Day seven of my twelve day countdown of my favourite books of 2016 featured three collections of essays, today I am looking at poetry books that I read this year. A year where I really ramped up the poetry reading, reviewing and coverage, I also attended a short course with Australian poet Judith Rodriguez.
It is my intention to continue to bring you my views of poetry collections in the marketplace, my approach is to simplify some of the mystique that pervades the poetry world, putting up more interviews with poets and asking the simple questions, hopefully attracting more readers to the art.
I have forthcoming interviews with five award winning Australian poets lined up and am hoping to add to that list in the coming months, stay tuned here for a wider poetry coverage in 2017.
Onto my favourite collections of 2016.
From the Australian works, I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Holland-Batt’s “The Hazards”, shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award and the State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection – Judith Wright Calanthe Award (as part of the Queensland Literary Awards) and winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, although I reviewed this book back in July I will be revisiting it sometime in January/February as I have secured an interview with Sarah Holland-Batt and will present our exchange verbatim once a few other commitments have been closed out.
However I am restricting myself to three books for the year so my favourite works have to go to Michael Farrell’s “Cocky’s Joy”, David Musgrave’s “Anatomy of Voice” and Sarah Howe’s “Loop of Jade”.
“Cocky’s Joy” by Michael Farrell was shortlisted for the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award and I was fortunate enough to interview Michael just before the award announcement. Here is part of my review:
From the very first line of the very first poem you know that this collection is not your standard fare, “two anchovies; a bowl of milk; fried crumpet”. The second poem, “Making Love (To A Man)’ featuring homosexual sex and internet hook ups.
If stalwarts of Australian white male poetry in Les Murray and Robert Adamson also feature on the shortlist of the Prime Minister’s Award, this is a book that is at the polar opposite of their “bush”, man on the land, creations. There is the Australian bush ballad featured in Farrell’s work, the surrealist “Bush Christie” with characters such as Mary Gilmore, Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson, John Shaw Nellson, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Charles Harpur, Henry Kendall, Bennelong, Ned and Dan Kelly all appearing. Who is the Christie? Who is the murderer? Iconic Australian names (for those of us taught “poetry” in the 1980’s) poets, a couple of bushrangers and the senior man of the Eora Nation, the Aboriginal people of the Port Jackson area, who served as an interlocutor between the Eora and the British at the time of the first British settlement in Australia in 1788.
Australia’s settlement history gets a different focus under Farrell’s lens, here’s the first eight lines of the poem “Steelers, Regurgitated”;
Victoria’s first settlers were whalers as well
as prostitutes. They were hale, they drank
ale. They were whalewrights, sexwrights –
they were Whites. They ate a lot of pasta
too, well before the Italians put in an appearance.
They didn’t call it pasta, they called it boiled
hay. The famous hay-twirlers of that time
have unforch been forgotten, their names deimagined.
Not your romantic poetic view of Australia, however this collection is more Australian than you could possibly imagine, overseas readers would be scratching their heads to references such as;
The flags say, ‘Help! We Are Out
of Daddy Cool!’ and Mondo Rock come and talk about
those early days, by the River of Babylon, of cowboy
hats and Molly Meldrum, where every mother wanted a
gay one under a gay sun –
Australian kids of the 70’s and 80’s could quickly explain that Daddy Cool was a band fronted by Ross Wilson, who had a huge hit with “Eagle Rock”, after they broke up Wilson fronted a band called Mondo Rock, the River of Babylon was a song by Boney M. and a (presumed) gay Molly Meldrum hosted a Sunday night television program called “Countdown”, wearing a cowboy hat and featuring all the latest hits, a massive ratings success. Personally, I preferred the musical clips where bands broke the mould and upset Molly, bands such as the “Sacred Cowboys”, “Jimmy and the Boys” or the drag queen Divine.
Rapid fire poetry, bizarre images, iconic images reimagined as surrealist scenes with zebras or some other strange animal. For some reason the Australian (Chilean) painter Juan Davila came to mind, (Google images of his works if you don’t know who I’m talking about), here’s an example from “Abstract Alcohol”
On/the altar, a gold soccer ball. Green Mandolins
recline on the pool table. Think of an RSL
lined with red velvet, a country singer eating
shards of Diamanda Galas records. Curtains.
For a full review PLUS the bonus interview with the poet go here.
David Musgrave’s “Anatomy of Voice” is another challenging work, one that took home the 2016 Judith Wright Calanthe Award (as part of the Queensland Literary Awards), again a portion of my review is here.
It happens every so often, I come across a writer who I know is saying so much more than I can fathom, or ever hope to fathom. Queensland Literary Award for Poetry winner, or more specifically the winner of the “State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection – Judith Wright Calanthe Award” a few weeks ago. A work that is divided into four “partitions”, as Musgrave writes in the Afterword, “The division of the work into ‘partitions’ was modelled on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, one of the most influential Menippean satires in English.” “The Anatomy of Melancholy” first published in 1621 and considered “one of the major documents of modern European civilization” it was republished in 2001 by NYRB Classics. Menippean satire? Britannica to the rescue;
Menippean satire, seriocomic genre, chiefly in ancient Greek literature and Latin literature, in which contemporary institutions, conventions, and ideas were criticized in a mocking satiric style that mingled prose and verse. The form often employed a variety of striking and unusual settings, such as the descent into Hades. Developed by the Greek satirist Menippus of Gadara in the early 3rd century bce, Menippean satire was introduced to Rome in the 1st century bce by the scholar Varro in Saturae Menippeae. It was imitated by Seneca and the Greek satirist Lucian and influenced the development of Latin satire by Horace and Juvenal. The 1st-century-ce Satyricon of Petronius, a picaresque tale in verse and prose containing long digressions in which the author airs his views on topics having nothing to do with the plot, is in the Menippean tradition. A later example is the Satire Ménippée (1594), a French prose and verse satire on the Holy League, the political party of the Roman Catholics, written by several royalists.
