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|Famous Reporter # 20|
Review: Republican Dreaming, Five Poets
This book takes its title from the Republic Bar & Cafe, a venue which has become a kind of hub for Hobart literary life, and one which is frequented by all five of the poets whose work is represented here, Karen Knight, Norma Knight, Robyn Mathison, Lyn Reeves and Liz Winfield.
Republican Dreaming is a good example of what can come from the hothouse atmosphere of such a salon: the focusing of a number of minds, imaginations and talents on the goal of creating poetry, the cross-fertilisation of ideas and skills, the regular exposure, through readings and workshops, to each other's critical gaze, but above all the solidarity of a group of poets banding together to foster and promote the art.
North Hobart in the 90s might not be Paris in the 20s, or even Balmain in the 60s, but in these post-modern times the concept of a cultural metropolis, and consequently of geographical outposts as somehow being of lesser value, is outdated. And anyway the proof of quality is in the reading.
Karen Knight's is one of poetry's truly original voices. Her poems have a combination of toughness and quirkiness that can make for really exciting reading and she knows just where to plant the unexpected image, as in the opening of 'Instant Sobriety': 'I want to cut the blue out of a rainbow / with my father's circular saw' or the end of 'Observations at Salamanca Market': 'as she wipes her pierced nose / on my red velvet jacket'. She displays a sense of humour, a rare and welcome thing in a serious poet, but can also hit hard with the chilling deadpan-delivered horror of 'Backwater Bonding'.
Norma Knight is at her best when matching her sharp wit to her equally sharp observations of people and places. Phrases like 'agoraphobic mice' and 'the feathery things / that summer says' are scattered throughout her poems like jewels. Occasionally she slips into the too-easy epithet, such as 'stunning beauty', but she usually avoids the trap of closing a poem down too neatly. The conclusions to 'We need you, Oscar Wilde' and 'Seasoned March Hare' are brilliant in their almost non sequitur quality, spinning surreally out from the poem, but tonally spot on so that the reader, too, is taken out beyond the poem.
Robyn Mathison's pieces are generally keyed lower than Karen and Norma Knight's, more contemplative. The comfortable suburban settings of 'Sleeping with Cats' or 'Quiet House', however, show only one side of her poetic persona. She can also pierce with a bitter dart as in 'Yellow Roses' or with subversive understatement as in 'Republican Dreaming', the poem from which (along with the name of the aforementioned venue and the currently mooted constitutional changes) the collection takes its name.
Lyn Reeves opens her selection with a riotous blaze of colour. Her first two poems range back and forth across the spectrum like a kaleidoscope on methedrine, and she maintains this visual impact through the rest of her pieces as well. 'Sunflowers', 'Blue Jug', a room that 'glowed like wild / lemons, like suns,'. Sounds, too, are important: her father's whistling, the music of 'gourds cured in the kiln / of an African sun', a child screaming on a swing. Beneath this rich sensuality of the surface, however, there lurks the sense of loss or at least of its possibility.
Liz Winfield is perhaps the most ambitious of the five, attempting, in 'Dawn' and 'Door Knock', longer and more complex poems. These, especially the latter with its bitter-sweet exploration of love and fear, work well, but for me the highlights of her selection here are the shorter poems, 'another's sins like pigment in my skin' and 'Honey'. She has the knack of eliciting powerful and acute emotional responses by the deft use of images: 'I have painted a black moon / under each of my eyes' and the wit to sustain the extended metaphor of the lover as sandwich filling: 'black and salty like vegemite' ... fish spread, & just the smell of me / will take you elsewhere'.
Bumble-bee Books is a new publishing venture, and its principals are to be congratulated not only on having the faith and energy to bring out such a collection, but also on their editorial taste and wisdom. Regardless of the result of the referendum, Republican Dreaming is a clear winner.