Jal Nicholl Reviews Best Australian Poems 2010

2 May 2011

Best Australian Poems 2010 edited by Robert Adamson
Black Inc., 2010

It’s hard to write about a collection as diverse as this. It has no theme really except what Adamson mentions in his introduction, quoting Baudelaire’s poem ‘Correspondances’, a poem, to paraphrase blandly, about mysterious relations between things of different kinds. Anything can be compared to anything else, but is there a “ténébreuse et profonde unité” (“dark and deep unity”) in this collection, as Adamson seems to imply? I’m not sure what he means by “poetry is one way to decipher lyrics from electronic jargon”, but I guess that the reference to Baudelaire’s poem is a way of saying that the book as a whole is big and diverse, giving rise to a chance network of interrelations.

In the absence of an overarching theme, a more positivist approach might be called for, enumerating individual poems that happen to stand out to the reviewer. The selection spans, as might be expected from its title, everyone from Stephen Edgar to Michael Farrell, with a decent balance between new and established poets, arranged in alphabetical order. One way of approaching the collection as a whole might be to divide it roughly in two, with the “traditionalist” and “experimentalist” poets (not worrying too much about terminology) competing for attention and inviting comparison.

Among the younger poets there are, for example L.K. Holt at the former end and Astrid Lorange at the latter. Holt’s poem, ‘Darwin’s Taxidermist’ is an exemplar of descriptive, literal symbolism in which understatement holds just short of a diffusion of meaning. Its final three lines sharpen the poem’s tenor without making it too explicit:

Take much care in setting the eyelid;
the expression – of belief, or nonbelief –
depends altogether on this.

Lorange’s poem ‘Attraction’ stands out in the first place as a surprisingly lengthy contribution by a largely unknown poet. Here we find a somewhat disconcerting profusion of cultural references within a convoluted and ambiguous, though strongly modulated syntax. The representative fourth stanza, for example, gives a good idea of her breezy academic wit and its multidirectional profusion:

sex is topography (sketchy
altitudes and effects of climate)
Neopavlovian whatever, a Truffaut
version, mapped like syrup or gravel
into the hanky pleats of time sense

Continuing with the “agents of a dispersing avant-garde” (as Adamson quotes Peter Porter on two of the other poets present), Pam Brown’s contribution addresses the Steinian “perpetual present” in a sparser piece composed of the loosely linked free-verse constellations she has been employing recently. Though witty and intelligent, I am concerned that it commits the fallacy of imitative form, surrendering to the formlessness her subject seems to dictate:

                             the perpetual present
                is exhausting

way too many
               concurrent points of view

—something too free in aleatory—

Concerning the continually present but allegedly dispersing avant-garde, then, there are at least several others who share the enterprise of Michael Farrell, whose piece here is a humorous slapstick narrative in his best style (“Nurses cruise through pursued by reporters on trikes”), and Chris Edwards, whose poem about Marilyn Monroe evokes the sensibility of the New York School.

Derek Motion’s Judith Wright Prize-winning ‘forest hill’ is a cryptically written reminiscence of boyhood that nevertheless possesses a strong sense of the lyric subject:

again                   uncool with every collection of coin & stamp
my growing freedom was grounded
by bic-pen blow-darts

Although how one feels about lines such as “I am awful disconnected               huddled in a first-person white” will naturally depend on how one feels about the kind of politics associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of poetry.

There is also Duncan Hose, whose poem about Ned Kelly, ‘Lyrebird’, carries a Poundian aura while, rather than pursuing a historical narrative through presentation of luminous detail, it depicts instead a succession of disguises, finally settling for aporia at the centre of its ironic hagiography:

Ned Kelly as the night jar, bone jar
   little jar of bones we’d worship if
      we c’ld only find it if
         we c’ld find it

