TEXT review

Diverse voices in celebration of poetry

review by Catherine Cole

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Contemporary Asian Australian Poets
Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey and Michelle Cahill (eds)
Puncher & Wattman Poetry, Glebe NSW 2013
ISBN 9781921450655
Pb 253pp AUD24.00

Australian poetry seems to be thriving at present with some wonderful recent publications from Giramondo, Hunter Publishers, Grand Parade Poets and journals such as Mascara to name just a few. The contemporary Australian poetry published within them reflects the country’s diverse voices from the youthful to the not so young, the stylistically traditional to more post modern approaches. How timely, then, that Puncher and Wattman have published a collection representing the multiplicity and range of Australian poets from Asian Australian backgrounds.

Contemporary Asian Australian Poets is a rich collection. The thirty-seven poets represented within it are arranged alphabetically, the editors doing so, they note, to avoid constraining groupings or thematic limitations, identity or narrative politics. Such an arrangement works well. The collection features poets who ‘are either first-generation migrants from Asia, or Australian-born poets who can trace their roots to Asia’ (13). Thus, each poet and their poems are allowed to stand within the collection individually, rather than as a poet tethered to historical, cultural or geographical identity.

Each of the collection’s three editors offers their own preface. In his, Adam Aitken explores what it means to be Asian/Australian, locating his response in ideas of transnationalism. Kim Cheng Boey addresses the ‘weight’ of migration on writers, especially the binaries of old homeland with adopted home, past with present, self with the ‘other’ that Asian Australians constantly negotiate. Michelle Cahill examines the feminist experience, drawing on the works of the anthology’s seventeen women writers, the female body as represented by the body of old nations and new. The ‘body’ of texts within the anthology is examined as well and Cahill offers a potent message to the reader about to enter the book. She writes: ‘(The) materiality of women’s labour and the limitations of patriarchal spaces marginalize women within the body as a text, the text as a body, a space, of counteraction from which to translate the present and to mediate the past.’ (29)

Each of these three short essay/introductions is a small, bright and significant work in its own right. Each raises questions of identity, power, loss, home and gender. As such, they give teachers in creative writing, literary studies, gender and post colonial studies points of reflection with which to enter and explore the poetry that follows.

So how best to review the poems themselves, varied as they are?

The collection’s thirty-seven poets reflect the anthology’s diversity. The poets’ backgrounds map Australia’s diasporic communities and multiculturalism and also the significant political shifts that have occurred due to post WW2 de-colonisation and war zones such as Korea and Vietnam, all shaping the landscape of Australian immigration.  As significant markers of human movement and settlement in Australia, the poems take the reader into many different worlds, old and ‘new’, with Australia offering a site of hope and expectation for all the poets, but the poetry is diverse too, in its world view.

Much of the poetry is achingly good and is an important reminder of Australia’s rich cultural mix. Many reflect on what it means to be an Australian born overseas or the child of parents or grandparents who made the decision to come here, often at great emotional or economic expense. These past lives flit backwards and forwards through the poems, like skittish ghosts, as ephemeral as old identities or homelands that no longer appear on maps. These lives fade and reappear in numerous guises as we see in Shen’s ‘Highlights’ (The Migration Museum Adelaide):

Mostly obvious –
commemorative plates
of Queen Victoria,
grainy photos of refugees
clutching all that embodied them,
a wall of embroidered national flags,
ploughs, tea chests, walking sticks and
passports from many nations
with faded names. (225)

The subject matter of the poems is diverse too, traversing continents, global in scope. Take Michelle Cahill’s ‘Swans’ with its Asian/Australian/Scottish/Nordic connections, all of them linked to the bird which so often represents migration and escape:

Here in Orkney, they time-share as winter voyagers
undisciplined pacifists, neither sentinel nor apsara.
A splash of colour on the bill is tarred as a birch leaf,
refusing to fall. The eye keeps faithful to her sky gods
knowing the powder of white water, the Nordic crags… (77)

or Jaya Savige’s  ‘Circular Breathing’ (for Samuel Wagan Watson) which like Shen’s ‘Highlights’ above, conveys lost places, faded or scratched away:

There’s a man with dreadlocks playing the didgeridoo
in the Piazza di Santa Maria, and everyone is listening.
Kids sit by the fountain swapping smokes for laughs,
tourists lick gelati as they pass illicit markets,
belts, handbags, sunglasses, all made in ___________
the place scratched off. (220)

Omar Musa’s ‘Felda’ speaks more directly of nostalgia and the awful impact of greed on a returned-to place:

Green desert,
perfect pattern of oil rich trees,
minting money.

My guts turn to ash.

There was a jungle here once,
loud with orangutan and sunbear,     
                                                            gibbon and bulbul. (174)

Australia is lucky to have these voices, although at times in the current debate about migration and refuge it would seem we have forgotten what riches have come from our migrant heritage. As well as the diversity and individuality of the poems there is a commonality between all of them, an assertive and deeply felt expression of what it means culturally and artistically to be an Asian-Australian. There is a kind of gallantry in these voices and approaches, a challenge to be who you wish to be in the rising conservatism of contemporary Australia. Poetry is what matters most they seem to say, and the words of a poet can convey what other forms of discourse or debate just can’t match.

Contemporary Asian Australian Poets is a collection that offers hours of browsing, musing, pleasure. It is an important resource for Australian universities – and one which should find a home in every creative writing and poetry studies course.  I commend the publisher, editors and the poets for an anthology which represents a major and timely addition to Australian poetry studies.


Catherine Cole is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong. She has published novels, short stories, poetry and nonfiction.


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Vol 18 No 1 April 2014
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo