John Leonard (ed.): Young Poets: An Australian Anthology

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2011, 162pp.

If Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets gave a large number of poets a brief, walk-on appearance, this anthology of John Leonard’s presents far fewer poets at much greater length. The generation reflected here is also slightly younger than that in Thirty Poets since Simon West, the oldest, is a venerable thirty-seven. Presenting only seven poets has both advantages and disadvantages. On the debit side the selection of the poets to be included becomes less inclusive and hence more contentious. Leonard deflects this courteously in his preface by implying that his choice is one of informed subjectivity – “the poems in this anthology impress me as having a true distinction in quality and, personally, they move me” – and avoiding any comments about omissions or about the way this group might realte to other groups of poets of a similar age which could have been chosen. The enormous advantage is that readers get a twenty-page slab of poetry by each of the poets, enough to get some kind of idea as to what their poetry is actually like.

This leads me to the first of a couple of issues. The first is: Who exactly is the book for? At first I thought of it as a generous sampler for the John Leonard Press since three of the poets – Elizabeth Campbell, LK Holt and Petra White – have each had two books published by that valuable enterprise. But the tone of the Preface, focussing on the experience of reading contemporary poetry, looks very educational and it may be that this is a book imagined for undergraduate or better high school students. It would be nice for it to be successful if that is the case since what is happening now amongst writers young enough to be an older brother or sister of their reader is always more enticing for that reader than what has been done by generations before. The problem is, of course, that the contemporary is always difficult since it hasn’t had time to be fitted into a reading culture. The other objection to choosing a book like this as an educational text is that students need to be exposed to a full tradition, but this is nicely deflected when Leonard points out that this generation of poets, more perhaps than most, is informed by the poetry of the past and the possible connections it can make with that poetry. At any rate, this would be a good project to repeat for the next generation of poets, perhaps in ten or fifteen years.

The second issue doesn’t so much relate to the book per se but is a reviewer’s problem. How does one deal with a selection made up of few poets and large selections? Anthologies like the recent Australian Poetry Since 1788 and Thirty Poets ask to be considered externally. They are not really reading experiences so much as constructs that one wants to explore. If the reviewer is good enough, there will be some generational or national generalisations to be made. But you aren’t likely to find yourself talking about individual poets, let alone individual poems. The emphasis in Young Poets is squarely upon the output of seven poets and one is, at least at some stage, going to be talking about poets and their poems. Since I have written elsewhere on this site about all of these poets apart from Bonny Cassidy and LK Holt, I have used this opportunity to do some revisiting and some rethinking. I suspect that, as I write, the book in which they appear will melt away in favour the poems and poets which appear in it, almost as though it were no more than a group of pamphlets.

To begin with the first of the two poets I haven’t previously written about in detail, the poems of Bonny Cassidy are probably the most challenging in the book. They are in what is usually called a “post-Poundian” mode that is always going to be at odds with the kind of explorative free verse of contemporary Australian poetry, reflected in the work of the other poets of this book. In fact “post-Olsonian” might be more accurate though the amount of personal detail would have irritated a man opposed to the “lyrical ego”. You might find a connection with some of the poems of Laurie Duggan but his is really a kind of poetic anthropology, absorbed by cultures and their signs and seeing geology, say, more as a determining frame than a subject in itself. At any rate, Cassidy’s poetry is marked by its experimenting with an unusual mode and I am, consequently, on its side. This kind of poetry never takes itself for granted and so, whether it is talking about Margaret Stones’s botanical art or about the “recent” geological history of New Zealand, it will always have, as an undertone, the theme of what it is doing, how it is seeing. “Range” is a good example of this, beginning with sight and sound and quickly moving into a kind of self-directed imperative:

     A bird breaks
itself down, ties
its rune into a knot.

Always begin with a bird, like ruling a line
that stretches into angles . . .

This five-part poem is about the act of describing (it ends, “describing what you have seen”) and as such is about “creativity”. But even more it is about profoundly metaphysical issues since it seems to presume a particular relationship between the natural world and the observer. On the basis of the twenty pages of poetry here, it seems to reflect that American perspective of the way the self interacts with nature, but Australia has no tradition of transcendentalism or even of the kind of observer represented by someone like Ammons, so one wonders whether it is a model that has been, can be, or was intended to be, transported across the Pacific. Certainly the long section fom “Final Theory” included here (a Prologue and the first of four parts) seems quite distinctive, largely because it contains such a personal element – in fact, in many respects it seems as much a love poem as a registering of the geography, culture, botany and geology of New Zealand. The dynamism of the poem seems to derive from its exploration of scales, the delicious disjunctions between geological time-scales, for example, and the lives of the couple which the poem traces. It is certainly an issue that the poem returns to regularly:

That new space was dense with actuality. Its absurd
became acceptable, for instance, everything was middle
Distance arrived from above and stayed until cloud locked us
 . . . . .

And, inevitably, like “Range” we expect it to foreground the processes of its own creation. When it does this the self is there again, not a purified self or an observing infiltrator but a “full-scale” emotionally-engaged-with-one’s-partner self:

Here is the poem, slowed by oil and grit,
to be shed and worn
as a skin.
Form may once have had some salvaging power,
but these days we let form whirl out of hand
like a camera in a Frisbee;
and see that order and delay cannot be made from space
     and time,
how could they?
All my words are gunning for extinction, all they can tell
     us is:
live more.
The photos you retrieve are a scream -
heart-battering reams of fortune, shadow and sleep,
as if "the sun fell . . . or leapt."

