Paul Hetherington Reviews The turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry

By | 1 November 2014

Juan Garrido-Salgado’s narratives are from the perspective of a Chilean Australian – poignant, thoughtful works that probe issues of injustice and the relationship of personal history to the larger body politic. Perhaps this anthology would have benefited from more works of this kind – although many Australian poets do not often explicitly engage with social and political issues. In this respect, the anthology may be an indication of how relatively affluent and comfortable Australian poets have tended to be over recent decades, at least in material terms. Reading this book may provide an opportunity for all of us to pause and reflect on what this relative lack of political engagement may mean in an increasingly unequal and polarised society – and to consider what we might or might not ‘remember’ in that context.

It is interesting to note how many of this anthology’s poems are about things. Dorothy Porter provides a poised reflection about how ‘our things / outlive us’, even ‘the splash / of vivid, intimate / usefulness / in the broken / ceramic jug.’ And in ‘who says the stick is lifeless’, Christopher Kelen asks a simple and resonant question:

who calls the twig
to reach past winter
like a hand
for warmth
slipped into a glove
so that the bird
will sing?

Geoff Page’s ‘Reef’ is also about things, bringing a welcome wittiness to the volume as it considers the proliferation of fish ‘swimming in their free verse world’. Tracy Ryan’s ‘Roma Tomatoes’ has something of the exuberance of ‘Reef’, but in long, captivating sensuous lines. More generally, there are poems of conspicuous and resonant clarity throughout. These include Mike Ladd’s ‘At Maude’ – a poem partly about simplicity that considers how various kinds of entanglement and doubt occur – and Felicity Plunkett’s ‘Learning the Bones’, which beautifully marries ruminations about language, poetry and death. And Jennifer Harrison’s ‘Shells’ exemplifies the power and eloquence that attends to an attentive and nuanced explication of images and ideas:

The shells on my desk are in a clear
plastic box. I visit them daily. I see them
on my way to work as I rush down the hall.
Strangely, they have kept their colour, and form,
as though that day will not age

A few of the other works that strike me are Pam Brown’s small tour de force, ‘Fall to Float’; Sarah Day’s beautifully and affectionately observed ‘Hens’; and Dan Disney’s droll ‘Standing Among the Philosophy Class’, in which ‘The trees // are wearing the shape of trees’. David McCooey’s ‘On Wasting Time’ also has an appealing touch of drollness and wry self-deprecation. Judy Johnson’s ‘Train Town’ focuses chiefly and superbly on the relationship between the poem’s persona and her father (and his railway watch). The selection from Philip Salom’s work is in one sense gratifying because his evocation of a man recovering from aphasia is beautifully done. It’s a shame, though, that there are not other selections from his diverse oeuvre.

Richard Tipping’s seven visual or ‘concrete’ poems are unquotable in review, but enlivening in the anthology, while the selection of John Tranter’s work captures his often mordant style well. His ‘version’ of Hölderlin’s ‘When I Was a Boy’ is a superb example of how many contemporary poets are making fruitful and transformative use of the literary and historical traditions they have inherited. David Musgrave’s ‘Open Water’ meditates on history itself and Maria Takolander’s ‘Sleep’ is a telling rumination about human (in)significance. The anthology ends very well, with striking works by Chris Wallace-Crabbe – including ‘The Poem of One Line’: ‘Whatever Christ meant, it was not this’ – Ania Walwicz, Samuel Wagan Watson (including his superb poem ‘Finn’), Miriam Wei Wei Lo, Petra White, Morgan Yasbincek, and Fay Zwicky.

Overall, I would praise Kinsella’s enterprise in putting this, in some respects idiosyncratic, book together. While it only represents a subsection of contemporary Australian poetry, this is no doubt partly because Australian poetry is going through efflorescence at present. There are so many poets writing well, and so much variety in their writing, that no container would easily hold their works. And although I would have liked to see Kinsella comment with more particularity and at greater length about the state of, and contexts for understanding, early twenty-first century Australian poetry in his introduction, what we have in this anthology is valuable. I recommend it to anyone interested in acquainting themselves with a significant part of what contemporary Australian poets are doing; and as a worthwhile companion to the numerous supplementary anthologies of Australian poetry that are also available.

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