The Sacred in the Secularbook cover

Poetry review by Jonathan Hadwen

Prayers of a Secular World

Edited by Jordie Albiston & Kevin Brophy
Inkerman & Blunt
ISBN: 978-0-9875401-9-5
160pp $AU24.99

2015 saw Inkerman and Blunt release their second poetry anthology, Prayers of a Secular World..Donna Ward, head publisher, relates in the foreword how this new collection gained its title from her introduction to their first anthology, Australian Love Poems 2013, in which she stated “poems are the prayers of a secular world”. She goes on to explain, “I was left with the urge to capture the kinds of prayers we pray these days … a collection of poems that are prayers, or evoke prayers … that we are in need of” to overcome the many catastrophes and brutalities of modern life Donna lists, fire storms and firing squads. The foreword asks a lot of the anthology, but reveals early confusion as to the type of poetry being collected here. If all poems are the prayers of a secular world, then any poem might qualify for inclusion. But what do we expect a prayer to be? Words of thanks? A plea? Does a prayer have to have hope? Belief? Faith?

David Tacey, in the official introduction to Prayers of a Secular World, attempts to explain “secular sacredness”. He states that we “have an innate compass that points to the existence of something beyond”, and that “poetry cannot function in a completely godless world”. Without the big “G” God, we search for the spiritual in “nature … in our feeling for matter and life, in our understanding of suffering”. In a “post-religious age” we are moving “towards a new sense of the sacred … sacredness is now a dimension of the everyday”. It is with this sensibility that the best poems in the collection are written, poems that are everyday meditations and relate moments that are ordinary and at the same time extraordinary, secular and at the same time sacred to the poet.

The anthology is broken up into six sections, each named after a line from a poem. The first section is called “See the Dreaming Claim You”, and straight away we are presented a piece that combines hints of both transcendence and despair. Jan Napier’s “North of Twenty-Six” bounces between the beauty of the outback, where “scoops of stars blaze blue white fire”, and its harshness, the heat “as red as an iron bar on a blacksmith’s anvil”. There is a weight to the environment presented in this poem that is overwhelming, and overwhelms the people who live there:

At forty the tan’s permanent   six packs and stubbies come from the bar
and bellies like bull buffaloes in a good wet strain tee shirts and overalls

It is a successful stream-of-consciousness poem, with interesting runs of alliteration, a poem that can be read in one long breath. It excels in describing the realities of the outback, and only descends into cliche when describing southerners. In a kind of reverse snobbery, the poet has them sipping “Melbourne Cup champagne at hundred dollar a head luncheons / where it is important how you hold your fork to spear imported prawns”, the reality of a privileged few, and a generalisation that would be the equivalent of stating that all men in the Northern Territory are like Crocodile Dundee. The poem ends with transcendence:

Prisoned by sick blood   looped by low platelet counts oysters chipped
from back beach rocks   rainbirds   corroboree frogs glossy as paint   pull.
I align you along Northern ley lines. See the dreaming claim you.

A strong thread in this collection is “ecopoetry”: poetry about, or written in defence of, the natural world and its non-human citizens. The first example is Maya Ward’s “Powerful Owl”, which lies somewhere between Mary Oliver’s love poems to nature, and Ted Hughes’ shamanic summonings.

To come close to you I must become this:
Dark, weighted silence
Poised, claws empty
Ready for the hunt

The reader is both the owl and the observer: “You are a piece of night broken off and coming towards me”, and by the end:

like the swift mouse made limp and bloodied
I am ready to become something other

There are echoes of this poem a few pages later in Libby Hart’s “Yen”, which starts with the story of Brenhilda, a woman who exiled herself to a small island in the Hebrides to escape her brother’s advances. According to legend, she lived there alone until her death, leaving only her bones, a cormorant nesting in her ribcage, or as Hart puts it:

she was no more than bone chorus,
her belly full with sea-fog sorrow.

In this poem we again we see a longing to fly, to be a bird, or beyond human, beyond life:

And if I were to rise and carry myself over ocean,
I’d only have to mind its rough face, to listen to its constancy.

“Yen” is a short but interesting poem that can be looked at in a number of ways. Is it a poem about transcendence and solitude, or a reflection on the rejection of the male or sexual world, as Brenhilda (or the poet) realises “there is nothing here, but wolves”?

