Diamond scraps of soundbook cover

Poetry review by Angela Gardner


The Silences

Amanda Anastasi and Robbie Coburn
Eaglemont Press, Australia, 2016
ISBN 9780646963075
41pp, $AU20.00


The Silences, a two hander from Amanda Anastasi and Robbie Coburn, is one of the hits of the year for me. Although slender, coming in at just 41 pages, the poems have a power and coherence that has resulted from keeping their remit tightly focussed. Instead of a dos-si-dos format where each of the poets have a designated space within the book and their own ‘front’ cover, the poems in The Silences are interleaved as a conversation between the poets. The order, sometimes a single poem from one author followed by a set of poems from the other, is a well-structured scheme that has obviously been dictated by the flow of the poems rather than an artificially introduced this-then-that/ you-then-me idea.

The choice of these two two voices, with their contrasting individual histories and viewpoints, widens and enriches the subject matter. Amanda Anastasi already has a previous collection, 2012 and other poems, though this is Robbie Coburn’s first collection. Both are early career poets with a string of single poem publication successes in journals both in Australia and overseas. Indeed Amanda Anastasi is a contributor to this issue of foam:e and Robbie Coburn’s poetry was published in foam:e 11 (http://www.foame.org/Issue11/poems/coburn.html).

Robbie Coburn opens with “there are words that are never said. /we have no use of them” (Fervour, p8) and immediately the title of the collection, The Silences, come into view. Much of his poetry is either of the semi-rural Victorian experience of his childhood or of its continuing affect upon his psyche even in the city:

living in the country remains with you long after you’ve gone
becoming a second skin dislodged when away from the grasses

a part of the body embedded in the endless paddocks
                                             Suicide Country p18

This isolation, learnt early, remains and gives his poetry a thoughtful introspection, empathetic with what remains, the farmers, the dogs, the mate of a fallen bird. But there is a dangerous edge to the work that he describes: “I love all the things I hate about being here.” (How I Feel About Living Here p24). Because of his insider/outside status Coburn has the ability to make the reader hold their breath with him in his shorter, more simple lyrics:

a shadow is shifting
with the temperature
of breath
                                             Reverie p21

In a long poem at the end of the collection, ‘Searching for the Lost Forest’, Coburn has the space to extend his meditation of the Woodstock district over the period of its settlement. The forest lost to farming, the erosion, the ageing farmers and the flight of the young to the city. But it is the fear of the burning summer fires and the inaction on climate change that will cause him to abandon this land. This is an eco-poetic that explores the internal and social geography of country Australia at this difficult and unstable time.

The overwhelming trope of Amanda Anastasi’s poetry is music, appearing in her first poem in the collection, also about childhood. During the initiation of baptism, her baby-self cries “a persistent ostinato cry” (Initiation , p9): a phrase that repeats in the same persistent musical voice. The language of music, of performing and being witness abound in unexpected but perfectly positioned ways:

An executor of Chopin herself,
she knows the crests and tides
of the Revolutionary.
                                             The Page Turner p.34

While the great composers, not just Chopin, but Mahler and Beethoven appear in other poems, musical terms from Italian are used unforced and musical in themselves.

Many of the poems are ekphrastic taking as their starting points photographs, films or paintings. In ‘The Anatomy of Your Lie’ the fox bones scientifically photographed on “unbiased white” literally carries off his “faux reality” “as though your coat were still attached. There is an interest in truth and lies, in the process of confession; in what an artwork can or cannot tell us. Even “The myopic blur of an out-of-focus snap”. For someone attuned to the sound of language a painting cannot be deaf or mute. Of Robert Brownhall’s Night Arrows (oild on canvas) 2014 she intuits

The empty night is an ear,
collecting all that is dismissed.
                                             Night Arrows p.28

A poet needs all their experience, all their senses, all their attention and all the silences to give us this insight. Amanda Anastasi makes this look and sound effortless.

This collection has been crafted into clarity and precision from two poets with their different subjects and approaches. What is achieved is a harmonic of their two voices, creating a complex duet, hearing the individual as well as the poetic conversation between them. The book is a success and augers further to come from them in any future collaboration and in their individual careers.

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