Your fidget-bone shrinking the aperture,
the flint of your lens against glacial gates

impose a double: lichen and hubcap
printed across one another

like two hands braced against the light, a herald for the

I like “Final Theory” as I do the other poems in this twenty-page selection. I can understand that many readers won’t and would prefer poems more like those produced, say, by Caroline Caddy’s trip to the Antarctic. I can also understand that many readers will, sourly, claim that an extended sequence like “Final Theory”, as well as the longer sequences here by Elizabeth Campbell and Simon West are part of the corruption of the modern world in which poets need to write long sequences either (a) to meet the (understandable) requirements of valuable prizes (b) make a coherent project for a Creative Writing higher degree dissertation or (c) make a coherent project that will attract (what a mysterious metaphor that is!) Literature Board funding. But there is a lot of intriguing puzzling about poetry itself in “Final Theory” – not only covering how it should be done but also what it is and how it is generated by the cultures of the people who come after the geology is, more or less, completed. I find it challenging and exciting and want to see the other three parts.


Reading the two books of LK Holt is quite an experience. On the surface all one can see is the enormous confidence in her own poetic processes. She is the kind of poet for whom dramatic monologues or narratives from the point of view of an engaged and dramatically conceived narrator seem the natural habitat, possessing, as they always seem to, a Browningesque rhythmic drive and a fullness of poetic imagination and empathy. In a series of sonnets here, taken from her second book, we meet the Kafka of “Metamorphosis” just waking, a drunk who has walked into a door, a protestor who has just been struck in the head by a rubber bullet, someone beginning work in a ship-breaking yard, Lorca at the moment of execution, a boy out of control with rage who is shot by police and Douglas Mawson at an especially sticky moment. There is also a poem from a sequence spoken by Goya’s housekeeper and a long sequence, “Unfinished Confession”, spoken by a pre-op sex change patient. I’ll quote the opening lines of the first of these – the Kafka poem – as being in some way typical of what I’m trying to describe:

It is a mandible language, ours; one of release
or grasp; a byzantine binary of yes, no (yes);
the shellac click of stag beetles all het up.
Dear Franz you should love whom you want to
and hard - forget about the world's wanton
fathering and mothering . . . both will bear on
past your little momentous death.
Our parents always outlive us in a sense . . . 

This is terrific stuff – I especially like “your little, momentous death” – but sheer confident monologic energy like this always induces doubts in the reader and leads us to wonder whether it might not all be just a particularly impressive kind of dramatic rhetoric. What we need is some kind of indication of what the poet’s stake in these monologues is. Or, at least, the conviction that somewhere underneath there is a stake. It is hard to imagine a biography which is in some way engaged with all the poems I’ve sketched in above. I’d like to believe that the tension beneath them is not one of content but rather of form: that they represent a kind of public face to a poet who does actually have doubts. Perhaps they are doubts about the very ease with which they seem to have been written. We know in the case of other poets – I’ve already mentioned Browning – that the poems of most certainty are often the poems of most doubt. But you would have to know a lot of a poet’s biography before you could speak cponfidently about generative mechanisms as profound as this.

All this will lead to the fairly obvious conclusion that I like best those poems of Holt’s which are personal and slightly weird. Amongst the sonnets there is a lyric (which I deliberately omitted in my list) describing how an old door is transformed to a table and then a garden bench. It has the same confident assertive style as the monologues and is, I suppose, not much more than a brief allegory (what was recently marked out as a feature of contemporary poetry: “the significant anecdote”) but it still has resonances and intriguing tensions (between, for example, denotative description and a rather more high-flown conclusion) that are harder to find in the monologues. Two poems, “Poem for Nina” and “Poem for Brigid” seem to me to stand out in this selection. They are personal poems about the author’s very stake in the friendships they describe and they are complicated and not at all predictable: always a good sign in a poem.


I have looked at length in past reviews at Elizabeth Campbell’s poetry. She looks strong no matter how or where her poems are presented. Here, by virtue of the fact that the poets of the book are organised alphabetically, she is the lead-off voice and her poems look more than comfortable in that responsible position. Given that Error, her second book, was published last year, it’s reasonable that only one of these poems is new. That poem, “Black Swans”, is intriguing because it is a meditation on error – in the sense of inheriting a way (through ideology or cultural tradition) of seeing things which determines what we see – that takes one of the most famous of the Ern Malley poems as its core context. This, of course, is yet another testimony to the unkillableness of an imaginary poet who died thirty-seven years before Campbell was born and Campbell’s generation is one of the first (of many, presumably) for whom the story of Ern Malley, Max Harris and the hoaxers will not be one soaked in the irritations of literary polemics. The Ern Malley poem in question here, “Durer: Innsbruck, 1495” is, itself, a version of a poem of McAuley’s which he was unhappy with, a poem which is about a painting and in which the poet finds himself a “robber of dead men’s dream”. If this poem is about artistic revenancy then “Black Swans” is about conceptual revenancy for although she is an avenging angel, coming to destroy:

we still hope
to cut her open and find bedded neatly inside
goose, duck, chicken, quail: all the known unknowns.

Poetry, philosophy, economics: the mind
repeats, in its ignorance, the vision of others:

all swans are white, all swans are white.

The other poems selected include two of the horse poems from Letters to the Tremulous Hand as well as two of the best poems in Error, “The Diving Bell” and “Brain” – both strong poems about various glitches in body and brain. These two poems, together with the sequence, “Inferno”, lead one to think that Campbell (together with West and White) might be trying to work out answers to the question of what a body/soul distinction for the twenty-first century could look like. We also get a chance to revisit that difficult sequence, “A Mon Seul Desir”, based on the famous series of late fifteenth century tapestries. It is a far from straightforward sequence and, as I’ve labored over it in my earlier review, I’ll spare readers a revisiting. John Leonard’s comment in the introduction, perhaps concerned that readers might run aground on the sequence which, after all, appears quite early in the whole book, recommends reading it as a poem about love, rather than an exploration of obscure late medieval art, and I suspect that that is a good tactic, at least for initial readings.


