Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets
Michael Farrell and Jill Jones (eds)
Puncher & Wattman Poetry
I’ve put off reviewing this book. During the whole of 2010 I must have reviewed one too many collection of academic lyricism which clashed violently with my academic burnout. The result was that every contemporary poem I read – I’m sorry to say – sounded like it was written by one of the same two imaginary people: ‘Jane Masters’, the female lyric poet doing some kind of postgrad creative writing course and preoccupied with how to overwrite everything, and ‘Joe D’oh’, the punctuationally challenged experimentalist who can’t (or can’t be bothered) editing his stream of consciousness for the reader’s sake.
But when Jacinda emailed me to say ‘hey, where’s that review’, ironically, the same week that I saw the rainbow flag atop Sydney Town Hall for Mardi Gras and signed a petition to support gay marriage, I rummaged through my moving boxes to find the book.
Some of my closest friends identify as gay/lesbian, and many of my favourite American and English modern and post-modern poets are/were gay/lesbian, including WH Auden, Walt Whitman, Fredrico Garcia Lorca, Allen Ginsberg, Audre Lorde, the list goes on. So it seemed to me that Out of the Box would be a positive foray back into my poetry reviewing practice.
Well, it turns out that most of the published Australian poets I was familiar with happen to be gay. I’d never have known it had they not appeared in this collection. Resultantly, many of them are also producers of works by ‘Jane Masters’ and ‘Joe D’oh’. As a reviewer, you can’t glaze over sections of a book you don’t like – you have to power through, however tiring it is. So I did. And I closed the book having come to this conclusion: It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, if you enjoy Australian contemporary poetry, you will enjoy Out of the Box.
Strangely, most of the poems in Out of the Box don’t deal with themes of homosexuality, or indeed any kind of sexuality. In fact, the only thing that links these poems at all is the personal sexuality of the poets. Michael Farrell, in his introduction, tries to thematically connect some contributions as ‘one of a group of poems that “talk amongst themselves”’, and I honestly can’t make heads or tails out of that explanation. Aside from my observation that there is no exhausting sink into conservatism in these poems, as there is in practically every other new poetry anthology I’ve read the past two years, there is nothing thematically identifiable in Out of the Box. One might ask the question: Then, what’s the point in such a collection? After much deliberation, I came up with the answer that: The more art by gay and lesbian practitioners in Australian culture, the better represented this marginalised group are at a time that is so critical in our thus far disappointing politics on equal rights.
Although poems in numbered parts usually bother me (why not just a stanza break or a whole new poem?), David Malouf’s ‘Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian’ had me from the first part:
Dear soul mate, little guest
and companion, what
shift will you make
now, out there
in the cold?
If this is a joke,
it is old, old.
The unselfconscious vocab and the simple rhythm drives Malouf’s poem about a relationship’s complex tension makes his love me/leave me conundrum adoring and adorable. The lovers in the poem are captured at the breaking point of a conflict that may as well be a nightly occurrence; their affection as consistent as their affliction.
Chris Edwards’ poem ‘Missing Something’ is one of the rare new poems I’ve come across recently that is both readable in print and has an equally strong performance quality:
Maybe I’ve been missing something
true, luminous and noble – Ian Thorpe
has his Kylie Minogue CDs, other people
have Ian Thorpe. Maybe there’s something in the world I need
to get down pat, or get patted down by like the rest of the crew.
but if so, what – or who? And what’s this here about
going for gold down a pitch-dark stairwell to the startled but
amenably blacked-out landing where rioting
The musical meter in Edwards’s poem and the casually sporadic internal rhyming, chiming and other sound techniques deliver a mixture of images overlayed with the speaker’s curious questioning. It puts me in mind of Ginsberg (and other Beat poets) who set a beautiful standard for publishable performance poetry which has rarely been matched since.
It was heartening to find a few of Dorothy Porter’s poems from her last collection, The Bee Hut, in Out of the Box. These poems, including ‘Numbers’, ‘Ode to Agatha Christie’ and ‘The Ninth Hour’ were written in the last few years of Porter’s life. I do feel it does the poems better justice to read them as they are arranged in The Bee Hut (which I’ve reviewed previously for the Overland blog) in order to become immersed in each theme she wrote on.
As a product, the book is an attractive package. A square shape and a simple, bright cover encase beautifully typeset pages as one has come to expect from publisher Puncher & Wattmann.
Something I learned from reading Jill Jones’s introduction is that although gay anthologies and lesbian anthologies of poetry have been published in Australia, this is the first combined gay and lesbian publication to ‘come out’. According to Jones, there’s not much history of queer poetry in Australia before 1960. This puts Australia more than a hundred years behind English and American queer poetry (never mind Shakespeare, Walt Whitman first printed ‘Leaves of Grass’ in 1855), and this is a rather disturbing realisation. On one hand, I wished the poems in Out of the Box to deal with more expressly sexual themes. On the other hand, there’s plenty of time for that in the future, I hope, with the support of good publishers.