review by Dominique Hecq
Anne Born and Glen Phillips
The unpredictable structures of anecdote, chat, gossip, or meditation
are brought to some discursive order with a certain sense of wonder. These
poems indeed enter a vivid, intimate, orderly space while avoiding the
allegorical tendency of poetry used as a moralising instrument. Phillips
does not sermonise, but he does have something of ethical import to say.
His naïve surface seems calculated, weighted, timed, and sharpened
with wry honesty or smoothed. His playfulness conveys the power of surprise,
desire, humour, passion and joie de vivre. At times, however, the
teacher cuts off the poet and the result is rather contrived, as is the
case with 'The Door to it All' and 'Prometheus Bound'.
It could be said that Phillips' poetry is risky for having no agenda
but human emotion itself and respect for all things living. The poems
in Shangai Suite whisper and seduce, nudging at the reader's heart
without being sentimental for all their nostalgia, taking him or her on
a journey through the streets and landscapes and vistas and inscapes of
Shanghai-or as in 'Cruising down the River', through history. The voice
is understated, self-deprecating, almost humble, but for sudden, almost
child-like over-confident outbursts. Or indeed guilty confessions, as
in the tender poem 'In my Lady's Chamber'. The reason for this is that
the other in its multiple avatars is respected as other.
The poems in Singing Granites: Poems of Devon and Gondwanaland
comprise alternating sections by Phillips and Anne Born, an English poet
who shares his love of granite. Phillips's poems in this collection display
stronger technical control of feeling and thought. Perhaps this is because
here Phillips is on familiar ground, namely the granite-based areas of
Western Australia. The poems playfully unroll a series of colourful images
beyond their materiality, as if the speaker cannot resist the pull of
the land. One has a strong sense here that poetry is rooted in surrendering
to a state of mind as it is rather than in some abstract subject
we think poetry ought to be-this makes me realise that Shanghai Suite
is at times didactic.
The poems in Singing Granites sing with energy. The images are
clear and compelling, the rhythms strong and the lines cleanly cut. These
are poems that resound with trust, wit and wondrous wisdom: 'to a child's
eye this is all joy -/ the yellow crawling machines/ hooking and tearing
at thicket/ and tussock: the land subdued/ and sealed with a grey ribbon/
of stone' ('Granite Roads').
Anne Born's poems, on the other hand, have the sharpness of acrylics.
They demonstrate great confidence in her handling of words. The language
is sharp, accurate, incisive and fierce, to the point of being savage,
as in 'The Bone Shed', that 'foul hell-hall' where 'The air drummed by
mallets/ reduced the stuff to bone-meal/ and other horrors'. Like Phillips,
Born walks the reader through granite landscapes to fashion metaphors
of states of mind, but her attention to the accuracy of facts is what
bowls you over. Here is a poet who is less interested in aestheticising
the landscape than in the grit of history large and small. She will march
you down lanes and alley-ways and show you castles, but she will also
rub your nose in the dirt of everyday living, for 'The dark men with rocky
faces/ have no need of roads/ Their feet, hard as the granite domes/ intruding
into their flatland, feel no thorn'.
Anne Born doesn't speak for herself, but rather ghosts herself into men
whose voice she breathes out. The exception is 'Love' from the suite of
poems detailing the life of John Boyle O'Reilly, where a woman called
Jessie Woodman briefly appears and relates matter-of-factly their first
encounter: 'When he came into the shaking heat/ out of black shade, I
knew him'. No surrender for this poet. No playfulness, desire, humour,
passion and joie de vivre. Like the man 'On the cairn [who] woke
at sun-up/ felt the stones' hard pulse/ the push of magma', the poet pushes
on. There is a strong sense that her poems want to abolish any possibility
of solipsism but can only do so by a splitting of the speaker's allegiances
between the materiality of the physical world and the self-embrace which
would put its own gesture in question (the self-reflection that goes beyond
At times, the intense brevity of Born's poems, isolating individual words in the reader's attention, transforms each noun into a large scale metonymy until what that noun represents is also capable of standing for the world as a whole, as in the breathtakingly beautiful 'Multiply, Increase' from which I'd like to quote the first two stanzas:
I found reading these two collections on a wintery Sunday in Melbourne quite soothing, refreshing and, yes, humbling. There is this mind's life, I thought, this world I am in, and there is also all my hopes and anxieties which are disguised in it, are fantasies generated by it, which comprise the chaos of my daily existence, and yet there is still this unconditioned intention when all is said and done. And it is out of this clash between what is totally conditioned and the unconditioned that poetry might happen: 'This is country of our flesh/ the granite stones will receive us/ only our bones and teeth will not/ leak away into worm-wrought soil' (Phillips, 'Falling Asleep Again and Again').
Dominique Hecq is the author of a novel (The Book of Elsa), three collections of short fiction (Magic, Mythfits and Noisy Blood), and three books of poetry (The Gaze of Silence, Good Grief and Couchgrass). One Eye Too Many and Cakes & Pains were performed in Australia, Belgium and Germany. Dominique's awards for poetry include The New England Review Prize for Poetry (2005) and The Martha Richardson Medal for Poetry (2006). She was short-listed for the inaugural Blake Prize for Poetry (2008) and highly commended in its second year. Out of Bounds is her latest collection. She works at Swinburne University of Technology.
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Vol 13 No 2 October 2009
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb