Alicia Bennett Faith (Spotted Gecko Press, 2007)
James Charlton So Much Light (Pardalote, 2007)
Philip Hammial Juggernaut (Island, 2007)
paul hardacre Love in the place of rats (Transit Lounge, 2007)
J S Harry Not finding Wittgenstein (Giramondo, 2007)
Marvis Sofield interstitial journeys (2008)
I've read a lot of poetry books this past year, commiseration not necessary. This country's output of fine work continues despite the ever present financial pressures. If we're near the end of the age of paper, teetering at abyss of irrelevance for the poem at least we can say we are bearing up with a dogged panache.
The exception to this has been the verse novel. Never a robust breed, the last year's crop has been almost universally disappointing. Superb poets disappoint with works that fail to engage the reader on the level of the novel whilst simultaneously stumbling poetically. For me, the best of the crop was Alicia Bennett’s Faith which explores the interactions between a prostitute and a policewoman. With her dense characterisation, stringently sparse language and coherent narrative this was the verse novel of the year.
A friend of mine commented that whilst reading Juggernaut, they felt as if they were being physically assaulted. There is no other poet in Australia more promiscuous in his language and imagery.
... caught up no doubt
in the backstage antics of mistress Cleo who with
perfect aim from a great height pisses in the mouth
of an elderly gent gurgling like a baby.
I confess to a conflict of interest here, being a voluntary director of Island Press, but I had no role whatsoever in the publication of this title. The quality of the work demands I include it in this overview. Begging bowls are German tank helmets, three old women are a commentariat on sex, the dead supply a sealed-off town with soiled underwear, mouldy bread. We are invited to "wear my skin give me money, millions" but for most of us we wouldn't dare, couldn't keep up the pace. For regular readers of Hammial one would recognize returns to familiar themes – a bizarre bazaar of imagery, reckless autobiography and a viciously sharp humour often in the form of abrupt contra-philosophical propositions. Many past readers will have given up on Hammial because the language is simply too much work. He has become more accessible over the years whilst retaining all that which makes his work memorable.
Love in the place of rats is the first book of Hardacre’s that I'd read, it won't be the last. Like Juggernaut, this is a breathless book - hot and flighty. Both books assert the vibrancy of life lived and the reader is viscerally engaged. Hardacre sweeps through aggressively (telegraphed by a superb cover from Sam Shmith), a gale of a book punctuated by the twisted power poles of slashes above the turbulent stream of ampersands. Reminiscent of early Kerouac, the poet tosses a passing wave to Waits, Duggan, Forbes, O'Hara & Seuss on the way to a voice that is demonstrably his...
nurse ramps morning past
the assembly of vomiting puppets
Universal & horseback
& this bus seat smells
of urine & burnt plastic
sea of tranquillity
one zero five is the room & we fuck & the lightbulb is bare /
Old Crow Monday
Marvis Sofield’s Interstitial Journeys runs at a very different pace. A poet's first book is both culmination and a birth... years of progressing one's art to a point where you can put a body of your work irrevocably on display can and should be honoured. But it is also just the first signpost on what one expects to be a long journey. Themes and approaches hinted at here will expand in future books.
This is a very good first book. Sofield's background has spanned New York, the Illawarra and the outback, this rich life has spawned a knowing, honest poetic voice. The tone is deliberately sparse with carefully placed incandescence. The reader will marvel at the implacable pulse of Broken Hill:
i wheeze in this town
of electric hums
Broken Hill 1.
rocks jut into syenite sky
But Sofield roams wider:
Shimmer metal green these wings will never
rise from Horyuji Temple held by gilded
filigree a strange accumulation
of impeded flight.
In a time when words are spilt too cheaply we again have a staunch but human book that frankly matters.
From baguettes to vignettes - Tasmanian James Charlton's So Much Light ranges both in place and theme (Japan/Tasman Peninsula Truganini/Antwerp 1233). This is a book of spiritual searching and deep observation, perhaps not so fashionable nowadays but I found it to be a rewarding journey.
At the bottom
another hope is given
Another great book from a fine Australian press.
How many enduring characters can you remember in Australian poetry? One for me is Peter Henry Lupus. At long last we have a complete body of work celebrating Australia's leading rabbit. Not finding Wittgenstein is a remarkable collection - playful, brutal, intelligent and empathic. We start with him arriving in Australia. Occasionally bereft and puzzled, Peter is almost led astray:
he meets a travelling
flock of boastful galahs
who tell him they are poets of the feather.
A Good Rabbit?
There is a vast wry cleverness behind these poems as human politics, philosophy, pretension and practices are identified then judged. The always interested rabbit spends time in Iraq, studying gore and Aristotle.
Peter Henry decides,
- especially - Thales
was wrong about sand - in the season without rain
in the Iraqi Western desert:
if sand is chewed,
no water will come from it. He has tried.
Thales of the Pre-Socratics
Wildly different works, all provide real sustenance in an time of fatty noise. And this is why poetry won’t die. There’s a way forward into readers’ lives, a reason why we poets continue nailed to our computer desks. Buy these books and get a little richer.