Paul Munden Reviews The Best Australian Poems 2016

By | 28 March 2017

The Best Australian Poems 2016
Sarah Holland-Batt, ed.
Black Inc., 2016

In her introduction to this anthology, editor Sarah Holland-Batt claims for the work ‘a colloquialism, contrarianism and playfulness that separates it from its counterparts in the northern hemisphere’. Being hitherto more familiar with that northern hemisphere, this reviewer’s critical interest was immediately aroused.

The nearest equivalent publication in the UK and Ireland is the annual Forward Book of Poetry. It differs in that it features the winning, shortlisted and highly commended poems for the Forward Prizes for Poetry, as selected by a team of judges. On glancing through both anthologies as a casual browser might (in some utopian international bookshop), it is true that several pages of the BAP make a deliberately playful pitch for attention. But playfulness can run deep, and is sometimes appreciated only when a reader tunes into the particular colloquialism and contrarianism that surely characterises vigorous poetry in many parts of the world. For readers less familiar with those particularities, something may well ‘suffer a bit / in the translation’, to use a phrase that Holland-Batt quotes from a poem by Michael Dransfield.

For example, I smiled at Laurie Duggan’s mention of ‘daylight saving’ (‘A Northern Winter’), not a phrase likely to be recognised in England, where the poem is set. In his poem ‘Hossegor’, Jaya Savige highlights a cultural gulf to extended, comic effect:

Surfing probably didn't occur to the Vikings
   but then you never know—maybe one of Asgeir's men
      found himself oaring his chieftain's faering

for this Biscay shore, just as a set wave jacked—
   the kind that narrows the eyes of the guns
      who yearly light up the Quicksilver Pro

A significant number of poems in both the BAP and Forward anthologies are set outside their nominal territories – a natural consequence, perhaps, of the diversity of contributors. Even so, a relative newcomer to the Australian poetry scene might expect the Australian landscape itself to loom larger. (There is relatively little of the British landscape in the Forward, too; what does this suggest – that an urban sensibility holds sway? At a time when the natural world is under the most savage of political threats, one might perhaps expect more active concern.) Phillip Hall’s ‘Royalty’ stands out in this respect, a poem the very texture of which captures the feel of the bush, providing too a vivid depiction of family ritual. And Michael Brennan’s ‘There and Then’, with its casual prose rhythms, is a strong rural vignette, intensely attuned to the physical attributes of the scene.

Both anthologies include a sprinkling of prose poems, but even more noticeable is the number of long poems. In the past two years Geoff Page, as editor of the BAP, sought poems of preferably one or two pages. This year, Holland-Batt has included some that run to six, as has the Forward. This seems fine in principle, but not all the long pieces would seem to justify their space. Page’s selections were also structured thematically; here there is no such ‘support’ for poems; they live (or die) with neighbours either side but with purely random correspondence. The logic behind Holland-Batt’s selection, however, is persuasive, and her introduction is an eloquent, stimulating discussion of poetry’s importance. She states that the poet ‘often registers the uneasy vibrations of a culture before the repercussions are felt by the body politic’, and that an effective poem ‘detonates in the instant of its reading’; that power may be somewhat ephemeral, but she makes a claim for durability, too. Few would argue with her assertion that poetry gets beyond the ‘truthiness’ of political discourse (or even the post-truthiness). But do the selected poems live up to the claim? Will these poems last ‘for millennia’?

The only plausible way of answering that is to identify poems that one already senses a wish to return to, poems that offer immediate rewards that are balanced by a further level of intrigue – a difficulty that is justified (as opposed to an incoherence posing as faux complexity), or as Holland-Batt puts it, ‘[language] whose subtleties and nuances are worth puzzling over’. (She describes her own considerable re-readings in order to make a case for a particular poem’s worthiness of our puzzlement, but such extensive re-reading is unlikely to be replicated by most readers of the anthology.)

Some poems win immediate attention through their arresting openings, Tim Thorne’s ‘Jakhan Pollyeva’ being a strong example:

Putin's speechwriter in a leopard print dress
with plunging neckline performs her latest poems
before chatting up the President of Kyrgyzstan.

Shari Kocher’s ‘Foxstruck’, with its long opening sentence, is similarly compelling, and Petra White’s poem ‘On This’ begins ‘Coming at you like a wave’, the whole poem energised by that that initial thrust, and continuing to surprise. Some, of course, put much store in their titles: ‘Blow Job (kama sutra)’ by Bronwyn Lea is unlikely to be skipped but also genuinely amusing, not least in its rhymes.

Other poems achieve their ends via much quieter beginnings. Debbie Lim’s previously unpublished ‘A House in Switzerland’ – going beyond Australian borders for a specific purpose, the termination of life – builds into a poem of considerable impact. As Holland-Batt points out, there is a strong, dark current in much of the work, balancing the playfulness, from the unflinching gaze of Robyn Rowland’s ‘Night Watch’, to poems that are explicitly political, such as Ali Cobby Eckerman’s powerful ‘Black Deaths in Custody’ and Lisa Jacobson’s ‘The Jews of Hamburg Speak Out’, one of a number of poems drawn from Writing to the Wire (UWAP, 2016). Also notable is Fay Zwicky’s ‘Boat Song’, a haunting poem that is, remarkably, both political and playful, as well as exhibiting a strong allegiance to form, which is yet another defining quality of many poems in the anthology (as is true too of the Forward). The beautifully controlled simplicity of Zwicky’s concluding lines are particularly striking:

We bring photos and candles and
Mountains of flowers upon flowers upon
Flowers upon flowers.

Poems by Judith Beveridge, David Malouf and others use stanzaic structures that incorporate energetic, conversational rhythms. Chris Wallace-Crabbe is almost alone in using consistent rhyme: his poem, ‘Altogether Elsewhere’, has a natural eloquence that thrives on intuitive patterning; some poems that make a big show of their looser fluidity seem by contrast rather forced. Holland-Batt points to the famed Australian ‘sprawl’, which at its best is highly engaging, but when it veers into ‘slack’, poetic power is inevitably reduced. Some poems here have unfortunate repetitions (unlike Zwicky’s highly charged example above), as if they have not been sufficiently revised. Some lack vigour, letting phrases pile up rather aimlessly, a lack of verbs not helping. Few of the unpunctuated poems entirely convince, rhythmically; they haven’t always replaced punctuation with effective spatial alternatives in the way, for instance, that Pam Brown has in ‘Rooibos’, which works as an effective musical score. There is nothing that looks less fresh than the echoes of yesteryear’s avant garde; and the haphazard use of such attention-seeking elements seems particularly bizarre. To take a fitting line from Verity Laughton’s ‘Kangarilla, Summer 2016’: ‘Chaos once cast charm. It doesn’t now.’

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