Ilumina, reviewed by Michelle Cahill
Ilumina, edited by Judith Beveridge and Roberta Lowing
REVIEWED BY MICHELLE CAHILL
Poetry UnLimited Press
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Ilumina is one of this year’s surprising packages. Published by the vanguard Poetry Unlimited Press under the loving patronage of Roberta Lowing, and edited by Judith Beveridge, it features work by commissioned guest poets of the monthly salon readings at Sappho Books Café, as well as the best of Sydney’s emerging talent. For the last two years post-graduate students from Sydney University, UTS and other non-affiliated aficionados have met in a grungy café behind the used bookshop in Glebe Point Rd to enjoy readings by guest poets and to read their own work in the open section. From personal experience these readings are of a high standard with an open, relaxed, and supportive atmosphere. A place where you can share a verse, a glass of wine, a few quiet words.
The PULP project is one of the few existing communal poetry projects, providing the opportunity to foster connection and nurture poets who are finding their voice in the factional and fractured Anglophone scene of Australian poetry. Ilumina provides us with new encounters; many of the contributing poets being of a non-Anglo-Celtic background, at a much higher proportion than you are guaranteed to find in any of your “Best” Australian anthologies, or for that matter in the majority of the mainstream journals.
Disregarding clichéd reverence, or the usual stylised conventions, many of these poets engage with disconcerting subjects like war, racism, dislocation and relocation. A good example is Tessa Lunney’s “You, My Brother”, a stark evocation of racial and sexual violence. There are chilling poems about war by Louise Wakeling, or this sparse stanza by Betty Johnson from the poem “Ali, Iraq”:
Your doctors promiseMiracles: new arms, new skin.BurntWe are shy. Ruins wait.(160)
Onur Karaozbek’s “The One Who Might Be Any One” explores otherness by satirising social stereotypes:
I’m the Asian fella going to university knowing little Englishor the kid from Albury studying Asian Cinema and CultureI’m the one serving your grass juice,the suit pushing you aside during the CBD rush-hour.(162)
A new discovery for me was Micah Horton-Hallett’s spare, tense narratives that build around metaphors of space and language:
unaware that wewere writing the wallstighter around us.That we were writingtoward a fullstop.Now–As I write a new cagefor my memory of you–The last echoes of alexiahave dispersed intothe open universe &The drunk stars still sing:(103) “The Pit”
Jill Gientzotis’ “Amsterdam” draws the peripatetic to an inner physical landscape, with images of fragility:
Where you are is not foreign.Where you are is home.(91)
Many of these poets seem to be at odds with the arbitrary closures and the propagandas of nationalism. Paul Giles’ “Australian Sonnets” interrogates the utopian ideals of Australia as a country of beauty and rich blessings. The poem is a harshly cynical contemporary rendering of AD Hope’s “Australia”, reworking the images and tones from a migrant, and more significantly a female perspective:
what does “pullulate”mean anyway? what is historybut the sweep of shifting sands?what place is left to dare?it’s neither Cairns nor Perth.if she hopes to survive,she must find a homefor a battered mind,a lonely, aching breast.(97)
In Carol Jenkins’ “White Poems” a process of intelligent and sensual moulding of subject moves towards specificity and identity in the poems about potato, optics, or skin.
This is what gives the wordsroom to think. I beat in soft wadsof butter, warm milk and cream, pyramids of saltand anticipation, all the cloud air puffs out at meits warm potato breath, I am balancing, perfectlyall the white potato space in betweenthe scaffolds of real potato.(156) “White Poem No 4: Ode to the Potato”
Her poems complement the lexical layers of “Knitcap Sutras”, a preceding sonnet sequence by Peter Minter. Minter’s highly inventive rural excursion is transformed at the outset by syncopated urban riffs, the enjambment leaving one sometimes breathless.
I drive in a dust pile, Tank Girl shambolic through early evening paddocks, steel wire coat hangers and polyester string looped & shuddering clots past the milkers, bright static radio & duco bent in panels where city chunks of 80s pop & supermarket fluorofoods bounce on the back seat along the gravel bolt beside the Gloucester river, all hot-headedi (149)
Yet this allegro slows to more solemn movements where time is “ silently/ unfurling in the late sun’s gravity ”(153). There seems to be a desire to test and tease; to make of the landscape something more complex. Another youthful variant of the bucolic myth is found Ashley Burton’s poem “Swimming in the Murrumbidgee” with its unpretentious idiom.
Gospels of an entirely different nature are to be found in Peter Boyle’s “Apocrypha”, where crickets, shells, turtles and fish are personified with a surrealistic renouncement of the real; where the visual image surrenders wholly to the mind’s eye.
Above the sandSpirit fish spin in the rivers of air.A fish knows how to carry coolness deep inside its body,How water glidesEven when it can’t be seenThe spirit fish are whispering the names of all the stars(37)
Diversity and freshness aside, the hallmark of this anthology is a series of insightful essays by, and interviews with, guest poets. Judith Beveridge’s essay “How Poets Write” is a deeply personal account of her development towards greater receptiveness, towards a heightened attention to inner and outer worlds, and what she describes as “the ordering principles of the poem.”
Feeling the world give and give, one thing opening up to another, is what I enjoy most about writing. My poems don’t start from ideas, but are very definitely derived from sensory experience. (28)
This is interesting given Beveridge’s meditative observations of sense-impressions as a form of aesthetic and spiritual practice in her poems. Jill Jones in “I Want To Be Available To The Moment” acknowledges a similar phenomenological debt. She writes of her awareness of space, and of writing from the body; of breathlessness, vertigo and sound. Like Beveridge there is the need to be open and receptive.
I see what I do as exploratory, responsive to the pressures of language and my own intuition and memories as they converge in the moment, in going places, in observing and being part of experience. (145)
Both Jones and joanne burns, in her essay “Click” describe an interest in the physicality of writing. Jones, with her collage narratives confesses to her reliance on accretions, associations, taking notes in cafés, buses, even meetings, and of her stationery fetish. “It can get a bit pervy,” she writes, “but a lot of art practise is like that, I suspect.” (142) joanne burns speaks of the “technologies of writing”, and of their potential to create random correspondences. Writing as a practice, she admits, can be ritualistic, playful and surprising.
Lowing is to be credited for her skillful interviewing of the guest poets, particularly Stephen Edgar and Peter Boyle, whom I suspect would otherwise be taciturn about their writing habits. What results is an inquiry into the ‘how’ of writing, an arguably more interesting question than the ‘why’. Equally impressive is Stuart Rees’ inquiry “Can Poets Change The World?”. Rees dismantles the manifestos of one-dimensional institutions, or the use of power ‘which tolerates no critics and values only compliance.’ (224) Citing poets like Octavio Paz, Oodgeroo Noonuncal, and William Stafford, Rees asserts that poets can indeed confront the basic humanitarian struggle for home, dignity and identity:
If poets breathe life into the premise that the personal is the political, they will inevitably confront these issues of identity, which are at the hub of destructive conflicts. (219)
Nicolete Stasko reminds us of this in “Ashes”, one of the book’s closing poems:
All over the worldpoets are going up in flamesleavinglittle piles of ashesin the shape of mountainsit seems we do no noticetheir goingso much else is ablazebut the darknessis growing andit is not our eyes(244)
Ilumina strives to resist this ‘darkness.’ It’s a book to read on trains and buses, or while ever you are waiting for glimpses and sparks. The poems and poetics in Ilumina make the issues of space, time and perspective more complex and inclusive. It’s a collection that mostly sidesteps the ‘sludge’, to quote Rees, in the hope of making a difference.