Not wishing to pursue an overly divisive classification, there is clearly something the likes of Kevin Hart and Stephen Edgar have in common as against not just the previous several poets mentioned but the majority of contributors here. Call it Classicism. Edgar is fascinating for the extraordinary level of formal skill that goes into each sentence and stanza. Using perfect rhyme almost exclusively, he constructs large, elegant nonce-stanzas with a relaxed clarity of diction seldom seen. The poem here is in his usual style, solving the problem of contemporary rhyme-and-meter-shyness by simply spacing out the rhymes over a long stanza. Not that a poem is improved by its difficulty per se, but such an example of well-chosen and well-executed form deserves notice:

              why, this was easy:
Christmas when he was seven, and his aunt
Playing a Polonaise by Chopin,
Badly. Lenore,
‘We know you think you can, dear, but you can’t.’
And he was resting, queasy
From too much pudding. Now, another door

Formally facile in his almost exclusive use of an unmodulated blank verse, Kevin Hart is nevertheless an exciting poet. His contribution here is, like Edgar’s, a visionary meditation on mortality; but where Edgar’s is on the scale of the individual life, Hart imagines a numinous convocation in “the Museum of Shadows”:

Go see a silhouette of Genghis Khan
Or Vlad bent over, working on a spike,
A Japanese at home inside a wall,
Go see young Cleopatra’s nose …

This is a poem in which details matter, where the angel of the Annunciation’s “trembling wing” is caught, albeit not described, as if on film.

This volume also contains its quota of more quotidian subject-matter (Ouyang Yu’s “the air strong with horse / shit, so strong”), with detailed description and localised settings strongly foregrounded. There is Jaya Savige’s ‘Summer Fig’, for instance, exhibiting a certain preciousness in passages like “Soon we will return to the impossible / puzzle of light, cut by hot oscilloscopes”. Unfortunately all of Savige’s energy seems to have gone into descriptive imagery, leaving the reader confused as to what the poem was actually about.

Alongside Seamus Heaney, Les Murray is probably world master of the descriptive style. His piece ‘The Mirrorball’ plays out the opposition between city and country, modernity and something else, that readers of his poetry will recognise as one of its primary themes. As is often the case with Murray’s work, precision of metaphor (“the bus driver restarts / his vast tremolo of glances”) creates a highly concrete ambience that suits well such developed particularity of reference.

It is entirely possible I have misinterpreted Savige’s poem, but, if not, it invites comparison on a thematic level with the very different contribution by Peter Kenneally, a poet whose work I had not previously encountered. His moving ‘Faultlines’ is interesting for a naturalness of diction combined with extreme formal restriction (two alternating rhymes over twenty-four lines). This is the plain style of Gascoigne and Raleigh projected into the present day:

What’s not a fence cannot be mended
With a silent, useless tongue
It’s my fault because I’ve tended
As always, just to go along

Is there something trite in this fence metaphor (the only metaphor, incidentally, in this outstandingly simple and unified poem)? When a poem speaks so frankly it can be hard to judge.

Judith Beveridge has three poems on display here, with two in the archetypal voice of Devadatta, cousin by marriage to Gautama Buddha. These are psychologically powerful and works that stand out as deriving from an apposite use of contrasts the emotional force of longer narrative works. In this they take on a similar gravity to the lyrics of Thomas Hardy.

The custom is for the reviewer to gesture towards some adventitious thematic unity when reviewing anthologies like this one. But there is no short, informative answer to the question, “What have Australian poets been doing over the past year?” They have been writing love lyrics, elegies, animal poems, poems including history, etc. as always (and, at least since the 70s, transliterating poems from other languages, e.g. Justin Clemens’ version of Rilke’s ‘Sonnet to Orpheus #5’). What this anthology gives us is an interesting cross-section of several ongoing traditions, and a reminder of the widely differing ways in which poetry can function.

Jal Nicholl is a poet living in Melbourne, currently working on the manuscript of a first collection.

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Jal Nicholl

About Jal Nicholl

Jal Nicholl has published poems and reviews in various places online and in print. He also writes and has begun to publish short stories in the horror genre. He lives in rural Victoria with his wife and son and two dogs, where he teaches high school English.

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