David Musgrave, the poet, completed honours at Sydney University, working on Thomas Love Peacock’s Menippean satires, following up with a Ph.D on Menippean Satire after the Renaissance. Unofficially supervised by Bill Maidment in both endeavours, Musgrave speaks of their friendship in the Afterword, which remained until Maidment’s death in 2005. This poetry collection is “a personal tribute” to Bill, “part meditation on voice, part emblem book, part portrait…’
The First Partition, you open to page one and notice a grey heading “host….guest…ghost” it is leaching ink that has been heavily printed on the reverse of the poem itself (in mirror text of course). The headings alone, read them out loud, use a voice, “bull…bill…boil”, or “warm…worm…loam”, or “ear…ere…air” , twenty-four poems in all. Every one containing the word “voice” and each twelve lines in length (three quatrains).
“Voice” a noun and a verb, these poetic definitions are not of “the voice” or “a voice”, we have the “voice of reason”, “to voice your objection” and so much more.
war wear were
In the first world war
an Italian officer
ordered his nearly mutinous men
out of the trenches and over the top
Not one of them moved
After he repeated the order
one of the soldiers called out
‘what a beautiful voice’
I think so too
now that you’ve lost your words
now that I cannot hear you
now that your voice shadows the way
The anecdote used in this poem was taken from Mladen Dolar’s “A Voice and Nothing More”, a philosophical theory of the voice.
For the full review go here
And lastly Sarah Howe’s “Loop of Jade”, a collection a little less “experimental” than the two mentioned above, however still a standout collection of the year. Here is my review;
You know you are in for a humorous and philosophical journey before you read the first poem, the epigram is from an essay by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, and more specifically the grouping of animals in the fictitious “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge”. Fourteen of the poems in the collection following the fourteen divisions of animals (eg. Belonging to the emperor, or embalmed, or tame…)
Before the classification of animals the collection opens with “Mother’s Jewellery Box”, by opening the first page of the poems we are opening a box of jewels, mother’s gems, we are discovering rarities, aged and beautiful, not only the literal jewels but through our poet’s exploring her dual English/Chinese heritage the beads, leaves, seeds, chains, strings, rings are going to form in another time and place.
It is from poem two, we learn of Sarah Howe’s journeys to Guangdong imagining her mother as a girl, wheeling her case “through the silent, still-dark streets if the English/quarter, the funereal stonework facades/with the air of Whitehall, or the Cenotaph,/but planted on the earth’s other side.”
A learned collection as evidenced by the fifth of Borges animal groups, and the poem “(e) Sirens”. The poem explores the use of the word “pickerel” in a poem by Roethke, where the writer believed it referred to a fish, but later discovers it is “a young pike” which is a small wading bird, her realisation that she had “been seeing things wrongly” and the meaning of the Roethke poem changing as her knowledge increased. Her own poem then explores the history of the sirens, who were originally birds, winged creatures in Homer, but how Horace reigns in fantasy and the sirens become fishlike. Could Roethke have had a double meaning by using the word “pickerel”?
The knowledge and background of literature continues with “(g) Stray dogs” and the association with Ezra Pound, quoting Canto LXXXI ‘Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail’, and using the poem itself as an exploration of Ezra Pound’s imprisonment in Pisa in a specifically built 6×6 cage and his subsequent mental breakdown. Or “(h) The Present Classification” and the association of Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’, Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, the mother/sister/daughter relationship and a fleeting reference to Antigone.
However these are not all poems deeply rooted in literary studies, we have “MONOPOLY (after Ashbery)” with all 16 lines, of the Quatern (four quatrains of four line stanzas), beginning with “I”, our poet is the one monopolising, however the content of the poem does refer to the board game too. There is “(j) Innumerable” a “Poem on the eve of May 35th” a date that is explained in the ‘notes’; “In Chinese, the Tiananmen incident of 1989 is known by its date – June 4th – references to which are censored on the mainland. For a time, the invented date ‘May 35th’ allowed Chinese web users to circumvent the ban.”
A collection that uses many forms, many structures, from the traditional to the modern, for example;
Turpentine sky unfurls through steeples and slates; the warehouse
eyes of Shoreditch blink in turn –
far off the trickling cars, the bright red bus that weaves its way to
Spitalfields, Hoxton, Bethnal
Green with purposeful inconsequence. In the darkening corner by
the sink Apollo half-springs
from his sandals, outspreading his pleat-slung marble arm.
A poem that goes on to describe a life drawing class, the lines moving beyond the limits of the page, life itself limitless, and the poem also delving into memory and the fact that there is no knowing when experiences will be recalled.
There is a blend of her heritage in the artful use of the third person “picture a journeying scholar-poet…” followed, in poetic form, the meditation on beauty and form and shape and place, a reflection on Chinese language characters, their form, shape, meaning. These reflections and journey’s into her own roots and her mother’s past include remembrance of the single child policy, the impact this had on the female population and how that could have personally impacted her own Chinese mother, “It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters”.
A stunning collection of masterful poems, and to be her first published collection is astounding. Quite simply one of the best collections I have read in many years, a physical journey but a journey to another time, another place, another person, discovery of race, roots, language – that elusive poet’s quest not too far from her pen. A poet I will be revisiting upon each new release as well as re-reading this collection itself.
Someone I now forget
journeying is hard.