…in layers rather than clusters…book cover

Poetry review by Louise Waller


Edited by Robert Adamson
Black Inc.


This is the second year that distinguished Australian poet Robert Adamson has been tasked with putting together the annual anthology of the ‘best’ Australian poems for Black Inc.  His selections for the 2009 publication were carefully and subjectively chosen, and this year‘s selections are no less so.

Robert Adamson reminds us in his introduction that this selection “vibrates with ‘correspondences’.”  He also mentions that “When selecting these poems I was surprised by how many poets wrote about similar subjects…I put aside more than seven poems that mentioned bats; five of these actually had ‘bats’ in their titles. Last year I said it was the year of women poets.  There were plenty of bird poems as well and not all of them were about birds.”

One of the ’bat’ poems included is from Martin Harrison and the poem first appeared in Southerly, Vol.69, No.3, 2010.  Harrison opens the poem with - ‘The bats which got in/last night/through the broken extractor fan/upstairs/while we were talking/on the phone’ - and proceeds, building imagery and tension in much the same way (one imagines) as the conversation did with the person on the other end of the telephone;

          objects being sensed in their richness
          along every fibre,
          in every nerve as possible harshness,
          as cloths and clouds through the muscle
          held forever

          (About Bats  p 101)
It is always going to be difficult to select work for inclusion in any printed anthology which has a finite page count.  The Editor’s job is not an easy one and a good Editor, which Adamson is, will make the selections and stand by them, happily, proudly.

This year sees 108 poets published and 49 of those poets were not included in the previous year’s edition.  Most of the poets included are represented by one poem, however some poets have more than one included because, according to Adamson’s introduction, “I couldn’t print enough to prove how good their work is at the moment.”  This is an interesting decision and applies to the poets Rhyll McMaster, Anthony Lawrence, Sarah Holland-Batt, Gig Ryan and several others others.

Adamson includes two previously unpublished poems from Gig Ryan and it’s a pleasure to read them here.  Ryan has a unique writing style, so often doubly rewarding if read aloud where one appreciates the brilliance of her word on word segues into unexpected and sometimes tough or difficult word combinations.  She crafts powerful syntactical arrangements that stretch the brain as well as the tongue;

          Gibbering at the floral table’s hems
          poisons join you to the world
          Scottish hornpipes play at the funeral of happiness
          through books of ticking time
          Another loss files into the ground
          that art laments

          (Western Isles  p 190)

          and, as a parent, was taxed to very height
          Papers nap over the watching clips,
          dandling as career,
          they go home to the aether in a lake.

          (That laments  p 191)

Another poet appearing this year, (who was also in last year’s publication) has a previously unpublished poem represented here.  Ali Cobby Eckermann ‘resides at the old General Store in Koolunga, South Australia…’. I particularly like this year’s poem from Eckermann which is an English version interpretation of the Yankunytjatjara - a traditional Aboriginal language group of northwest South Australia, who have maintained their traditional cultural practices and are a major language group of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands.  A couple of excerpts;

          I will show you a field of zebra finch Dreaming in the shadow
               of the stony hill ochre
          when the soft blanket of language hums and kinship campfires
               flavour windswept hair

          in the cave she rolls the big rock for table, for the desert wildflowers
               they pick for one other
          she carries many coolamons filled with river sand to soften the
               hard rock floor
          she makes shelf from braided saplings to hold all the feathers
               given by the message birds

          there is love in the wind by the singing rock
          down the river by the ancient tree
          love in kangaroo goanna and emu
          love when spirits speak no human voice

         (Yankunytjatjara Love Poems - English version  pps 40,41)

In his introduction Robert Adamson says that “Some poems will drift free from any mooring and float out over their own waters; they don’t fit categories, and a few of these came up this year.  The ‘goat’ poems by Anthony Lawrence and John Kinsella can be read as examples…I don’t know what these two archrivals will make of it when they see their ‘goat’ poems published alongside each other.”  Well said, and few would not have read or heard about the very public acrimony surrounding the not so distant disputes involving Lawrence, Kinsella (and Adamson), so the idea of ‘goat’ poems and the fact of them being written and published here is a rather tantalizing pull for any reader.  Rather than quote from these, I think it best to suggest any interested reader rush off for a copy of the anthology.  Best savored with a full and complete reading (maybe with a glass of something smooth and cold) these two ‘goat’ poems are both very different in style and content, yet offer unguarded insights into the minds and maybe the ‘tongues in cheeks’ of their respective authors.

There are so many wonderful poets writing in Australia today, and so many interesting poems.  One poet who I haven’t read before is Fiona Wright.  Her poem first appeared in HEAT 23: Two to Go!, 2010.  It is a very humorous and delightful poem.  Any poets with kids will recognise the light seriousness at the heart of this poem.  And their children, once they are old enough to read, will so get it in an ah ha moment of recognition akin to their own experiences.  A short excerpt;

          I’m sorry for the evenings when you will have toast for dinner
               because your parents have been writing,
          and the weeks where you’ll eat nothing but black plums
               because they read about them somewhere
          and they sounded so delicious.

          (To the Children of Poets  p 212)

Many other poets deserve mention as well, far too many to list them all, but I really enjoyed the poems from the following poets;

Derek Motion’s ‘Forest Hill’ which first appeared in Overland 199, Winter 2010,
Laurie Duggan’s previously unpublished ‘The Exeter Book’,
B. R. Dionysius’s ‘Holiday’ which first appeared in the Age, 16 January 2010,
Angela Gardner’s ‘Morning Light’ which first appeared in Shearsman 85 & 86 (United Kingdom), October 2010,
Ouyang Yu’s ‘The evening walk’ which appeared online at www.softblow.org,
Claire Potter’s previously unpublished ‘Letter’, and
Lisa Gorton’s ‘The Humanity of Abstract Painting’ which first appeared in the Adelaide festival 2010 Biennial Catalogue Before and After Science, February 2010

With so much poetry to read, and so little time to read all of the individual collections being published each year, an anthology such as The Best Australian Poems allows an individual reader a wonderful opportunity to sample and discover a wide range of newly published poems. I’ll let Robert Adamson have the last word.  Quoting from his introduction, “This anthology will bear many readings.  The poems are in layers rather than clusters; you will notice the alphabetical shuffle of the index has scattered poems throughout the book like a kaleidoscope.”