BEST OF 2011
Well, SLoBs, it’s April, so it is now time to comment on the year that has passed. 2011 was a most poetic year. Australian Poetry Limited launched its first international tour, to Ireland in 2012. Much poetry written in Australia is world class, but it rarely gets the chance to travel to wider audiences. Congratulations to Petra White and Paul Hetherington, who will be touring Ireland. SLB hopes this inaugural tour opens a series of many more. APLtd also launched its flagship journal, ‘Australian Poetry’. Congratulations to editor Bronwyn Lea on an excellent first issue.
The institution of a Poetry Chair at the University of Technology in Sydney is excellent news. And as the inaugural Chair, Robert Adamson is the perfect choice, both in his own illustrious publishing record, and also in his role as an editor of Anthologies and as a visible and benevolent actor upon the poetry scene. He knows the terrain of Australian poetry, and his tastes are broad. SLB will be fascinated to see what the chair can do to promote the reading and study of poetry. UTS also launched the City Poet Program – congratulations to the first Sydney City Poet, Kate Middleton. SLB has been enjoying her blog.
In December, SLB was deeply satisfied to hear that poetry will now be honoured among the Prime Minister’s 2012 Literary Awards, alongside another newcomer, Australian History, and the pre-existing categories of Fiction, Non-fiction and Children’s Literature. This inclusion of poetry is overdue: it’s a measure of poetry’s status in Australia that it was not originally included in the prizes. I can’t imagine this happening in many other countries, and it must have been particularly lowering for organisations such as the various poets’ unions, poetry festivals, websites and APLtd, which all work hard to raise the profile of poetry, to have the art so loftily ignored. The prize of $80,000 (and the $5,000 for four shortlisted books) makes it by far the richest for poetry in this country. We have in the past on SLB commented on the varied quality of judgements in poetry prizes. Prizes don’t always go to the best books, and I have heard the opinion in the poetry world that it would be better to abolish prizes altogether. The gold medal on the cover can certainly be very misleading. But, as we all know, poetry does not pay, in fact it mostly actively impoverishes and, like a grant, prize money can make a massive difference in a poet’s life and their purely practical ability to write. A round of applause to the lobbyists who achieved this inclusion, whoever they may be.
SLB was saddened in 2011 by the deaths of some of our best poets: Aileen Kelly in Australia and Peter Reading in the UK.
2011 also saw the publication of new Australian poetry. Here are our favourite books of 2011:
Collected Poems by Francis Webb (edited by Toby Davidson, UWAP)
The Collected Poems of Francis Webb is without a doubt the publishing event of the year. Prior to this Webb had been out of print for some years; University of Western Australia Press is to be congratulated for bringing Webb up out of obscurity. Editor Toby Davidson has done an excellent job of bringing together a seamless and very well referenced collection. My only dissatisfaction with the book is the introduction: Davidson mostly talks about his editorial decisions, while I was hoping for something more detailed and explorative about Webb. Webb is a great, and to my mind, terrifying poet, writing about madness, religion, loss, innocence and memory with an eye almost Shakespearean in its unwavering focus on realities. The poetry is always elegant and richly textured and visual. Take this stanza, from ‘Melville at Woods Hole’:
It is an illusion, a dream then, that these are still
And always yours, the sculptured shadows of the coves
Crocketed with weathered houses
And wharves askew; that the falling glass arouses
Your voice, dazing the clouds; that your antique will
Whitens into sail and is ever outward bound,
While over lifting waves
Come skipping like thin stones the spinet voices of the drowned.
This forces you to read it slowly and take it in at its own pace, culminating in a sudden speeding up in the long last line. The book can be opened anywhere and poetry of this quality found. His greatest poems include ‘A Drum for Ben Boyd’, ‘Ward Two’, ‘Eyre All Alone’, ‘Leichardt in Theatre’ and the fascinating verse play ‘Birthday’, among many others. More on Francis Webb here. PW
Southern Barbarians by John Mateer (Giramondo)
In Southern Barbarians, John Mateer follows his abiding interest in the history of empires, and in post-colonial identities. Internal and lyrical, but also polyvocal, Mateer’s poems investigate the ways in which national and ethnic factors shape identity, and widen out to more metaphysical questions about how we define and recognise ourselves. The poems’ music is unfailing, and the politics challenging – provoking thought, more than mere agreement.
I’ll be posting an essay on Mateer’s poetry very soon. EC
The Brokenness Sonnets by Mal McKimmie (Five Islands)
Mal McKimmie’s second book picks up very explicitly where his first ended – republishing and extending his sonnet sequence begun in the first, alongside various new poems with similar concerns about illness, disability, madness and, conversely, of wholeness and normality. The poems wrestle with all these categories, arguing their porousness and dramatising the violence they do when they are used on us or by us. McKimmie’s work is complexly metaphorical, its risky and intensely-thought abstractions sung through the rhymes, half-rhymes, repetitions and reversals of his language. A grim humour takes pleasure throughout in dark and riddling punning and wordplay.
