review by Sandra Burr
Adrian Caesar, Adrienne Eberhard, Mal McKimmie, Jan Owen and Petra White
In Take Five 08, Shoestring Press anthologises the work of five fine contemporary Australian poets. The poems sit well together, a tribute to the care taken by Adrian Caesar in selecting them.
The book begins with Adrian Caesar. His poems bristle both with impatience and melancholic misanthropy. A sense of being unanchored permeates both 'The Searcher', where Caesar observes
and 'Watch my Lips', where the poet nostalgically recalls his Lancashire roots but finishes with a desperate plea to be heard. There is pessimism at growing old in 'Non-Correspondence' where the poet describes the futility of '...an old romantic fool' who longs for the beautiful young woman sitting in a café whose eyes hold 'the promise/ of cool shadows, passionate oasis/ in a darkened room'. This pessimism is repeated in 'Yesterday's News' and here Caesar makes some rather savage observations about ageing and the undignified antics occurring on the Press Club dance floor: '... how close fun is/ to courage indistinguishable from despair'. In 'Space Walker' Caesar sums up his disaffection for humanity stating that 'There's a lot to be said for distance'.
There is bluntness to Caesar's poetry, a lack of pretension that sometimes gives rise to a hint of self-indulgence and lack of subtlety, as in the pair of poems 'Bali Devotions' and 'Agung's Reply' where it feels more like a lecture than the journey of discovery that is the mark of the best poetry. Caesar, however, more than makes up for this in 'Night of the Stage Name' and 'Our Mouths Were Filled with Laughter', two poems that are less measured and whose wry exuberance deliver a balancing tonal quality to this selection of his work.
Adrienne Eberhard's poems, by contrast, are lush and lyrical and finely nuanced. They vibrate with imagery and alliterative lines that beg to be said out loud. Who could resist uttering such phrases as '... like the hidden/ honeycomb heart of a bees' nest, the ants'/ mazy underworld' from 'In the Mirror', or
from 'The Bells'?
Eberhard's poems are complex multi-layered affairs. The undercurrent of newly formed life courses through 'In the Mirror', a poem about pregnancy, while the imagery of buttongrass, which Eberhard describes as '... properly/ fastened to the soil' bobbing, swaying and shimmying, in a poem of the same name, is an absolute delight. In 'Supplication', 'The Bells', and 'Bone Memory' the last of which lovingly depicts a son who '... aches to earn his ticket-of-leave', the poet explores the eternal dilemma faced by parents who simultaneously want to protect and yet free their children to make their way in the world. One or two poems ('Learning the Language' and 'Lines of Flight') border on the pedestrian either in subject or execution, but only in comparison with a poem like 'Touch' which packs such a dazzling punch '... it flares like blood'.
If Eberhard's poems fill you with wonder, Mal McKimmie's knock the breath
out of you. His poems are fast furious things that land, then slither
from your tongue, gone before the thought is captured. They are powerful
works full of strange imagery and unusual juxtapositions, slippery with
alliteration. In 'Apoplectic' he writes
McKimmie's semantic fireworks are a blistering rendering of his perpetual struggle with illness. 'Apoplectic' bursts with angst, terror, frustration, and fear
'The Tao of Smoking' wryly traces a family saga of illness, addiction, and regret: '... the kit and the kaboodle,/ the whole godawful nine yards from boy to/ manhood ...' and points to McKimmie's great skill in forging fresh meanings from his realignment of clichés and everyday sayings. McKimmie is insider and outsider, the watcher and the watched, with an uncanny ability to make the unworkable work.
Jan Owen's poems are more reflective and somewhat distanced from their subject matter. There is a limpid quality to Owen's poetry, a kind of lazy dalliance that belies their cool complexity. Her descriptions of the images in a suite of poems based on Japanese woodblock prints ('The Hairpin,' 'Fox Fires' and 'The Net'), for example, seamlessly segue into more philosophical ruminations. In many of her poems thoughts push and pull until memories bubble to the surface, as in 'Sunday Chess' when watching children playing with boats transports the poet: 'It flickers back, the feel of being small'. 'The Bees' is a particularly evocative poem, rich in imagery and musical language that perfectly describes the bees' determination to broach the wall cavity of Owens' house.
There is however, another layer of meaning in the interpolation of conversations between Shamsi Tabriz and Rumi in this poem that allows Owen to pose questions that go beyond the antics of the bees: 'Are colours then the orphans of light?'
There is a solemnity to these poems, and sometimes a sense of sadness such as in 'Fox Fires' where the poet remembers her glamorous mother
The imagery doesn't always work, for example the cat 'taut as a knot in his fluffed-out winter fur' in 'The Hairpin' is too much of a contradiction and rhyming 'TV' with 'chamomile tea' ('The Net') is rather clumsy. However, these are small imperfections more than made up for by the lushness of 'Climbing the Nectarine Tree at Dusk' or the strangely tender 'Our Lady' in which Owens describes stained glass as being 'like angels' blood'.
Petra White is the last poet in this volume and, to my thinking at least, not quite as accomplished as the others. While she is skilled at capturing a feeling, an inflection, or a particular look - the silence of the office block after 5 in '24th Floor', the voice of the orchardist in 'Picking' and the alpacas 'half-looking/ over their shoulders ...' in 'Alpaca' - I somehow wanted more. A poem such as 'The Weatherboard at Menzies Creek', while nicely observed, needs more depth, and 'Picking' does not quite have the necessary lyricism and rhythm to draw the separate strands together. 'The Poet at Ten' contains some familiar and agreeable images, such as the child who, after an operation on her legs, '... tried to feel the bones "knitting"' but it feels a shade too understated for such a profound experience. These poems are full of promise and there is a great deal to admire but too often, in the words of the poet herself, 'Nothing much happens' ('Ode'). Another reviewer, of course, might well have an entirely different response.
In any collection showcasing five very different poets, some will shine more brightly than others, but each poet in this collection is lustrous and worthy of inclusion. This is a terrific anthology; a testament to the depth and diversity and vigour of poetry in Australia today. Kudos to Shoestring Press for bringing it to us.
Sandra Burr is a tutor in the School of Creative Writing at the University of Canberra. She recently completed her PhD exploring the bond between women and horses in Australia, with a creative component consisting of an illustrated collection of personal essays and poetry about the experience of being a horsewoman.
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Vol 13 No 2 October 2009
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb