Paul Hetherington Reviews The turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry

By | 1 November 2014

In comparison, Alf Taylor’s ‘People of the Park’ is a poised, understated and tellingly poignant work about Indigenous–European Australian relations – a poem in which relatively few words do a great deal of work.

Overall, this book includes many fine writers, including a number of Australia’s most established contemporary poets. For example, Robert Gray, a celebrated imagist whose work also includes interesting philosophical ideas, is well represented. His short poem ‘Twilight’ is beautifully poised and disarmingly personal, demonstrating an assiduous craftsmanship and a capacity to shift from the presentation of imagistic detail to larger abstractions almost without the reader noticing. The generous selection from Les Murray’s work focuses on poems he has written in the last decade, generally sparer and terser than much of his earlier work and, in some respects, less approachable. However, Murray’s extraordinary verbal energy and inventiveness remains. They are hauntingly suggestive in the poem ‘Powder of Light’. Judith Beveridge is also an established figure, sometimes almost as much of an imagist as Gray, and her ‘How to Love Bats’ reminds one of her poetry’s attractive playfulness:

Visit op shops. Hide in their closets.
Breathe in the scales and dust
of clothes left hanging. To the underwear
and to the crumpled black silks – well,
give them your imagination
and plenty of line, also a night of gentle wind.

David Brooks has a liking for the way that such imagistic techniques can show the world newly and probe the mysteries of ordinary things:

Each morning
for six days now, warm from her bed,
my ten-year-old daughter
has come to sit by the window
and talk quietly, watching the sparrows
while the kettle boils,
shifting her head without bidding,
while I run my fingers
through her fine, soft hair

Kate Llewellyn’s well known ‘Lovemaking with Asthma’ begins ‘If you lower your shoulder / one inch more / I’m a dead woman’. It is a pleasure to find such a ‘favourite’ in the anthology, and also a pleasure to find reasonably generous selections from both Jennifer Maiden and David Malouf (including Malouf’s powerful poems ‘To Be Written in Another Tongue’ and ‘Wild Lemons’). There are poems of religious experience, too. Dennis Haskell’s ‘The Call’ remains one of his most subtle works, invoking an idea of a spirituality that is at once personal and domestic, deeply mysterious and ineffable:

A stilled room to which I am called
by an unknown voice, not knowing,
because of its great stillness,
that it calls from my son’s sleep.

In one respect, at least, it is fortuitous that poets are represented in alphabetical order by surname, because Adam Aitken’s ‘Forest Wat, Cambodia’ opens the anthology with an important and timely question: ‘Who knows if suffering’s inquiry leads you anywhere / but back to suffering?’ And before long one arrives (passing Ali Alizadeh’s eloquent, socially and politically engaged work on the way) at the first of Michael Brennan’s two inclusions entitled ‘Letter Home’, demonstrating a delicate tonal control – something contemporary Australian poetry in general should perhaps be better known for:

November already.
Warmer months finding form,

trays of bulbs laid out, tulips, crocus,
lilies, fat and golden offerings

brushed clean of black northern earth

Vivian Smith, who appears later on, is also a master of tone (and formally brilliant) and I enjoyed reacquainting myself with his work, particularly the beautifully poised ‘Paul Eluard in Sydney’. Smith is considered a ‘conservative’ poet in the contemporary poetic scene and the selection of his supple, sophisticated and flexible work represents one of this anthology’s particular strengths.

There are also numerous poems in this book that marry significant narrative content to their lyric preoccupations. This includes Lucy Dougan’s poem ‘The Chest’, exploring complex matters connected to autobiographical memory and identity:

There is this attic memory for me,
a chest that stood at the bottom of the bed
and haunted us. A man made out of cloth rose from it:
spectral husband, killer, stained bride
or another self – unknown, uncountenanced.

Other poems in this mode include Stephen Edgar’s beautifully poised ‘Nocturnal’, a work that captures the problematic power of knowledge and memory: ‘It’s not what we forget / But what was never known we most regret / Discovery of’. Lisa Gorton also employs narrative techniques in inflecting tropes of memory and a questing self with accumulating grandeur. Her sequence, ‘Hotel Hyperion’, breathes generously and surely, revealing a rich, unusual poetic voice that encompasses complex ideas and feelings along with an imagination that frequently invests potent abstractions with an urgent, quotidian significance. Michael Sharkey’s contemplative and ironic ‘Ancestors in Nineteenth-Century Albums’ and ‘The Superheroes in Old Comics’ refract the past through a contemporary lens.

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