtle poetics of dwelling. Mooney knows only too well that the country around Alice Springs is ‘criss-crossed / with lines of tragedy / and in the town at the centre / they explode’. Amidst so much colonial damage, Mooney advocates evocatively for mutual respect between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians and for time spent together while learning about each other’s culture. When camping with Indigenous friends she describes in ‘Along way across the plateau’ how:

there are hands, all sizes
red ochre on leached shelter walls
still clear after thousands of years

somehow my mind eases
among all these spread hands
in overhangs facing the warm north
between tall rock domes

In experiencing such welcome to country Mooney knows that she is enriched:

my sorrow feels safe here
with so many other stories
among the passageways and caves
maybe this was a good place
where people took refuge for a while
ate rock wallabies, bush plums, figs

and after so many years of quiet
their spirits seem to welcome 
sounds of laughter and talking into the night

In such poems as ‘Ilpili’, ‘For the Future’ and ‘Mostly loss’, Mooney celebrates such initiatives as the Indigenous Ranger Program and ‘Two-Ways Learning’ to not only care for country but also affirm culture and educate Indigenous youth. As she writes in ‘A different history’, it is when visiting country and camping that joy, amidst so much ‘sorry business’, can at last flourish:

everyone is happy car-walking along this track
it feels like we’ve slipped back with the old people
roaming familiar country, feasting in these good times
I can almost hear them laughing

Connie Barber’s poetry is centred on the winter landscapes of Melbourne’s Merri Creek as she locates in this natural environment the imagery she needs to explore her concerns of old age, loss, hope and renewal. In ‘Ninety Soon Enough’ Barber writes:

a calm time     release from all demand     only the day to face
like an infant year time expands and suddenly contracts
the year has gone     and days slow to a walking pace

there is no chance to control time letting go the poles
that keep days upright     days that might wash around the feet
surge and trip until the world is turning underfoot

These are the opening stanzas of a wonderful short lyric that so effectively employs the space between words and line division in order to prevent punctuation from controlling or corralling the progression of language in the same way that we are unable to halt the flow of time.

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