I bought these two slim volumes at their Sydney launch a couple of weeks ago.
Rabbit is a beautifully produced ‘journal of non-fiction poetry’ based in Melbourne, with a great feel for deign and a sense of humour. This issue, for which Felicity Plunkett was guest poetry editor, includes not only poetry from Melbourne and beyond, well beyond Australia in fact (I was a little disconcerted when sagebrush and coyotes turned up in the first poem), but also a generous selection of evocative photographs of 1970s Melbourne by poet Ian McBryde, a scholarly essay on Dante, an interview, and a number of reviews.
I’m not clear what the non-fiction tag means apart from excluding fiction narratives. I hope we’re not being encouraged to take lines about heartbreak or suicidal intentions as transparently representing the writers’ condition. But the question didn’t exercise my mind too much … I enjoyed the poetry: so much that was excellent, but the ones that struck me most were ‘The Gravity of Bones’ and ‘Crunchy No Bruises’ by Anna Jacobson, which read as if they’re from a series about visiting a nursing home.
Nicholas Walton-Healey’s interview with Kerry Loughrey is excellent. Kerry Loughrey has been performing her work around Melbourne for more than two decades, but had her first poetry collection published just over a year ago. She has interesting things to say about the relationship between performance poetry and page poetry, and about poetry in general – like this, which begins with an updating of Pope’s ‘What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest’:
I’ve always thought that the poet was supposed to say what’s on the tips of other people’s tongues. That’s our job. So people have this sense of relief when they read or hear it and go ‘ahhh, that’s what I meant.’ …
I’m compelled to say things … I feel it at the back of my throat. And I think everyone does when they’re like ‘I really want to say this.’ Or a bloke talking to his missus who’s much more articulate and so he’s going ‘I wish I could just say this thing but she’s going to take it the wrong way.’ I guess I have to consider being taken the wrong way as well.
Jordie Albiston’s previous books have been unified works rather than gatherings of disparate poems. So, she told us at the launch, when Jessica Wilkinson invited her to be the first in the new Rabbit Poets Series, she saw a prospect of new life for some of her ‘orphan poems’.
The orphans gathered here are not impoverished waifs begging for alms. On the contrary, they are rich in many ways, and speak from a place of deep belonging. They are, however, extraordinarily diverse.
There are a number of what I think of as public poems. ‘Gallipoli’, which opens the book, is a long narrative poem commissioned as inspiration for a piece of music commemorating the centenary of the landing at Anzac Cove. Three long poems – ‘Six Black Saturday Squares’, ‘Lamentations’ and ‘A Kinglake Quartet’ – respond to Victoria’s terrible 2009 bush fires. And ‘A White Woman’s Guide to Indigenous Art’,another commissioned piece, is a response to a painting by Carol Maanyatja Golding that broadens out to the endlessly interesting question
At the other extreme, there are intensely private poems: three love sonnets – ‘The Sea’s Pleasure’, ‘Three Degrees’ and ‘Duplex’ – and ‘Golden’, a poem celebrating the poet’s body on her 50th birthday.
The poems are also wonderfully varied formally. Some of them rhyme, and Albiston’s way with rhyme, both at line ends and internally, is truly wondrous. So is her extraordinary way of playing poetic form off against speech rhythms. Take the first eight lines of ‘Three Degrees’, for example:
Three degrees against your skin, and the heart
begins to freeze. The inclement night creeps
right in, shoves blood aside with its starting
gun, and you become antarctic. Yes, steeped
in snow from tip to toe, the land outside your
carapace says little, remembers less: no choice
but that of missing him, missing him, warmth
a continent ago. You try to invoke his voice.
For me, the most striking piece is ‘Lamentations’. It speaks in the language of the King James Bible, including the odd word in italics and a smattering of ‘Behold!’s.
Alas! we are the people that have seen the fire, on this day of days, on this seventh day of the second month of the year.
Alas! it has led us, and brought us to darkness, and delivered us not into light.
Against us has it turned: it has turned with the wind, against us all the day.
It could have been an embarrassing pastiche in lesser hands, but it’s actually extraordinarily powerful.