Watch out for a link to my review of The Brokenness Sonnets, appearing soon in Southerly’s Long Paddock. EC
The Keeper of Fish by Alan Fish and Keeping Carter by M A Carter (both edited by Philip Salom, Puncher and Wattmann)
Philip Salom is that rare thing in Australian poetry: a true avant-gardist, subverting the ‘lyrical I’ (or perhaps the lyrical narcissist) with Pessoa-like heteronyms who have no time for the niceties of contemporary poetry. Though he keeps a handle on his heteronyms (the ‘offensive’ M A Carter and the ‘love and death’ fixated Alan Fish) by having his own name on the cover as ‘editor’, Salom expands from his own identity as a poet and succeeds in producing two new, different styles and kinds of poetry for each heteronym – which he may not have written as Salom, yet paradoxically are unmistakably his own. Perhaps the function of the heteronym is that it severs not only the poet from the ‘I’, but also the reader from the poet – challenging our readerly habits of attachment to a ‘voice’ (and some readers may find this off-putting). The books are presented with piss-taking blurbs, bios and introductions to the ‘poets’ who, like Ern Malley, seem tantalisingly real and fully-formed. Salom has fun with his heteronyms, but this is not a self-indulgent or whimsical exercise: the poems are real and this is more than just an exercise. The poems present a challenge both to readers and to poets (and poetry). They don’t set out to charm the reader: take MA Carter’s ‘Poetry and Beauty’, with its concluding lines ‘Playing honest? Yes? In our hearts we are all fakes,/ which is something not said by the sentimentalists’. These are the final two volumes of the ‘Keepers’ trilogy – the first of which was written by Philip Salom. PW
The Yellow Gum’s Conversion by Simon West (Puncher and Wattmann)
The Yellow Gum’s Conversion is Simon West’s second book. His poetry is lyrical and sometimes hermetic. A myth-like forest is present in many of the poems; trees are a source of metaphor but also of the mysterious and the possible, a repository of thought and feeling from which the poems draw. Often there is a sense of transformation, as in the title poem: ‘how time saw the invader’s miraculous flight, /and the tree came back with a flourish all its own’. I particularly like the sequence ‘A Valley’, which is perhaps the most hermetic in the book, meditating the strangeness of language and our place in/ experience of the natural world. This is a beautiful, elegant book. PW
And then when the by Dan Disney (John Leonard Press)
And then when the is Dan Disney’s first book. Surreal, philosophical and playful, this book is engaging, challenging and entertaining. Disney is wonderfully at home in the realms of literature and philosophy, locating it in the world of the mundane. My favourite poem is the extended sequence ‘epigraph poems’ in which each short poem springs from epigraphs taken from everywhere, from Anne Carson to Orhan Pamuk to Immanuel Kant; I like the line ‘The golden means of production/ exhaust and then make real … the clangour of us imperfect/ as sensoria awaiting the succour/ of authenticity’. More on Dan Disney here. PW
The Wing Collection: New and Selected Poems by Diane Fahey (Puncher and Wattmann)
The Wing Collection is a substantial selection of Fahey’s work, starting with her first book, Small Wonders, a book which establishes her poetic interest in insects and birds. I am told by the poet that some of the earlier poems are substantially revised – a temptation few poets can resist – and in most cases the poems are improved. Her poems are quiet, with a quality of slowly soaking in, her images immediate and often surprising. I like the selection from ‘The Sixth Swan’ which reinvents classic fairy tales – something I would normally hate, but Fahey does it with some irony and urgency, as well as compassion for the mythical figures. Likewise her versions of ancient myths are fresh and interesting, activated by her fascination with metamorphosis. The late poems about her mother are moving and surprisingly sensual, particularly ‘Before the Heat’. PW
New and Selected Poems by Gig Ryan (Giramondo)
New and Selected Poems is Gig Ryan’s first book since Heroic Money (2002). It includes generous selections from all of her previous books, and 26 new poems. Her work always has an edge of the satirical and self-mocking, and often a quality of randomness and attitude, but within this there is an austerity and a formality, as in ‘Success’: ‘The phone clatters shut/ Sticking wind winds around the house/ She stares ‘I got the injections with the pedicure and wax’/ self-absorbed like a columnist/ The committed tea-towel and toy clothes bang/ I take the cake of sadness/ Mice slide on dust’. The world of a Gig Ryan poem is often surreal and unsettling: nothing in the poem is inanimate, everything speaks and jars. In the new poems, Ryan is as on form as ever. Launching the John Leonard Press Young Poets anthology, Paul Magee stated that there are only ‘young poets’ – and this strikes me as particularly true of Ryan: her poetry doesn’t ‘grow up’ and become sober or quieter, it keeps a restlessly youthful energy, observing everything and accepting little, and remains true to the tight-rhythmed style she found very early and continues to perfect. PW