It is disappointing that, in his picks for the year’s best Australian literature, the Australian newspaper’s chief literary critic Geordie Williamson has chosen to completely ignore the year’s poetry. 2013 has seen quite a number of notable collections and anthologies released in this country, although, rather predictably, the more general considerations of Australian poetry this year were overshadowed by those notorious plagiarists. For me, one of the year’s key poetic events was Ali Cobby Eckermann’s verse novel Ruby Moonlight winning both the Kenneth Slessor Prize and the Book of the Year award at the 2013 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. This book was one of my top poetic works for 2012. My highlights of Australian poetry in 2013 are as follows:
Contemporary Asian Australian Poets
Edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey and Michelle Cahill
Puncher & Wattmann
Literary anthologies can often be the worst examples of an elitist cultural production, often including mostly established practitioners and excluding writers who are either relatively unknown or writers who do not belong to the narrow ‘clique’ of those personally associated with the editor/s. Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, however, is a wonderful example of a compilation that seeks to be truly representative of the rather large group of poets it aims to display. It is a pleasure to read poems by widely published authors alongside newer voices. The editors’ quite complex approach to an Asian Australian identity and their choices of works that cut across a range of aesthetic regimes make for a refreshing anthology.
when they came / for you: elegies / of resistance
This poignant book-length poem by the Australian-born writer, performer and dramaturge Christopher Barnett (who has been based in France since early 1990s) parallels the killing of the Turkish pro-Palestinian activist Furkan Doğan – who lost his life in the so-called Gaza flotilla raid by the Israeli defence forces – with the experience of an ageing poet ruminating on past political actions and aspirations. Although elegiac in tone and often autobiographical in content, Barnett’s poem is neither bleak nor narcissistic. It is a wholly absorbing mediation on, and a reclamation of, a politicisation of aesthetics.
University of Queensland
Reviving the innate connection and contention between poetry and philosophy, Rachael Briggs’s Free Logic is one of the most fascinating debut collections I have read in a long time. (Another great first poetry book which I read this year is Lachlan Brown’s Limited Cities.) Briggs is a professional philosopher, and her poems do not flinch from interrogating the topics of love, gender and sexual identity from an openly inquisitive, contemplative perspective. Thankfully for the non-philosophical reader, her poetry also happens to be deeply humorous and formally exquisite. Winner of the 2012 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize.
Audio Overland II: Resistance
Edited by Maxine Clarke
Australian spoken word seems to be going from strength to strength, not only in terms of production and recording values, but also in terms of the poets’ growing ability to produce works that expand on the initial desire for communication and performativity. The embattled sincerity of Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s ‘Flag and Future’, the quasi-erotic gender critique of Belinda Lopez’s ‘Guitar’, and the macabre political surrealism of Nathan Curnow’s ‘The MCG Will Imprison Us’, as included in this online audio supplement of the very journal you are reading, bear witness to the levels of originality and sophistication reached by today’s spoken word artists.
The appearance of the first three books of Clemens’s bizarre and unsettling mock epic in 2004 was, for this reviewer, a welcome instance of Australian poetry superseding the tired opposition between the new and the old, between innovation and lyricism. The long poem’s latest, expanded version which includes three previously unpublished books is a conflation of absurdity and obscenity, experimentation and versification. A preposterously erudite anti-narrative written mostly in infectiously metered rhyming couplets, The Mundiad marks Clemens as a truly unusual and an unusually true poet.
The World Last Night
University of Queensland Press
Released towards the end of last year, the prolific Queensland-based poet’s latest collection is a haunting meditation on death and finitude. Despite lines such as ‘all words speak of night / even when they describe the day’, this book is not morose. Or, more precisely, it is not morbid in a conventionally contemporary sense in which death is seen as an utterly undesirable, unspeakable finality. Cronin’s ruminations investigate the paradoxical, often spiritual complexities and implications of mortality, in which the poet declares, ‘I savour life / and my life is full / beneath the halo of the dead’.
Lisa Gorton’s second collection, following on from her award-winning 2007 debut Press Release, is an almost axiomatic testimony to the power of quality over quantity. A poet of Gorton’s talent and profile could have no doubt included many more of her poems written over the last six years in Hotel Hyperion. However, the apparent decision to collect in this volume only a select number of poems focussed on a particular concept has resulted in a highly coherent and compelling poetic discourse on the tensions between time and space in the construction of reality. This is an evocative, thought-provoking essay, written as disparate but complementary poems, on the philosophy of history.
Cordite 43.1: Pumpkin
Edited by Kent MacCarter
Cordite Poetry Review
Presenting eight graphic artists’ visual adaptations of pieces by poets such as Alison Croggon, Omar Musa and Adam Ford, this special issue of the digital poetry journal is a terrific illustration – no pun intended – of the creative movement of tropes and ideas across artistic modalities. Graphic novelist Miranda Burton’s take on Kevin Pearson’s poem ‘His Quarter’ displays the lines and phrases of the poem in hallucinatory superimpositions on urban scenes and mental wanderings, perhaps demonstrating Jacques Lacan’s famous observation that ‘it is the world of words that creates the world of things’.
The Red Room Company
Unlocked is a creative educational program developed by the Sydney-based literary organisation The Red Room Company. Starting in 2012, this ongoing project has brought together poets and inmates from a number of NSW correctional centres, resulting in a series of powerful, deeply poignant and often surprising poems. Claire, an inmate from the John Morony Correctional Complex, asks the reader: ‘Did you know your foundations were of / sand? / and could so quickly subside / the intake of breath, slow to exhale / and decay’; while C. L. Waller, from Dillwynia Women’s Correctional Centre, celebrates the beloved: ‘Like a cat you move / lithe, motion of a dancer // Holding secret pleasures / discrete and tender’.
Produced by Justine Sloane-Lees
ABC Radio National
From the intense realism of Laura Smith’s ‘Drama School Show’ to the cryptic brevity of Noelle Janaczewska’s ‘Nightshift’, from the biographical breadth of Felicity Plunkett’s ‘Restraint’ to the pungent satire of joanne burns’s ‘Spill’, the poems included in this episode of the ABC Radio National program Poetica provide a thoroughly engaging perspective on the intersections between gender and sociality in contemporary Australia. Based on a print anthology of the same name edited by Libby Hathorn and Rachael Bailey, this accomplished audio production is as entertaining as it insightful and instructive.