Sarah Holland-Batt is the author of perhaps the most likeable set of poems in this book, though that adjective has no implications, good or bad, about quality. It’s just that her work seems to be nicely pitched between accessible and questing. She also has (together with Graeme Miles) the highest percentage of new work after her debut volume Aria. If I had to hazard a guess as to the direction of this newer work – always dangerous when based on such a small sample – I’d say that it is definitely less emotionally expressionist than the earlier. Many of the complex poems in Aria seemed at heart, either opportunities for lament or opportunities for celebration. The self is present in these new poems but not at such a dominating level. An exception is “Rain, Ravello” which seems in the earlier mode: a long description of rain eventually establishes itself in the reader’s mind as a sympathetic exterior response to internal misery and the poem finishes, “Art is not enough, not nearly / enough, in a world not magnified by love”.

The other poems seem a lot breezier, focusing on life sciences and art. “Orange-Bellied Parrot” is like a cross between a Robert Adamson bird poem and Bruce Dawe’s “Homecoming”, enacting an imaginary return made by a stuffed parrot in the British Museum (surely the ultimate in exilic misery) to his homeland. “Botany” recalls the school experiment of mapping the spores of various mushrooms, while the poet interprets the results differently, seeing “a woodcut winter cart and horse / careen off course . . .” But one wouldn’t want to take these too sunnily. A brilliant poem, “The Quattrocento as a Waltz” celebrates the freedom of a new art style in abandoning the tyranny of the religious – here a sun-dominated, top-down world of stiff madonnas – and celebrating the real of the world, even if that real is a world of misery:

Let the darkness shake out its bolt of silk.
Let it roam over us like a blind tongue.
Let it bury its razorblades in the citrons
and its hooks in the wild pheasants.
Open the window: outside it is Italy.
A fat woman is arguing over the artichokes,
someone is dying in a muddy corner,
there’s a violin groaning in the street.

And other poems such as “Primavera: The Graces” and “Medusa” slide the poet into the poems as an allegorical and not necessarily positive figure – here too the emphasis is on suffering and death. “Persephone as a Whistling Moth”, far from the best poem in the group, is perhaps the clearest in that it takes a mythological figure who oscillates between the dark and the light (as so many of the poems of Aria do) and crosses her with another poetic myth of the moth and the flame.


The poems of Graeme Miles seem a long way from those of his first book, Phosphoresence, though, probably, there are evolutionary links I can’t, from a superficial rereading, trace. He seems a poet anchored in the mundane, especially the mysterious mundane of family and ancestors, but at the same time obsessed by the presence of things within other things. A fine sequence, “Photis”, deals with a painter in whose portraits animals continuously seem to emerge and from whose body a child eventually emerges, whose “soft skin is full of animals”. Ghosts of relatives past emerge from the liminal spaces in “Verandah” and in “At 30 Clifton Street”, the house seems to induce visions of its own ghosts. As one can imagine, dreaming is an important part of this world since dreams are yet another sort of poem with a complex and usually unresolvable relationship with the waking world and a poem about sleep, “Mineral Veins”, concludes with:

          Better to turn down,
find you can breathe easily under a world's weight
of earth, and that air was no more your element
than the endlesss vacancy it fades to.

As one can also imagine there is a lot of interest in transformation, Ovid’s obsession: it occurs at the level of myth in “Isis and Osiris” and at the level of a kind of humorous surrealism in a poem like “Talking Glass” (I went to find pasta for the wary / to prepare their pianos. I tried to speak, / knowing that I’d spoken pasta / in the past, but now there was broken glass / between my teeth . . .”
So in the case of this poet, ordinary events in life are likely to produce poems whose interests and structures are not at all obvious ones. A good example is the final poem, “Where She Went”, which is about the death of his grandmother (at least I assume it is: one has to be careful about making casual unequivocal assumptions about relationships. It is a marker of how young these poets are that the deaths which occur to them are those of their grandparents. Very soon it will be the deaths of parents and, in no time at all, the deaths of friends and contemporaries!):

Shade inks a human on the surface of the water,
brings it from a lostness so complete
that only this skeletal light
and athletic paperbark are lean enough to reach it.
It's reformed by remotest coincidence of lines,
dreamed by shade from the bones up
replaced where it never was.
Skinny land and paperbark
are the brassy echo of a wooden room
beside a deeper lake,
where the same figure saw her face shift in the mirror
like a friend she couldn't trust.
Rooms were closed then and vigils sat through.
Strangers covered the mirrors she'd left
and motes of dust fell one by one
precise as the knife-thrower's act in a circus.
They waltzed the wardrobe back from the doorway
and sold her clothes.
And she passed the white rock
which some said was a headland
too steep for goat's feet,
and some said was a marker stone
set into grey soil dry as ash,
a white stone just big enough
to overfill palm and fingers,
cool as liquid overflowing
and with weight to make you think of fractures.

This a poem that moves in four magical stages from the shadows on the water suggesting the woman (not in a simply Rorschach way, but in a much profounder movement from the deeps to the surface). Then it moves to the woman’s room and her funeral and then, surprisingly, to a description – which sounds like the Classical world – of moving beyond a boundary stone. But it doesn’t end there because the stone is imagined declining in size from  headland to marker to fist-sized. These are unusual emphases and markers of a very distinctive poetic mind.


Simon West is a tricky but impressive poet who seems highly sensitive both to dislocation and also its opposite: the moments when – and processes whereby – we emerge from a dislocated state. It’s a poetry where we always seem to be crossing thresholds. “Out of the Woods of Thoughts” – whose title seems to allude simultaneously to Dante’s selva oscura (an image that recurs in this poetry) as well as the wood of the suicides of Inferno XIII – is a good example.

We woke with the crook of our arms empty.
Each morning the triple-cooing turtle-dove
would probe about our yard,
"coo-ca-cai?" A nag and clamour
I couldn't help but hear as "cosa fai?"

Mostly summer turned away, tightened
to a knot of roots at river's edge,
where earth erodes from a red gum,
unable to grip things, and strangely exposed.

No use saying "it was him not me",
or "dispel the senses and repeat, The mind lies".
Even the faintest trails led back to that weight
cradled in the stomach's pit.
What was it doing? What did it have to say?

