Mark Roberts Reviews ‘The Best Australian Poems 2011’

22 August 2012

So on to the ‘fragments of dream-work’ (poems) themselves. Poets are arranged alphabetically – from Robert Adamson to Michael Young – and as one would expect from an anthology titled The Best Australian Poems, there are some terrific poems amongst them. In an anthology like this the individual poems, rather than poets, take centre stage. One of the stand out poems in the anthology is ‘Hugh Tolhurst, with Lines for a Poem’ by Louis Armand. Stylistically, the poem nods in Tolhurst’s direction and there are also obvious references to Yeats (‘the heaves towards its / Bethlehem’ and later ‘Something groans, Something else gets born’). The poem recalls Melbourne in 1966 as if viewed from a train window:

Young mother pegging diapers on a line – 
A black crow in its pulpit yawning at the day’s
Sermon to conscripts ganging the platforms -

The success of the poem lies in the strength of its imagery. A train trip of conscripts heading to war – a physical and metaphorical/poetic journey:

Night stabs a thorn
into the mind’s eye – we end where we began,
riding the line until the words stop

Cate Kennedy’s ‘Temporality’ is another poem which relies on memory, this time an imagined memory in a museum:

		… where so many feet have stood shifting
waiting for a welcome,
that they have worn a cupped impression in the brick.

The imagined memory/history here is not easy to identify. There are questions of importance: which items are worthy of collection? which ones disappear into history (‘in this museum objects must be noticed / in order to be named.’)?

The museum could be a physical space, or simply a place with a history suggested by worn down bricks and unknown names written in pencil on a wooden beam. There is a final realisation that the fragmented history of place is not restricted to a guided tour. At the end of the poem we sense that we too have left the building, becoming part of its fragmented history:

Well, this is where I leave you
to make your way through the rooms,
threading back and back into the hushed corners,
your lips moving with recognition,
until there are no more rooms
until you are standing empty-handed
in the sunlight.

Allan Wearne’s long prose poem sequence in 14 parts, ‘Freely and with the appropriate sense of space’, is perhaps the most humorous poem in the collection, though there are a number of others such as Jude Aquilina’s ‘An Apology’. Wearne’s poem, sub-titled ‘Dreams: lived, dreamt and composed for Ken Bolton’, relies on the reader having an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of poetry and poets (especially Australian poets), together with a better-than-average knowledge of popular culture.

For example, we meet Charles Bukowski in the first sequence. In the third we have Geoff Page, Alan Gould, Les Murray and an Anglican bishop (who has written a life of Harold Holt) sharing a meal in a Chinese restaurant. But my favourite would have to be the sixth sequence were we have John Forbes and Gig Ryan playing the parts of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in a reprise of the 1930s Hollywood romantic comedy Holiday, with Wearne himself making a cameo appearance:

John Forbes, Gig Ryan and I are in what must be a thirties
Screwball comedy. John is pursuing Gig. Gig is replying with 
Many witty lines (none of which I can remember) whilst I am 
in an Edward Everett Horton-stule support. This dream is all

Another impressive poem is Michael Farrell’s surreal nightmarish piece ‘Motherlogue’, set on the North Shore of Sydney and featuring a family which seems to consist of ‘one or two boys, one or two girls, the swan / and the suckling pig.’ There is also an encounter with a devil, who speaks backwards in multiple languages and owns a magic billy can that can never be emptied.

Other poems that caught my attention were ‘The Sublime’ by Kevin Brophy, ‘tick’ by joanne burns, ‘How the Dusk Portions Time’ by Michelle Cahill, ‘Heroes of Australia’ by Michael Sharkey, ‘Bondi rock pool. 1963’ by Amanda Stewart and ‘January’ by Jaya Savige.

This is an anthology a reader can dip into time and time again to find one or two poems rather than reading from cover to cover. While one can question its claim to represent the ‘best’ Australian poems written during 2011, there is no doubting that it does contain many fine poems and does provide a chance to discover some new voices which might otherwise have been overlooked.

Now please can somebody just think up a better title!

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About Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and is Poetry Editor for Social Alternatives Journal. His collection, Concrete Flamingos, is forthcoming from Island Press Co-operative.


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