Cameron Lowe Reviews The Best Australian Poems 2009
The Best Australian Poems
Edited by Robert Adamson
Black Inc. 2009
Reviewed by CAMERON LOWE
The first thing to say about this anthology is that it is full of birds. Currawongs, crows, egrets, magpies, cockatoos, finches, owls—the list could go on. This is hardly surprising given Robert Adamson’s preoccupations with birds in his own writing. The second thing to say is that while birds—and the natural world more generally—are a common thematic in the anthology, it is a less pervasive theme than a first reading might suggest. Adamson’s anthology is far more than the sum of its birds.
None of which is to imply that there is anything wrong with writing about birds. On the contrary, A. Frances Johnson’s ‘Black Cockatoo: Calyptorhynchus funereus’, Barry Hill’s ‘Egret’, or Lia Hills’ ‘an anatomy of birds’—a beautiful meditation on a bird’s skeleton—show clearly that Adamson is not the only contemporary Australian poet writing excellent poems structured around bird as subject.
The value of these annual collections—and the UQP anthology should be recognised in this respect as well—is not simply limited to providing an interesting batch of what are arguably the best poems written in the past twelve months or so. They are also, in a sense, a meeting place, where readers may engage with writing by celebrated poets, as well as work from talented new (or lesser-known poets). Additionally, although in a perhaps less tangible way, they are also a meeting place for the poets themelves; as Adamson somewhat romantically notes in his introduction, ‘the poets sing to each other and their poems set words dancing in our souls’.
The coming together of the new and the established is a major feature of these anthologies, one that Adamson has been keen to continue. Interestingly, for Adamson it was the work of lesser-known writers emerging out of the selection process that excited him most: ‘the exuberance in the language and ideas of poets whose names I hardly knew…started to threaten to take over the space reserved for those whose poetry I have been following for many years’. Just how ‘new’ is new is of course problematic; most of the poets represented in the anthology, even the younger ones such as Lucy Holt and Elizabeth Campbell, have published at least one full book-length collection of poetry. One notable exception is Sarah K Bell—younger again than Holt and Campbell—whose ‘Reconstructing A Rabbit’ was first published in Cordite Poetry Review, underscoring the value of including on-line publications within the scope of these anthologies. While it is understandable that Adamson may be unfamiliar with many of these poets, it is also worth noting that in most cases they have been publishing in newspapers and journals for some time.
Adamson’s stated intent for the ‘book to be a fairly inclusive survey of the “best” poetry written in Australia in the last year’, has led to the anthology being relatively long, with this year’s version nearly seventy pages longer than that of 2008. Additionally, there are no biographical details of the poets in this anthology, which means even more space is dedicated to the poetry itself. While this is seemingly positive, in that a larger number of poets are represented, there is also a concern that such a long anthology potentially dilutes the overall quality of the writing. As with most ‘best of’ collections—and without wishing to unfairly single out individual poems, or more pertinently the poets—readers will undoubtedly come across poems in such a large anthology that don’t seem to make the ‘grade’. Happily though, judging by the majority of Adamson’s selections, Australian poetry is in a pretty healthy state.
One of the benefits of Adamson’s inclusive approach is the diversity of the writing. From Ali Cobby Eckermann’s powerful performance piece ‘Intervention Pay Back’—a highly political work focused on recent events in the Northern Territory—to Stephen Edgar’s formal rhyme scheme in ‘Murray Dreaming’, the anthology covers a wide range of poetic voices and styles. Indeed, Adamson has even included the lyrics to two songs by Paul Kelly, and while they may lack somewhat for musical accompaniment Kelly fans will still hear the musician’s distinctive vocals while reading the poems.
There are many fine poems from established poets in the anthology. Peter Rose’s ‘Morbid Transfers’—a response to the fifth poem from Bruce Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets (1969)—is a disturbing account of a young man dying while playing table tennis. Rose’s poem, like Beaver’s, articulates at once the fragility of life and the seeming indifference of those bearing witness:
Finally, a bouncing ball invaded the mortuary
and the server, too spirited for niceties
or condolences, stepped over the low excluding fence,
negotiated the crumpled mystery at his feet
and retrieved his urgent ball without a word.
Ken Bolton’s ‘Outdoor Pig-keeping, 1954 & My Other Books on Farming Pigs’ is also a wonderful poem. Written in the unmistakable Bolton style, the poem takes a haunting turn when the narrator imagines a farmer, alone at night, writing on the methods of farming pigs in an exercise book that once belonged to his dead daughter:
Perhaps he writes with
extra care because it is her book. Perhaps he writes
because it is her book. He has not written
anything else before. He writes now
because she is gone.
Other worthy poems from the established poets in the anthology include Philip Salom’s ‘Reading Francis Webb’, John Watson’s long poem ‘Four Ways to Approach the Numinous’, and Meredith Wattison’s brilliant ‘Holbein Through Silk’ where:
Death, the cool, black ambassadress, is foetal, rigor,
silk in that rough skull’s glass mouth.
Death, she sits, the foliate weave of her fingers
is their tender matrix. The intuitive, the profane,
the incalculable, the vernal seat, indulged.
Of the less established poets, at least as far as published books are concerned, David McCooey’s ‘Memory and Slaughter’ is deserving of attention. Unusually long for McCooey, the poem explores the gaps and imperfections of our memories, where much of our personal history is an act of re-imagining the past, an act of writing it into being. In McCooey’s case the result is a narrative of hazy details in which ‘memory now repeats, like / a stone skipping across bright water’.
Equally impressive is Lisa Gorton’s ‘A Description of the Storm Glass and Guide to Its Use in Forecasting Weather’. Gorton’s beautiful imagery has a dream-like quality, where crystals of ‘fantastical ambition’ create:
haunting a small room. Clouds, which hurry for no one,
which, amassing, betoken
that undifferentiated grudge some call ambition, here confide
motive without gesture
As if to say There is
Anne Elvey’s ‘Between’, like Gorton’s poem, also works to make the familiar strange. A poem of approaching loss, Elvey has crafted a work that speaks of the limits of poetry as much as it does the inevitable coming of death:
A speck on the horizon! Charon comes
but not tonight. And my fingers tell you I can’t go
past the thin place between the word and the thing,
nor write the way for you, in the hieroglyphs of home.
Elvey’s poem has an elegiac tone, is in a sense an elegy for what will soon be lost. There are many other fine elegiac poems within the anthology, such as Pam Brown’s ‘Blue Glow’, or joanne burns’ ‘harbinger’. But perhaps most successful is Martin Harrison’s superbly understated ‘Word’, in memory of Dorothy Porter: ‘in which briefly suddenly one voice’s glimmer is lost’.
And finally, still on the subject of loss, it is worth noting Fiona Wright’s ‘Kinglake’. Now that it is slightly more than twelves months since the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Wright’s poem returns us to the horror of that weekend, but finishes with a note of hope: ‘I send you irises, / and try to write / some kind of greening.’
There are, of course, many other fine poems in such a large anthology that have not been mentioned in this review. Readers will find them for themselves, which is one of the joys of reading new books of poetry; finding that image that resonates, that sequence of words beautiful just for their sound. Black Inc. should be commended for continuing to publish the work of our finest poets, as should Robert Adamson for his efforts in compiling this impressive collection of poems.