These seems an excellent introduction to the West-world especially its quality of being simultaneously precise and yet slippery. It’s a world where we move from sleep to waking, dreams to everyday, from natural speech into language, from the constructing, rational mind to the immanent natural.

A precious eight pages of the allotted twenty are devoted to a long and difficult sequence, “A Valley”, which is obviously central to where West’s poetry is at this point and which recalls many of these processes. It is not an easy sequence to get a handle on and consequently – if a reader is honest – not an easy set of poems to like. It is, like “Out of the Woods of Thought” about emerging from a dark wood, an emergence that happens in the last two poems. But the nature of the valley in which the protagonist is trapped for the other fifteen poems of the sequence is difficult to feel confident about. To what extent it is a conceptual one, and to what extent it is emotional (even, allegorically, personal) is really difficult to determine though, if Dante is the model, I suppose the same could be said of the Commedia. It is perfectly possible that it is imagined to be a valley of monolinguality broken out of by mastering a second language.

“Out of the Wood of Thoughts” contained an odd middle section where the roots of a red gum are “strangely exposed” by erosion and West is very sensitive to the texture and grain of wood.  “The Apricot Tree” seems on the surface a poem about childhood where the environment is symbolised by a rather grotesquely split apricot tree used as a set of cricket stumps by the boys. It begins, significantly, “I try to home in on this” but the poem’s conclusion takes it away into the inner life of the split and exposed wood:

I'd seen that wound open in wood. Under

a hard rind the core's gore colours
lay like a deep bruise: a reversal

or confirmation from within
of stone fruit, and equally alive.

In “Door Sill”, another childhood memory poem, that piece of wood is an unpainted slab of redgum which marks the boundary between the domestic house and the outer world:

It was a threshold we loved
to tilt ourselves on the rim of,
leaning forward on tiptoes . . .

The selection includes “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri” from West’s first book. On first reading that looked very atypical, even positively out of place. But now seems more central because it concerns art and the way art deals with the conceptual maps we put over the endless flux of the universe. As such, this genuinely incomprehensible painting seems like a gateway to a quantum world and reflects West’s interest in the texture of the worlds revealed by the dissolution of surfaces.


Petra White seems to be a poet who continually wants to connect a fraught self with the outside world. From the poems in this anthology we can sketch in a childhood amongst people at the dottier end of protestantism, depression and despair, and a seriously sick lover. The first of these appears in the first poem, “Grave”, but also in “Trampolining” where the speaker and her brother save for a trampoline while the adults take part in a suburban prayer meeting. The experience of the trampoline is one of ecstatic movement in the world, significantly oscillating between earth and sky, taking place “in the present-tense, / cast off by the adults for the kids to play with”.  The desire to connect self with the world raises a lot of issues. Like Elizabeth Campbell, she is interested, for example, in the relationship between the self and the natural world. “Ode to Coleridge” deals with the body/soul distinction but not in any academic way: the issue of whether a sick soul sees the world only as dull and lifeless (Coleridge’s position) or whether the world can heal the soul (Wordsworth’s) is a crucial question in White’s poetry. 

The poem which engages with the world at its most “social” is “Southbank” an eleven part sequence based in a Melbourne work situation. At first it seems a minor piece of social recording but rereadings show it to be far more complex and engaging. Amongst the parodies of business-speak – “I am pleased to announce that Wayne Loy / joins the Networks & / Infrastructure Team to give cover . . .” – there is an examination of what it means to be a suited worker in an industry designed to provide aid to people in need “out there”. The answer, I think, lies in the Heidegger comment, included in the poem, that we only see how things work when they break down (a statement that expresses, after the event, the entire rationale of Modernism as a broad cultural phenomenon). The Melbourne office is, in the last poem, “a portal, / point of stillness from which the world extends” and many of the poems want to explore this movement from a shakily-secure self into wider worlds of experience. We see it schematically in both “Woman and Dog” and in “Kangaroos”. In the latter poem the rows of dead kangaroos by the roadside are tribute to the fate of those moving through experience who make the wrong choice, “one wrong leap against / thousands of right ones; thousands of hours / lived hurtling through space with no notion of obstacle”. They act, finally, both as guardians of new worlds and as psychopomps for humans:

Always turning to leave, wider to go -
they emerge in dissolving light as if they carry
the Earth in their skins, as if they are the land they inhabit . . .
it stares at you through them, looks through you
in the shared-breath stillness, their telepathic here now
group hesitation. As if something's deciding
whether to let you in or through. As if there was an opening,
a closing. Then turning away again, loping off
into that open where death stands to one side (you imagine)
and each leap is a leap into deeper life, deeper possession.

It’s a constant movement in this poetry to desire a deeper life, starting, as it does, from a vulnerable self. There is a profound difference between the young girl in “Ricketts Point” who, playing at the water’s edge “suddenly marvels at how the world / tips open to a broad deep space, not fearsome” and the damaged self of “St Kilda Night” for whom the beach is a nightmare experience:

Stripped to the soul, squatting at the shoreline,
thoughts prey like sharks but never bite,
no voice inside the skull sounds right.
O listen to the tiny waves crash their hardest,
as a lap-dog yaps its loudest to be loud.
Pitched past pitch of grief: how far is that?
. . . . .

Whereas many of the poems in this anthology derive their strength from complex conceptual approaches to life and writing, White’s are strong because of the fractures that generate them. There is nothing sensationally “confessional” about them but the underlying dis-ease makes all the issues – self, world, society – crucial ones.



Felicity Plunkett (ed.): Thirty Australian Poets

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011, 285pp.

The significant poetic productions from the declining months of last year seem to have been anthologies. Not only is there this intriguing collection of thirty poets – all born after 1968 – edited by Felicity Plunkett but there is also an anthology, interestingly different but covering similar ground, edited by John Leonard called Young Poets: An Australian Anthology. And, as well as these, there is Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s daunting Australian Poetry Since 1788. Though, generally, I avoid reviewing anthologies I will try to cover both the Leonard and the Gray and Lehmann in later months on this site.

Anthologies are weird and fascinating reading experiences. In many ways they are rather like poems themselves. They have an intention (to encapsulate a national poetry, to show what interesting things newcomers are doing, to raise the profile of poems the anthologist likes and diminish the reputation of those that he or she doesn’t, etc) but the possible meanings of the work often overtake its intention. Like poems they have a personal stamp but they also have a context – the context of other anthologies. Like poems they have complex and important internal structures: are they to be arranged chronologically and if so should it be by date of birth of the poet or by the period in which the poet floruit. This is a more important consideration than it seems: Kenneth Slessor and R.D. FitzGerald were born within a year of each other but the former, precocious, is really a poet of the twenties and the latter a poet of the thirties.

The intention behind Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets is, I think, to showcase (an unfortunate but useful word) the work of poets who have risen to prominence recently and perhaps, also, to give critics like myself, who have a dim and fragmented perception that a poetic renaissance (largely led by women poets) is taking place, the chance to see the group in toto and make some decisions about what is happening. And some evaluations, too. In this respect it is a very cool and clean anthology, eschewing subjective judgements at every point where it can. The poets are organised in alphabetical order by surname so that it is not a judgement of the quality of their work but merely the result of an alphabetical accident that the poems of Ali Alizadeh are placed first and those of Petra White last. (Alizadeh’s Iranian origins prompt me to make the point that the divans of the classical Persian poets – Hafez, Sa’adi, et al – are organised in the same, neutral, way whereby the poems are placed in alphabetical order according to their final, rhyming words. A Western equivalent might involve something like organising a collected poems not chronologically but according to the poem’s first letter so that the Index of First Lines became, in effect, the contents page. It’s an intriguing rethinking and one that it might be interesting to try with a Collected Auden or Graves, say.)

Similarly there is no weighting of representation whereby we know that the anthologist considers one poet to be more significant than another because the former gets more pages allocated than the latter. Here everybody gets about five pages. I like this because, when I am doing my thinking about the quality of these poets and the nature of what is happening in Australian poetry, I don’t have to enter into a debate with the anthologist. Many anthologists are inclined to be opinionated and the reader’s fight with them (on the subject of individual choices and omissions, both of poets and poems) can obscure the wider issues. Felicity Plunkett is as anonymous as an anthologist can be and brings to mind (another “showbiz” analogy, I’m afraid) those award hosts who have the good grace to get off the stage quickly and let the real stars of whatever show it is get on with the job. In fact it’s not entirely coincidental that images of award nights keep sliding into my prose here. There is a slight sense about Thirty Poets of a public performance where everybody – in alphabetical order – gets their five minutes to show what they can do before being replaced by the next act. There is nothing wrong with this. If you wanted to know what was happening in, say, Australian stand-up comedy, then giving thirty comedians five minutes to do their thing in front of an audience might be a lot better than a show put together from what some entrepreneur thinks are “the best stand-up comedians in Australia” carefully organised (according to the structures of comedy whereby some acts work well as warm-ups for others) to emphasise particular performers.

In keeping with the anthology’s general tone of a calm dispassionateness and an overall lack of indulging whims or vendettas, there isn’t too much that one could object to in the choice of the thirty poets. There is a strong argument for including Graeme Miles whose first book (reviewed on this site) was an interesting and challenging one and one could make a case for Adrian Wiggins and perhaps Brett Dionysius, Liam Ferney and some others. Certainly they wouldn’t look out of place (or tone) in this anthology, especially if they replaced some of the weaker selections. And there are others who might have had some sort of claim. But, all in all, this seems as good a presentation of a generation as one could ask for. We aren’t told whether the editor or the poets actually chose the poems but I suspect it was the latter in collaboration with the former and the selections involve a mixture of published and new work. The poems chosen do seem, in the case of the poets whose work I know well, to give a good sense of a poet at his or her best. But the format does have a slight levelling quality. In the case of those poets whose published work is probably uneven (I’m deliberately avoiding names here, rather than being vague or coy) five pages of poetry can make you think they are stronger than they are. Those poets who are marked by their ability to write very different but equally strong poems end up being reduced slightly in a volume like this. If one read the books of these thirty poets I think one would feel that the poets’ abilities and achievements were much more varied than Thirty Poets alone suggests. And then there is the issue of the way a poet’s work is “set” in the arbitrary, alphabetical context of other poets’ work. To name names, for once, at the end of reading this book, I felt that, yes, Elizabeth Campbell, Emma Jones, Bronwyn Lea and Nick Riemer were terrific poets, absolutely individual voices doing their own thing. But I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this based on a previous knowledge of these poets’ work. I did plan to read the book in reverse as an experiment to determine how much of this reaction was really a response to the setting of the poet’s work, but time and deadlines caught up with me!

As I said at the beginning, anthologies are, in a way, like poems. The aleatoriness of the procedures of arrangement means that these hundred and forty-odd poems are not naturally sociable with each other and one of the pleasures of anthology reading is to trace unexpected motifs as though this were the work of a single mind. There is a lot that is hermeneutically interesting about this procedure and both Felicity Plunkett (in her Preface) and David McCooey (in his Introduction) do this to some extent. The idea behind this sort of reading is that, like poems, anthologies reveal patterns that might well come from somewhere else.

This reference to McCooey’s introduction leads me to the most difficult of questions which it would shame a reviewer to ignore: What are the features of this generation of Australian poets? I’m so old that the issue of the challenge posed by the “academic” poets of the fifties (Hope, McAuley, Buckley et al) to the “Bulletin” poets (Wright, Campbell et al) is not merely an historical one. I have thought long and hard about these issues of poetic generations, their ruptures, influences, internal relationships and continuities. Most descriptions of poetic periods are very impressionistic and would not satisfy a professional historian let alone a scientist. Chris Wallace-Crabbe memorably spoke of “the habit of irony” when dealing with the poetry of the fifties and I spoke of the need to “make it new” as the imperative behind the “generation of ”˜68” but these were very gestural statements. Accepting, though, that it is probably impossible to give a completely accurate account of thirty poets, I’ll describe a few, equally subjective, impressions I have at the conclusion of this book.

