Ed Wright reviews The Indigo Book of Australian Prose Poems Ed Michael Byrne

The Indigo Book of Australian Prose Poems

Ed Michael Byrne

Ginninderra Press

ISBN 978 1 74027 650 4

Reviewed by ED WRIGHT


The  American poet Charles Simic once commented in Verse magazine that “Writing a prose poem is a bit like trying to catch a fly in a dark room. The fly probably isn’t even there, the fly is inside your head, still, you keep tripping over and bumping into things in hot pursuit. The prose poem is a burst of language following a collision with a large piece of furniture.” Having emerged through the rebellious anti-formalism of late-nineteenth century French poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, the prose poem has maintained a sense of the unconventional, and of the enigmatic given that it exists in the slippery spaces around what might be poetry and what might more aptly be described as prose.
An anthology of Australian Prose Poems is a neat idea, so power to Michael Byrne for getting this one together. There are some tremendous poems here; ones that have eschewed the lines of verse in favour of the sentence and paragraph, but still manage to shift the readers’ angles of thought as all good poetry should.

Stand-outs include Joanne Burns’s dramatic monologues, most notably ‘marble surfaces,’ which takes us into the inner world of a butcher; John Scott’s extracts from the longer work, ‘Slippages,’ and Peter Boyle’s fragments of fantastic logic, such as ‘Philosophers and Other World Leaders.” Other big guns of Australia’s poetry are to be found here too. The poems by John Forbes and John Tranter are great, as is Tom Shapcott’s ‘Concert Arias.’ Poems of lesser known poets such as Tatjana Lukic’s ‘Sleepless in Canberra, or George Huitker’s ‘The Soccer Coach Gets Philosophical’ are also worth discovering.

While Byrne brings to our attention some great poems unfortunately, as an anthology, this collection is something of a letdown.  The great problem is its sheer unrepresentativeness. There are far too many baby boomer poets, and too many works from lesser practitioners within this set. A gender division doesn’t seem apparent since gender division since Ania Walwicz, Vicki Viidikas and Anna Couani are all included in the volume, but of the 43 poets represented, 36 are boomers. Of course the new Australian poetry of the late sixties is known for its championing of the form. However, even if Gary Catalano was the sixties poet known specifically for his prose poetry, he is not a strong enough poet (despite Les Murray’s panegyric) to warrant ten outings in this rather slim 150 page volume.

Worse still is that some of the included here read more like misplaced paragraphs than prose poems.  Deprived of the space created by verse lines, some become afflicted by a dense banality. Tim Metcalf’s ‘The Airman Rolls’ away begins for instance:

‘I have always found conversation a little stifled when wiping clean the papery skin of the incontinent. First my potential partner in conversation is rolled away with their back to me; and second trying to hold my breath disrupts the natural flow of words and the pauses in between them. So I say little, mouth breathe to avoid the smell, and ask myself the same question over and over again: ‘where is the poem in this?’

Others are reduced to reading like  . . .  regular prose. There are stray travel observations that resonate little.  Geoff Page’s “Cathedral in Castile,” for example, or Gary Catalano’s ‘Theatre,’ which is set in Paris. Perhaps the problem here is that these poems are anchored in an era when travel retained its rarity. When to name such places cast an aura and granted their invokers absolution from a still extant cultural cringe.  However, other poems based on travel reminiscence, notably Phillip Hammial’s ‘Pygmies’, with its witty self-awareness, and Judith Beveridge’s ‘Flower of Flowers’ with its sheer sensuality transcend their localities and linger in the mind.

Some of the weaker poems in this anthology are cute but ultimately throwaway thought pieces. Catalano’s ‘Books’ is one example. It starts off “Books must prefer their own company to those of human beings, who rarely use them in the proper or appropriate way.’ The cuteness of the idea comes a cropper in the execution of it, particularly through the clunkiness of using both “proper” and “appropriate,” and in the extension of a small idea into a conceit.

If Byrne had cast his net a little wider, he could easily have found more memorable stuff, more variety of it, and this anthology would have been much improved. Given he is not a babyboomer himself, it’s hard to understand why he hasn’t done this.

Another problem with this concentration is that it denies the Australian prose poem a sense of its own narrative or development. The only pre-boomer poet included here is Bruce Beaver, and while this reflects the emergence of the genre in the sixties, Byrnes’s selections give little idea of how this sub-genre may have developed in the almost fifty years since this seminal cultural moment. Placing the poems in an obvious chronological order may have helped the idea of such a narrative, especially as the included work of younger poets feels scattered and arbitrary.
Alternatively, Byrne might have narrowed his criteria and restricted the anthology to the sixties poets. Then it would have worked as a particular distillation of a generation. But to present this as “the (Indigo) Book of Australian Prose Poems” is to infer limits that don’t exist. While he must be commended for retrieving so many excellent poems and putting them together in the context of their genre, it’s hard to be satisfied as a reader when you are left thinking that this anthology could have been so much more.