This year saw Salt claiming its sales had dropped by 80%. I have heard of similar problems elsewhere. Many of us like to imagine poetry is an essential service, like the fire brigade. But swamped by the GFC, it seems we are the most discretionary of spendings. And it wasn’t like we had a lot of excess fat to trim in the first place! The Great Poetry Crisis? In April we saw the launch of a bumper issue of Five Bells. Principal preoccupations werewhere we sit in a national culture and how the hell do we survive. I suspect another question we have to ask is where did we go wrong?
Bronwyn Lea starts a poem with the proposition:
You have to start with insufficient knowledge,
yes, this, & yes, praise be, then this,
you have to have that kind of courage.
To inject ourselves into the consciousness of a broader public (or even the regular poetry reader) we have to be more muscular in our approach to work… no more courtier jive (the in jokes that only a tiny coterie gets), forget writing about writing, insert one's self into the debates/issues of the time and abandon the onanistic conceit that it's just about the words. I’ve been arguing for years that "new ears" are the only game in town; we have to reach out to communities.
The following six books, whilst being very different, offer us a glimpse of how poetry can be an incursion into the dialogues of society.
Death and the Motorway is an inquisitive book by a poet who is curious, elegant and humanist in his approach to poetry. Gilbey is a man with an enduring empathy combined with a fascination for (but never a prisoner of) aesthetics, form and poetics. This is a gently roving book full of understated humour:
The poem about the Wine Museum
nearly didn’t happen. It was going to be
the poem about the Sewers
but they were closed.
The Poem about the Wine Museum
Nothing clears my sinuses
quite like sexual arousal.
One gets a sense of the everyday here but the twist is that the prosaic, almost conversational subjects are teased out while extremes are trimmed by the scission of Gilbey’s gentle wit (e.g. what to give one’s schizophrenic friend for Christmas – Phil). You could live in this book.
After a rambling walk down Jew Fish Bay, past the family of Eastern Water Dragons under a sky bloodspattered by Crimson Rosellas I am returning to Karen Knight’s beautifully produced Postcards from the Asylum. I don’t know how it is that Tasmania rears and attracts so many fine poets, but Knight is one of the best. Her heartrendingly simple voice is not an easy read but it’s harder to put down. With delicate imagery she paints a picture of her time as an inmate in a psychiatric institution in 1969. The writing is so carefully controlled that one looks at the unbearable full on - without flinching. One is torn and in a hesitant, almost newborn way, restored.
talk a jungle at a hundred
machetes an hour.
David’s dad is rich.
He sends boxes tied
up with ribbon and guilt.
A Care Package
Helen missed her confiscated books
on electrocution and drowning;
Forget-Me-Not’s from Violent Ward
Never quite reaching delusional heights like hope, this is nonetheless a book about resilience, survival and the social constructs that are built around the "management" of so many precious, difficult minds.
Bronwyn Lea’s third book is another exciting contribution to the Australian canon. There is an engaged honesty through most of this book that pairs up with a superb facility in language. From the edgy imminence of Seferis to the careful wonder of The Ballerina's Foot, readers are kept on their toes. Travel with her…
There is a place I like to go
that is behind language
I like to go there & wobble
like a melon on a table
... One look grants me
the heavy gift of my body &
reacquaints me with the involuntary
muscle of desire.
Who Is He
Kerry Leves’ A Shrine to Lata Mangeshkar is on the surface an unlikely contender for critical attention, it being based on wanderings through India around 30 years ago. But Leves pulls it off with a great clarity of language, a ruthlessly open eye, unrenounceable honesty and superb imagery:
into the fumes,
That black thing next to a string of marigolds
might be burnt bone or burnt wood
or ash from a burning mind -
Spiritual searching travels alongside frank observation. We are enriched as
… small towns
& businessmen & schoolboys
pass like dreams
The "spirit" of Arunachala
John Leonard Press continues its commitment to poetry with the new and selected from Marcella Polain. A roughly manuscript sized collection of new work proceeds selected material from her previous two books. This is a fascinating read as the new material is substantially different in subject and voice. Polain was always a serious poet, but the new work largely concerns loss and pain… the language has little room for levity or evasion. Before you go running to the exit gates you should know this book is a valuable journey… superbly written in a straightforward, sometimes sparse and intensely human way. Many of the observations cut through to a brutal illumination - in Straight the poet/patient is urged to suffer:
gratefully -- like a good woman;
stoically -- like a good man.
I am reminded of that reassuring falsehood "God never gives us more than we can bear"; it actually works in this book where one is patiently transported through the worst towards a kind of empathy, a knowledge and release. I sometimes forget
that the world releases
its stories slowly
and that this,
in the end,
is its deepest kindness -
Another publisher with superb production standards is PressPress. I have been looking forward to a first book from Alison Thompson with high expectations. Slow Skipping does not disappoint. In the poem First Light, she warns "such precise stillness is hard to bear" and this captures the delicate balance throughout the book – at times the voice is almost conversational until we are turned by incredibly sharp imagery and hard facts. Much of the book is concerned with landscape, not observed primly from a distance, but right up as close as you can get, you actually "taste the peat breath of tundra" (Yukon Delta 1994) and sweat intermingles with frangipani (Frangipani).
Just as her landscapes are changing, threatened and layered, so too the people who inhabit this book – ranging from Nimbin settlers to a gay farmer who hangs himself. A richly rewarding first volume.
He dreams his life has become liquid
and he is straddling the equator, that point
where water does not run clockwise
or anticlockwise but simply drains out, in a long, unspiralling line.
Accelerating into the Night
Diversity of voice, a spray of time and themes all make these unlikely bedfellows. The only thing they share in common is the enrichment given to the reader. Where are you? Salt had a huge response to its campaign to save them via people each buying one title. Maybe we should all follow through and buy one title from another press - Puncher and Wattman, Five Islands, PressPress, Island, Pardalote, Interactive, Ginninderrra, UQP, Sunlines, Walleah, Giramondo, Black Pepper, Black Ink and all the other foolhardy, glorious poetry publishers out there. Most have web sites, go on, just bloody do it!
LES WICKS has toured widely and seen publication across 12 countries in 7 languages. His 8th book of poetry is The Ambrosiacs(Island, 2009). http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm Meuse Press’ latest poetry outreach project was Guide to Sydney Beaches.