Firstly, it is rather a shock – though it shouldn’t be – to see how professional these poets are. If the generation before were often the product of Creative Writing courses taught by poets who had managed to get jobs in universities and often looked out of place alongside the (declining) establishment of literary scholars, these people seem to be teachers themselves, almost always with doctorates. And they often teach something more demanding than Creative Writing. Judith Bishop (whose “It Begins Where You Stand” was lovely to re-encounter) describes herself as a professional linguist; Michael Brennan works in the Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University; Claire Potter “spent five years studying and teaching in Paris”; David Prater and Jaya Savige are both doctoral students, the former in Karlskrona, Sweden, the latter at Cambridge (Emma Jones has a Cambridge doctoral degree in literature). I might be confusing two elements here – professionalism and multilinguality – but I think they are closely related (John Mateer, Ali Alizadeh and Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawers seem to have had multilingual upbringings). At one level this professionalism seems entirely admirable. But of course there is a darker side and my second impression of this anthology relates to this. There isn’t much madness in Thirty Poets. Those working in a surreal tradition (like Louis Armand or David Prater) work in the thoroughly familiar (dare I say acceptable and professionalised?) tradition of reworking and rebuilding existing texts. The complexities of the poems of, say, Maria Takolander or LK Holt, seem interesting and challenging complexities rather than confronting ones. Other poems have a lot of emotional intensity and weirdness (Bronwyn Lea’s “Born Again”, which readers have a habit of remembering, stands out here) but it isn’t something that is going to change your ideas of what poetry can do. This response was provoked by coming across, very late in the book, Samuel Wagan-Watson’s “Night Racing” (“night racing through the suburbs / of white stucco dreaming . . .”) and realising that there was nothing else in the anthology remotely like this (though angry, aggressive poetry is not usually something I prize). It reminded me of my reading of Benjamin Frater’s 6am in the Universe (reviewed on this site). That is “mad” poetry though with a perfectly coherent aesthetics/metaphysics behind it. Should he have been included? He would have been the youngest poet in the anthology and his voice would certainly have stood out. But it would also have skewed a reader’s response to what this generation is like. It isn’t like the poetry of Benjamin Frater.

David McCooey makes the good point that the work of these poets “shows a profound knowledge of poetic precedence” and I want to explore this a bit. It is a useful idea because it brings the textual manipulators in out of the rain and under the umbrella where the (generally) lyrical and meditative poets are camped. I would approach this issue from a technological angle: this is the first generation of Australian poets writing under the aegis of Google. Whereas previous generations might have been addicted to particular forms – the villanelle and then the pantoum – now we find centos; there is one by Kate Fagan in Thirty Poets. To write a cento is perversely difficult enough but to read it respectably – almost impossible in the pre-google age – is simplicity itself nowadays. And it isn’t only a matter of locating and relating to poetic precedences. What would once have been the result of a monstrous, obsessive erudition, an interest in the most arcane byways of some subject (which, for some reason, is often a feature of the make-up of a poet’s mind), is now easily available at the writing desk. In a sense we are all erudite now and can “get up” things unimaginable to much cleverer people (like Hope, Buckley or McAuley). In The Best Australian Poetry, 2009, Liam Ferney, introduced his complicated poem (which blended the Australian High Court with a host of popular culture references) with the off-hand comment, “You can google the rest. I did”. That registers an important moment. Thinking this through further, though, leads me to see it as a possible positive that someone who was, himself, very erudite, John Forbes, would have approved of. Erudition itself is not going to be as impressive as it once was and poems will be forced to work for themselves rather than rely on some wonderful piece of arcane knowledge inside them. And apart from Google there are the combinative powers of the personal computer. Everone knows how John Tranter exploited the capacities of the Breakdown programme and while it must have taken Laurie Duggan hours of painstaking work to assemble his set of anagrams of the names of Australian poets in the 1970s, children could now do this effortlessly as a party game.

A final subjective impression concerns the sexes. If this is the Age of the Professionals, I had also expected it to be, poetically, an Age of the Woman. My sense from reading the new books emerging over the last ten years was that a fairly high percentage of the good ones were by women. Publishers like the excellent Giramondo Press seem to make a policy of publishing women poets. Picking up Thirty Poets and knowing that in today’s world an anthology without any particular axe to grind would have to aim at equal gender representation, I expected to find quite a number of make-weight male poets. This isn’t what happened. For some reason, perhaps to do with the levelling quality I spoke of earlier, the poetry of the women doesn’t seem dominant at all. Related to that is the fact that, of those poets I would have omitted if I had been editor, more than half are women and the poets that I listed previously as ones who might have been included in an anthology like this without raising any eyebrows are all male! Thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that it is “the age of the woman poet” but that the anthology doesn’t entirely reflect this. In other words I trust the subjective impression I have from reading all the individual books over the years above the impression I have from this anthology.

