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.