Heather Taylor-Johnson Reviews Southerly

6 September 2010

Southerly 69.3: The Poetry Issue edited by Kate Lilley
Brandl & Schlesinger, 2010

The poets in this special poetry issue of Southerly stand for what is now, what is exciting/experimental and what is quality. But did Kate Lilley hand pick most of these poets, ensuring the issue would be tight, stylistically, and adhere to a chosen dogma? She does say in her intro that ‘Of the many poems that turned up in my inbox, already pre-selected by their authors, these are the ones that struck me most’. I’m not going to fault her for being non-inclusive. I say job well done. Lilley is a great pick as editor; her sensibility gels with the type of poetry Southerly tends to promote, and in this book-length collection of only poetry and poetics, Southerly is as strong as it’s ever been.

Consider the issue’s first offering: Julie Chevalier’s ‘Corner of Glebe Point Road and Broadway’, one of my favourites. It’s grungy and bold. It pulses and sings with an addict’s voice while recalling Gwen Harwood’s more domesticated ‘Suburban Sonnet’. The links between the two sonnets are alluring. Chevalier’s is a great poem and a stellar opener for the issue. It sets a brave tone.

Lilley writes that ‘One of the pleasures of a special issue like this is the opportunity to showcase longer work ‘ and to include several parts of a group of poems’. As readers of literary journals, we don’t get much of that. Ken Bolton’s twelve-page ‘Luminous Hum’ and Michele Leggott’s dense ‘northland’ are gems which probably laid dormant, however radiant, waiting for a call to poetry such as this issue of Southerly. And how privileged we are to be able to sneak-peak an obvious collection-in-the-making (or nearing production) of a single poet as we read three poems thematically linked. Laurie Duggan’s European place poems are highly entertaining and informative (if you want to, as I did, be informed of Duggan’s take on Milan, Paphos and Oxenhope), and Michael Farrell has included four poems, all titled ‘lyric’.

There is a stark switch in deliverability near the end of the poetry section. Topics become less original. Stylistically, readers go slightly unchallenged. The poems are not bad; they’re simply underdone in comparison to what came before. In checking the bios I discovered (as I had projected) that these are the poems of the emerging artists. I question the obvious placement of them, and ask why didn’t Lilley sprinkle the less practiced poets throughout the collection, allowing them to stand solidly beside the likes of Gig Ryan and Geoff Page, rather than be singled out as a group holding one another up by their promising attributes.

I wish I could say one of the emerging poets wrote a stand-out poem for me, but I have to stick to the stalwarts of the scene. Ken Bolton is naturally, brilliantly his Ken-Bolton best, evoking the jazz greats of old and finding his way to the late, great John Forbes. Then back again and forth again, ‘Luminous Hum’ is a rambling but focused poem:

                                                             Last week
they celebrated the anniversary of your death
commemorated the death /
                                               celebrated the poems, you.
                                                                  A good
turnout –
                 the young were there in force, the old
(people your age if you’d hung on

John Forbes at 58
                                No doubt you d have carried it
           all there.
                          Some Japanese people down the front
                                                          “curiously” .
          – the kind of  “curious”  you’d have
                                                 as a detail –
a further guarantee of your future
                                                you who have none
don t exist.
                        I cling on
                                               – and remember you
                      – what,  “cling” ?  “remember “?

Bolton’s deliberations are so rooted in the background of his point, yet so omnipresent, that they become foregrounding. In the most roundabout way (but again, strangely focused), he is thinking about friendship: not Forbes, but another old friend, ‘Crabby’, one who he has just decided to call because life is surprisingly way too short. I love to hear the cogs working in Bolton’s brain, see how his thoughts are transcribed onto page. I’m happy to compare the process to the music of Charlie Parker (and he can thank me later for this): immediate, tousled and (astoundingly!) focused.

There is also the poetry of Rae Desmond Jones, who I don’t at all consider experimental but who slides perfectly between the pages of this collection because he is also not mainstream: his run-on, rounded-out style is signature Rae Desmond Jones. ‘The Massage’ is a humanistic rumination of the impending execution of his masseuse’s son in Indonesia. It is the most compassionate offering in the book. He writes of the hapless boy:

I hope that he will see the moon as the bullets strike him
so then he may enter that globe of light & it will spread
white & perfect into a beautiful hit of heroin
& he will rise as his body drops into a hole

Jones’s style can be likened to a moving camera. We progress effortlessly from the image of the narrator getting the massage, to the boy in the backdrop with the cheap cap, to the vision of his imagined execution in just two short stanzas. I have to applaud the poet for making the complex changes in person, time and place seem so simple. Classic Rae Desmond Jones. The very reason why readers get so caught up in his emotion.

The last quarter of Southerly 69.3: The Poetry Issue is comprised of essays on poetry by prominent poets and reviews of books by prominent poets, written by prominent poets. Do I detect a certain emphasis on ‘quality’? In ‘Dream-work’ John Tranter takes on John Tranter, and it is nothing less than what we’d expect from Tranter. In his self-analysis, Tranter speaks of himself in the third person, aiming

to achieve some critical distance from the iconoclastic young man who begins his poetic career half a century ago, as well as from the older and ‘ one hopes ‘ wiser poet who quarrels and sometimes agrees with him in these pages.

How fortunate we are to get this inside glimpse into Tranter’s thoughts on his mentors and influences. The piece is taken from his doctoral exegesis ‘ a body of work I cannot imagine critiquing as his academic supervisor.

Kerry Leves’s considered review of Martin Harrison’s Wild Bees is highly textured. His alignment of the poet with Wallace Stevens, the Indigenous painter Lilly Kelly Napangardi, and even some spiritual practices of Buddhism, takes us on a journey of Harrison as mapped out in his book, rather than lists off a stream of poems and discusses each one as separate entities (as in Michelle Borzi’s review of Judith Beveridge’s Storm and Honey). If I didn’t already own Wild Bees, Leves’s review would encourage me to do so.

Basically, this bumper poetry issue of Southerly is worth the money, and it’s worth the read. For me and my bookshelf, it’s a collectors’ item. Good Aussie stuff.

Heather Taylor Johnson holds a PhD in Creative Writing and is a poetry editor of Wet Ink.

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Heather Taylor-Johnson

About Heather Taylor-Johnson

Heather Taylor-Johnson’s latest books are the novel Jean Harley was Here and the poetry collection Meanwhile, the Oak, as well as Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain, which she edited. She is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide.


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