Sarah Holland-Batt and Brook Emery (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Nº 4 (Australian Poetry Ltd 2015)
Paradoxically, the thing I like best about this anthology is the absence of stars. Think of three famous Australian poets, and I’ll bet you none of them is here. The starlessness isn’t a sign of mediocrity: many of these poems have been published in reputable places, and quite a few have been on shortlists or won awards. But there’s a sense of the book as a conversation rather than, say, a competition or a performance, or even a showcase. Poems bounce off each other, or not, tackling similar themes or taking similar forms, but each doing something different, individual.
Australian Poetry Ltd was formed four or five years ago, as an amalgamation of the Poets’ Unions in a number of states. It describes itself as ‘the national body for poetry in Australia, with a charter to promote and support Australian poets and poetry locally, regionally, nationally and internationally’. Among other ways of filling this charter, the underfunded, understaffed organisation produces a twice yearly journal which includes articles as well as poetry, and an annual members’ anthology, of which this is the fourth. Almost every page has pleasures to offer.
There’s the pleasure of meeting someone familiar. John Upton ‘ Unawares’ is a kind of aftershock to the poems of loss in Embracing the Razor:
Pulling an old dictionary from the shelf
I open it, see her signaure, and myself
back twenty years momentarily: intense
surprise, like pausing suddenly on stairs
to stop a fall.
There’s serendipity. Our cumquats were ripening as I read Pamela Schindler’s ‘Cumquats, Hobart’:
These little orange globes –
lanterns that floated
in the tree at dusk
There’s plenty of topical poetry. Jillian Kellie’s ‘the bus to baghdad 1966’ is a then-and-now poem – the bus trip of the title in which her family travelled with a Canadian journalist, alternating with grim dispatches from the present – that leaves you feeling you’ve learned something about Iraq:
held up for hours at the syrian border a problem with canada's passport and visa dad speaks in arabic to chain-smoking soldiers extolling the honour of his new journo friend i owe you a scotch when we get to baghdad i don't drink my dad says Unconfirmed video and pictures of the photojournalist's heartbreaking final moments emerged this morning via Twitter accounts claiming to be associated with the Islamic State
There’s plenty of narrative, some explicit, some implied as in Cary Hamlin’s ‘Scraping the Night’, whose opening lines evoke a romantic assignation in a car:
Moonlight leers through the car window etching the valley of your cheek in razor-sharp shadow fingering the crescents of your eyes fondly and crooning its siren song
And there’s lots of fine descriptive writing. I love Anne Elvey’s observation of pelicans in ‘This flesh that you know is all that you have’:
--------------Their synchronous glide was broken by one pair of wings, and then another, that worked the air, not quite in time, and over again they wheeled.
Brett Dionysius’ ‘Brigalow: an extinct pastoral’ is a powerful evocation of a landscape being ravaged post World War Two, recalling newsreel footage that was meant to celebrate progress but even then struck a chill into young hearts like mine and, I assume, Brett’s:
----------------They strung a necklace of iron pearls
between two dozers; manacled violence, like nineteenth
century convicts kept under guard. The machines clawed
through six million acres, rubbing against bark, leaving
a scent trail of oil & diesel, as though they were some
type of ancient megafauna revisited; extinct, buttery-
furred thylacoleo, carnivorous in their vast appetite.
I can’t tell if any Indigenous poets get a guernsey, but a number of poets who I assume are white reflect on Aboriginal matters. Jill Gientzotis, for example, in ‘Each Morning, Every Day’, draws on her experience living and working in remote communities:
Anangu knew we were coming for a long, long time. Whitefellas, ghost people. They knew we were coming. We were coming. Our horses and cattle churned up the land, water got sick, the animals fled. They heard about our killing.
You get the idea: there’s so much to enjoy. The anthology will probably be read mainly by Australian Poetry members – those who didn’t make it as much as those who did. But I think there’s a much wider pool of readers who would enjoy it. You can buy a copy from Aust Poetry Inc.