from the editor's desk

Contemporary Australian Poetry

State of the Union: A review of Contemporary Australian Poetry, Puncher and Wattmann.

Langford, Martin et al. (eds.), Contemporary Australian Poetry. Puncher and Wattman, 2016. RRP: $49.95, 660pp. ISBN: 9781922186935

Robert Wood

What is the state of poetry in Australia today? One could assume that this was the question at the heart of Puncher & Wattman’s new anthology Contemporary Australian Poetry. But from the fragmentation of the words on the cover, (all except for ‘POETRY’), to the editorial introduction and the contents within, one knows that the wholeness assumed in a cursory reading of such a title is somewhat illusory, if not quite in pieces on the kitchen floor. This is a new ‘Australia’ that is being performatively enunciated, and with it a challenge to a conservative understanding of a verse tradition here that shows up the staleness of the oppositional debates about international influence and local identity, mainstream and experimental. Contemporary Australian Poetry is a symptom and expression of what is happening socially in such a way that we might be able to look past congealed discourses of poetics in this nation.

Take for example, Luke Beesley’s ‘Split in the Table’, Pam Brown’s ‘Authentic Local’, Lachlan Brown’s ‘Evensong’, Judith Bishop’s ‘T/here’ and Diane Fahey’s ‘In the House’. These poems all challenge, if not synthesise, the manifestation of the city-country divide (Les Murray’s Athenian/Boethian). They are suburbanist in so far as they bring to consciousness a sense of location that is neither attached to the metropole nor the frontier. In so doing they represent the lived material reality of the majority of people in Australia. Contemporary Australian Poetry is admirable in reflecting, in the best possible way, the diversity of life here. I was buoyed by this at a basic level and at the level of implication. Perhaps the ‘normal’ can be adequately defamiliarised so that it becomes poetic material. Nowhere is this clearer than in gestures towards suburbia or spaces that are uncertain, suggestive, liminal.

The modus operandi of the volume is, of course, polysemous. Yet it responds to the idea of Michael Farrell’s ‘unsettlement’ through presenting poems by Robert Adamson (‘Pied Butcher Bird Flute Solo’), Emily Ballou (‘The Blackberries’), Ann Vickery (‘Russian Bit Player’), Robert Gray (‘Flying Foxes’), and Rod Moran (‘A Memoir of Birds’). In other words, not only does it acknowledge that the banal expression of occupation is the suburbs, but it offers a challenge to the idea that ‘we’ need be guilty or anxious or unnerved by our ontological being here. It offers, in other words, a sense of rooted connectivity (rooted both in the sense of ‘firm locatedness’ and ‘being fucked’). This comes firmly after the black armband historicising of earlier paradigms. This paradox is there in Philip Hammial’s knowing and ironic ‘Black Hand’ that states:

Help me out of this hole.
I’ve been down here for too long
Twenty years, surely, is too long.
Twenty years, please, extend your black hand as sticky as dates in a desert sun.
Don’t refuse me.
I won’t ask for anything more.
Once out, there won’t be any obligation on your part.
Once out, we can go our separate ways; that I can promise you. [228]

Although addressed to the Yoruba god Ogoun, it could well be metaphoric for the state of national affairs when placed in a volume such as this. Inevitably though, readers will place this book in conversation with poetries from around the world—especially those anthologies organised by nation of a more recent persuasion. What characterises ‘Australia’ is that it has a perceived and self-perpetuating isolationism at the level of popular script (think cultural cringe, think geographic separation, think island as metaphor). John Kinsella has critiqued this at length by putting forward ‘international regionalism’. And in this vein, there are poems about ‘foreign places’ in Contemporary Australian Poetry, most notably John A. Scott’s ‘Sketches from Montparnasse’, Yahi Al Samawy’s ‘Don’t Light the Candles’, Louise Oxley’s ‘Border Country’, Kim Cheng Boey’s ‘Ahead My Father Moves’ and Ouyang Yu’s ‘The Great Chinese Loneliness’, the latter being a testament to transnationalism. To this we might want to add that there are multiple countries on this continent already. ‘Australia’ is not Ngarluma land or Yolngu land or Aranda land, for these places and others were never ceded. This book, in one of its great strengths, has poems that speak to our internal heterogeneity that has roots before a federated Australia, or even its antecedent colonies or New Holland. This comes through in poems by Marion May Campbell, Sam Wagan Watson, Ken Canning, Philip Hall, Lee Cataldi, Lionel Fogarty and Ali Cobby Eckermann. They show us the way towards a continental republicanism, which comes after the nation from inside the geography of this island.

These three interventions—suburbanism, rooted connectivity, and continental republicanism—are the poetics I take away from Contemporary Australian Poetry. Others might want to comment on diverse identities, place-making or anxious nationalism in one setting; free verse, non-traditional word play or constrained lyric forms in another. The volume offers so much good work that anyone who cares about poetry must simply be thrilled to wrestle with what is possible in today’s Australia as that extends into language games, and from these shores to those around the world once more.

With Contemporary Australian Poetry, the editors have moved us beyond the era of the post (post-conceptual, post-national, post-settlement) by creating a vision of what poetry is and what it might yet become. That this is the ‘contemporary’ suggests that the state of poetry ‘here and now’ might be cause for care-full celebration. This is what makes a good anthology beyond simple judiciousness and calibrated representativeness—it has a frame that fits. In that case, we need to thank the team and not only the editors (Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson, David Musgrave), but also the contributors and production people. It is a handsome volume that feels good to the touch and the eye. The paper stock is particularly noteworthy being a light GSM with good loft that means it feels soft and supple. This makes the book, at 658 pages, remarkably easy to handle, enabling one to travel with it wherever one wishes. I hope it goes far. What the next permutation of an anthology of poetry in Australia looks like is anyone’s guess, but I would hazard to suggest that it will be hard to outdo this fantastic volume which will stand as a testament for some time yet.

Robert Wood grew up in southwest Western Australia. He has worked for Overland, Australian Poetry, Cordite, and Peril, and is currently working at The Centre for Stories. Find out more: www.rdwood.org

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