I said that anthologies have contexts, just as poems do. To put it another way, anthologies are aware of their predecessors. Thirty Poets alludes immediately to one of these, John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry, by choosing the date 1968 as the earliest cut-off birth date for its poets. That’s an elegant and generous gesture, I think, although there is a big difference between a birth date and the date at which a group of writers make an impact. The poets of the “generation of ”˜68” were generally born after the Second World War. But Thirty Poets also seems to be the younger sibling of an anthology published in 2000, Michael Brennan and Peter Minter’s Calyx. I think Thirty Poets is, as an anthology, a far superior book exactly because it does reflect a single generation. Calyx’s virtue was that it anthologised interesting poets but they came from what appear, now, to be two quite separate generations. I also want to make connection when I read Thirty Poets with an anthology from 1968, Rodney Hall and Tom Shapcott’s New Impulses in Australian Poetry (also published by the University of Queensland Press). That anthology had a very strong sense of a generation (it turned out to be the one between the Bulletin poets and the ’68 poets). It too was organised alphabetically though it was much more “interventionist” than Thirty Poets in that it varied the number of poems by contributors and included highly interpretive introductory notes to each poet by the editors. In retrospect (and, probably, at the time) the faultlines within that generation were fairly clear. There were Brisbane poets (Hall, Shapcott, Malouf, Rowbotham, Croyston, Green and perhaps Harwood), Melbourne “university” poets (Buckley, Jones, Wallace-Crabbe, Simpson, Taylor and perhaps Dawe), Sydney poets (Lehmann and Murray) and a number who could either be seen as “unaligned” or loosely connected to one of these groups (Beaver, Smith, Stow). I mention this to ask whether the same (or similar) lines can be drawn in Thirty Poets. There are Sydney University poets here, there is a Melbourne group published by the John Leonard Press and so on. If they can’t be confidently drawn now, will they become clearer a few years on. Living in the Google/Amazon/Internet age means that groupings are likely to be matters of sympathy rather than proximity (let alone class or gender, those subgroups beloved of sociologists). All poetic texts are available, as influences, to everyone and so there are less likely to be poetic “gateways” in the form of elder poets lending books or supervising reading groups.

A final two points about this excellent book. By encapsulating a generation it turns the older poets (who were born before 1968) into a generation as well. This is something that I don’t think they were before and they might not like being now. That dividing line means that major poets like Anthony Lawrence, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, MTC Cronin, Adam Aitken, Emma Lew and a host of others (these were literally the first names that came into my head) have become isolated into a kind of group. I don’t think this is a bad thing because their work is different to that of these thirty poets and seeing them as a generation might encourage us to attempt a more complex description before looking for continuities between them and the poets of this anthology.

Tom Shapcott edited Australian Poetry Now in 1969. In many ways it has the fewest continuities with Thirty Poets being a bit of a grab-bag. But, for me, it was a very exciting anthology introducing (or allowing the authors themselves to introduce) a host of poets I had never heard of. It caught the idea that a poetic renaissance was occurring by not predefining the nature of that rebirth at the editorial level. So in many ways it is crude. It has a hoax poet (Gwen Harwood’s Timothy Kline) and a lot of poets who didn’t sustain significant careers. But more than Thirty Poets it conveyed a sense of a lot of new (and often weird) things happening. If Thirty Poets recalls New Impulses in Australian Poetry then it is possible that there is room for an anthology that recalls some aspects of Australian Poetry Now, publishing people who are young, have not produced a book and who have appeared only in journals or online.



Petra White: The Incoming Tide

Elwood: John Leonard Press, 2007, 52pp.

One of the difficulties with first books – and this superb debut by Petra White is no exception – is the lack of a host of previous publications to act as a kind of context for the reader. That makes a critic’s life hard and you are always nervous that you are going to get something terribly wrong. My sense of the poems of The Incoming Tide, however – accurate or not – is that they locate the self of the poet in three different ways: as member of a family, as worker and as inhabitant of a number of littoral areas, but particularly that between shore and sea.

Of these the third is the most important and I would describe White’s principal concerns as involving this macro-perspective and using work and the family as ways of anchoring it in the homelier, domestic world. This can make for some surprising and pleasurable shifts. The long sequence of poems, “Highway”, for example, describes a trip with a convoy (or perhaps putative “family”) of hippies made along the Eyre Highway through South Australia. This is littoral territory with a vengeance as Nullarbor Plain meets the Great Australian Bight providing cliff edge and horizon as horizontal limits. And the poetry rises to meet this challenge, especially in “Bunda Cliffs”:

The shelved-in sea hived with diagonals,
verticals, horizontals, slabs of sleek water
ferrying hazes of air in its crystal,

vapouring the desert’s tongue.
We funnel blue glimmers, personless gases,
far-outness pouring into the breath,

our own power just enough to keep us
from billowing out like kites. The cliff
props itself up, its piles of age and buried faces.
. . . . .

When, in the final poem, people run into the sea at Cactus Beach, a clever switch in perspective describes the land as though it were the sea:

When he tore off his rags and ran into the sea, we all ran in after him.

Beyond us was the jetty, a shark net, milky still water
that remembered the blood of a young boy.
Further out, the alpine peaks of whitest sand dunes.

The desert looked on, changed nothing.

But even a sequence with as cosmic a perspective as this carefully anchors it among people. The first two poems describe members of the expedition – a semi-demented misfit who is “our fool, our thing / of darkness” and a small boy who is, for a brief period, lost in the dunes – and the third poem, “Eucla Beach”, takes time out to describe the poet’s grandparents for no more obvious reason than that, on the trip from England, their boat would have passed this beach on its way to Adelaide and that the grandmother “would have loved it here”. Always a sucker for radical disjunctions, I find the appearance of the grandparents to be deeply satisfying and, of course, the poem encourages us to make order out of their inclusion. The grandmother’s walks, we are told, connected her to herself by unjoining “the joined-up dots” of the familiar, mapped world; emigrating to Australia was a spur-of-the-moment thing which was like “leaving the planet” but it results in the locating of the future poet:

. . . . .
Sea laps towards me like the breath of another,
and draws itself back to wherever I might have been.
. . . . .

And, finally, in Adelaide they were in a kind of desert “free of the crimes of a nation not-quite-really-theirs” and at Eucla “a past buries as easily / as sand moves”. We seem to be in an inverse of the Judith Wright world here: the essence of this family is not the discovery of indissoluble genetic bonds which mean that the poet is guilty because of the actions of her forebears, but rather – in the desert – the obliteration of such joined up dots leads to the discovery of self through making a new patter. That self is implicated in family, but not in any way determined by it. That, at least is my reading of “Highway”. It is a considerable sequence which, I think, is at the heart of where this poetry really wants to go. But I could be wrong.