The poems in this collection sometimes find spirit and grace in the natural world, sometimes among other human beings. One of the strongest poems is Cate Kennedy’s “Limbo”, about a single moment, a single act of compassion, this time at a primary school dance complete with rainbow-vested DJ. It is a story told without pretence in the most unpretentious of scenes, not wonder at nature, but wonder at the nature of love, in this case the love of a father for his disabled child as he contorts himself to help his son participate in the limbo dance:

… his dad drops to one heavy knee,
slips a hand behind his son’s head
and shimmies him under and through — contorted, crooked —
then back up somehow
while the DJ holds that stick immoveable, no sleight of hand

The last two stanzas of the poem are one long sentence, as the narrator holds her breath to see whether the DJ will lift the bar to make it easier on the child, and whether father and son will make it under the limbo stick unscathed. And perhaps it is the narrator’s prayer being answered, or our own, to be reminded that such love could exist in the world. As the first line of the poem asks, “Why shouldn’t a miracle be at the primary school disco”.

The next poem, “Sea Fox” by Daniela Giorgi, recalls the occurrence of a different type of ordinary miracle: seeing a fox while out on a late night walk in an attempt to distract her partner from his chronic pain.

And then we see it, standing surprised in the middle of the road; a fox.
Not under moonlight, but frozen under soft streetlight; unlike
cat or dog, but urban nonetheless, the colour of tea biscuits.

The author dismisses the poeticism of a fox seen under moonlight, but rather shows it under streetlight, out scavenging food from bins. Even the colour of the fox is compared to the plainest of foods, but the spell is cast nonetheless. It is a spell that is recited regularly throughout this collection, moments of stillness, moments when we are lifted from ourselves. Perhaps these are prayers of the highest order, a wish to not be ourselves for a moment.

The third section in this book is named after Fiona Wright’s poem, “Domestic Interior”, a piece about packing up to leave a house: “I have been loved inside this house, and I have cried”. The poem mixes the loss of breaking this residential bond with humour:

My misdirected mail
will outlast me, my dead skin dusting
the most awkward corners, the illegal blutack I can’t peel
from the pale walls

It is a well constructed poem, merging the realities of habitation, its little details, the history, all coming to its end with the last line, the boxes now packed: “The bare rooms echo, hum.”

Mark Tredinnick provides us with another domestic scene in “Skipping the Rope”, a meditation in a kitchen at breakfast time: “Just this, then: a girl in blue pyjamas”, his daughter skipping rope,

chanting some 
Absent-minded rhyming fairy banter

The world’s most nimble feather
Weight, the prettiest boxer there ever 
Will be

It is a love poem for a daughter, but the poet relates this affection and the perfection of the moment in an unpretentious way.

We return to the theme of ecopoetry in the penultimate section, forebodingly titled “The Shadow of the World”.  Here we find one of the foremost exponents of Australian ecopoetry, Anne Elvey, but also Judith Beveridge with a poem about the plight of battery hens, and Michael Farrell, who revisits the much-used image of a bird imitating the sounds of chainsaw and axe in “A Lyrebird”. Farrell’s poem is immediately followed by a poem by Stephen Edgar, a poet who sits at the opposite end of the Australian poetry spectrum, but echoes Farrell’s concerns about the environment in his description of a creek, picturesque from a distance, but up close:

… crumpled litter, bags and cans,
One rusty shopping trolley, a dumped fridge,
And a length of pipe that spans
The gap beneath the bridge.

In the last section, “Believe There’s a Road to El Paso”, some hope is restored. Andy Jackson in his Ghazal, “One Long Road”, chooses to repeat the word “world” in every second line. The poem bores deeply into the nature of living —  the grief and the confusion — but pushes towards hope:

I still think it exists, this world.

Fresh bread. Spring sun. This beautiful failure takes
a whole life

At the end, he asks,

Writer, why are you surprised at these tears? It’s just
the friction between the soul and the outside world.

There are many great poems in this anthology, but there are also many poems that tell their stories with great poetic gusto, and these poems slow the collection down. The collection also seems to have trouble deciding what it is, and what type of poems it is trying to collect. Some works seem to be included purely because of a passing reference to religious imagery, which clashes with the word “secular” in the anthology’s title, while others are devoid of any hope, which we might assume a prayer can never be. In the end, it feels like a missed opportunity. If the collection had been shorter and more succinct, it may have been an edition that could be returned to over and over, as a prayer book might be.