The cosmic positioning also moves into the essentially philosophical area of the relationship between human self and natural world. I think that The Incoming Tide is bookended by poems that recall Wallace Stevens: the final poem, “Ideas of Order at Point Lonsdale”, does this overtly of course. The book’s first poem, “Planting” is a sonnet that has that Stevens-ish quality of fairly simple, abrupt documentation coupled with a refusal to help the reader as to significance:

So he gave you the tobacco plants, seedlings,
and you planted them behind the house
you half-lived in. He was nobody,
friend of a stranger’s friend. But he
gave you the seedlings and you pressed them
just lightly in the soil, before night
fell into rain, heavier, darker, greener
than the tiny sound or hair-line root
that might have flared into a moment’s light
as you lay still. When the rain
stopped, the eves and over-burdened gums
let fall their water, a long, unbounded echo
that welled into morning. The garden gurgled,
the plants drowned, the sound was yours all night.

An absolutely self-confident poem but not one that it is easy to feel comfortable with. Again, one searches desperately for context. A gift – a human, though remote, act – is drowned by the natural world. The frail threads of the roots of the seedlings are entirely subsumed by water. So far, so good, but the final clause “the sound was yours all night” is, of course, entirely equivocal. The “you” both possesses the sound of the water and makes the sound: thus, in the latter reading, becoming aligned to the heavy, dark and green natural world. It recalls Stevens’ great poem which begins as a simple assertion of the separation between the brute world of the sea and the singer but goes on further and further to enmesh the two.

In “Ideas of Order at Point Lonsdale” it is the continuous interaction between the world of the sea, the world of the sky, and the human which is stressed. The scene is set on a pier, projecting out into the sea (which is, at Point Lonsdale, a channel entering Port Philip Bay). The sea and air are connected (raising a hooked fish is described as “fish / after fish seeps through the cloudy / eye of its brother”) while humans occupy a kind of interzone. There is nothing of the sublime or even vaguely creative in the world of these humans, however: they are no more than children fishing although there is an older fisherman who “shivers like a hatchling” and whose “dilate eye is blazing with / outward-seeking light”. I’m aware that both of these readings – of “Planting” and “Ideas of Order at Point Lonsdale” – are no more than inadequate gestures, of course, and we’ll have to wait for White’s next books to feel more comfortable with these poems.

Family is the central theme of three poems devoted to two grandmothers and a sister. “Munich”, dedicated to the grandmother who appears in “Eucla Beach”, is striking in that so much of what it does – ie what the poet finds important – is surprising. It begins, for example, with a description of Munich, the city that White is in when the bad news comes. But it doesn’t go on to conventionally lament absence; rather, it celebrates presence:

. . . . .
She didn’t entirely want to be remembered,
no grave, no plaque.
Her memories, freed from her head,
swarming in mine, or some of them:
the child I was who sat on her knee
and the child she was in blackout Stoke-on-Trent
step awake, two slippered ghosts,
past houses blasted to rubble and bones
. . . . .

As in “Eucla Beach” experiences are freed from their conventional and determined patterns and can be made into new and unusual ones, including fine poems. The second grandmother poem, “For Dorothy”, is unusual in that it portrays the woman, not in terms of her relationship to her granddaughter, but in terms of her surrounding children. And, finally, “Sister”, is a lovely, almost comically surprising poem whose essential structure is that it is about sisterhood only in its title and its last two lines. The bulk of the poem is devoted to a long and loving description of an axolotl “his polite uneraseable smile swanning / him upwards”. As the poem progresses through four eight-line stanzas the gap between the title and the content of the poem grows more and more intense so that the conclusion is that much more satisfying:

Descendant of the Aztec dog-god
Xolotl, who with mangled hands and feet
guided the dead to heaven, his once trans-
lucent form refuses catastrophe; more
than the ailing tabby, the timorous
and watchful high-heeled dog, or the rented
fireprone house, he guards our dangerous
childhood pledge to never change.

It is one of those rare poems which is simultaneously sophisticated and easy to grasp: it should be immediately anthologized.

Finally there is the world of work. Again it is a slightly surprising to find such a context-for-a-self in a first book but the tone is ideal: never outright contemptuous but open-minded, engaged and prepared to mock when necessary. One of the balancing techniques these poems explore is to let business speak for itself and so the sequence, “Southbank”, alternates meditations by the poet:

Our time is sold not hired,
our names as simulacra
show us up in our absence
on semi-partitions, brass-plated.
We forget, like monks, and serve
an abstract we must
not care too much for.

with monologues from management:

I am pleased to announce that Wayne Loy
          joins the Networks & 
Infrastructure Team to give cover
          until Jill returns
from maternity leave. . . .

“One Wall Painted Yellow for Calm” is a full-scale dramatic monologue done by a worker in a Job Network office. I am not sure how “found” it is but it captures a voice and person so brilliantly that The Incoming Tide becomes one of those rare books where you would say that this is a technique worth persevering with:

                              I know you’re probably thinking
          I’m just some geezer
who’d be like totally unemployed, if not
          for the unemployed -
so we’re all in this together. I always say,
          we are each of us
individuals, to whom anything can happen.
          Last week I had a chap . . . . .

What makes these work-centred poems work is the tone of balanced and involved observation: harder to do than it might seem on the surface.

As I’ve said, most of the poems in this book rotate around these issues of Family, Work and what might be called Cosmic Position. I’ve omitted “Grave” an ambitious and lengthy poem which moves beyond Cosmic Position into theology or at least religious ethics. It is built around the grave of a young girl and has several of those surprising shifts that mark out the poetry of this book, eventually working its way towards the problematic flood of Noah’s Ark, worrying, as many poems have done, why we focus on the few survivors and ignore the horror of the devastation under the water. But I’m not sure it is a successful work; for once the transitions seem too complex to follow and, although it makes sense logically, it is, perhaps, the one poem in the book where the surprises are not especially pleasurable. but if it is a failure, it is a rare one. This is a very accomplished and very complex first book by a poet who can be said to be, already, of considerable importance.