The Gang of One: Selected Poems – Robert Harris (Grand Parade Poets, 2019)
All last night I was writing. Writing
a strongly seated review, writing
a closely argued account, deep down
in another man’s calculus, his mind
a fire beacon on the coast; now near,
now far, now perilously flaming.
– From ‘The Monitor’
And what a singular and brightly burning mind was Robert Harris, whose ‘fire (indeed) makes towers / Which glow like distant cities before they collapse’, and whose body of work has finally been given the attention it deserves in this collection, edited by Judith Beveridge and published by Grand Parade Poets.
The title, foreshadowed in the poet’s personal notes, casts Harris as the ultimate outsider. Described in Phillip Mead’s foreword as ‘unaligned with any faction’ in Australian poetry, he was of course a regular Overland contributor from 1971 till 1986, and involved with this journal in various editorial capacities from 1986 until his untimely death in 1993 at the age of 42. A number of the poems in this volume were first published in Overland, including ‘Winter Firesong’ (quoted in the first paragraph of this review).
There is, as one might expect from a poet of his time and place, a tension in the selected Harris between Englishness, Irishness and Australianness, a grappling with black-and-whiteness, with black and white histories, with grey areas, with images and ideas hatched in the shadow of his era’s grand narrative of redness vs. red-white-and-blueness. There are flashes of light, sashes of dark sorrow, and moments of divine and not-so-divine communion rendered with a sensitivity that belies the title’s claim to solitary islandhood.
There is also the Christianness, which Harris came to late in life, and a devotion that is hard to ignore and harder still to dismiss. His conversion is charted in selections from ‘The Cloud Passes Over’ wherein we witness the poet’s evolution from one who is ‘Trying to plunder Christ, / for I heard the appalled hush at His name / in a bookshop, during a poetry reading’ to one who places the divinity of His creation at the centre of a humanistic, historically grounded, and wholly unique perspective on the events and upheavals of his time and place.
‘Never a household name’, wrote Tim Thorne in a special memorial issue of this journal in 1993, but ‘one of Australia’s greatest poets of recent times’, and – my addition – recommended reading for any Overlander of this generation committed to properly reckoning with our radical inheritance.
Where Only the Sky had Hung Before – Toby Fitch (Vagabond Press, 2019)
Another Overland poetry editor, this one happily still with us. Considered alongside Robert Harris’ selected works, this collection lays bare the enormous gulf we’ve crossed in the years between them apropos of the birth and rapid proliferation of the internet (‘Apropos of nothing I … / just got woke from an internet coma’) and all the everything that comes with it: data clouds, screaming memes, twenty-four-hour mainline newsfeeds, data profiles that outlive their hosts and so on. Little wonder we’ve faced some challenges along the way.
something ought to
be written about the banality of evol (sic)
the for-real chills you can get when streaming & how the feels
feed your poetry
But this is poetry not about, but of the internet. Poetry ‘#lit’, to borrow a turn of phrase, with the aurora of the thing. In fact, the collection feels at time like it lives inside the cloud – as if the poet’s sharpest memories, keenest observations, even the personal profiles and data attributes, have been uploaded along with snippets from Borges and Ashberry, outtakes from TS Eliot, fragments from LeGuin et al. The authorial position seems almost like that of a ‘user’ calling forth fully realised poems like files from this pulsating morass of seeing, feeling sense data. Even the ones and zeroes of language seem broken apart before being stored in this remarkable server and retrieved on-page in a typically Fitchian scramble. ‘Subtlefugue’ enters the lexicon via the sequence ‘Argo Notes’, and goes some way (in my mind) to describing the way concepts flow through this collection by subtle homophony, harmony/dis-, and with a playfulness that can’t help at times but flash its teeth.
plural & specific
at deep play in the makeshift
Wolf Man’s memory …
Flèche – Mary Jean Chan (Faber, 2019)
The title, chapter headings (Parry; Riposte; Corps-à-corps), and recurring motifs of this collection are rooted in the author’s former life as a competitive fencer. At the centre of this lunging and deflecting constellation of poems is the sparring body, at once vulnerable and self-defensive, but also wracked with a ‘desire to shed (its) protective armour in order to fully embrace the world’. It charts ‘the territory of skin, it’s frantic / heart and silent ponds’, as well as the cross-cultural landscapes and spaces, sometimes safe and sometimes under siege, these parts of the self inhabit.
In ‘The Window’ the reader is confronted with an open window and its fatal allure in the face of a mother’s raging disavowal of your (the second person’s) queerness. To take the plunge is to declare yourself ‘genderless as / hawk or sparrow: an unencumbered body / let loose from its cage’. That second-person voice, used here and elsewhere to great effect, is an incredibly engaging device; rather than keeping the reader at arm’s length from the personal experiences being reckoned with, it hangs you squarely on the horns of the author’s dilemma.
There are some strong themes – political upheaval and intergenerational trauma are explored through the looming presence of the maternal figure, for example (Chan is a psychoanalyst at heart) – but it’s with that ‘slightest touch of grace’ that each poem clicks into the overarching metaphor; they are pointed rather than weighty, light-footed, and prone to clever feints that keep the reader en garde.
When I die slingshot my ashes onto the surface of the moon – Jennifer Nguyen (Subbed In, 2019)
Many of the poems in this debut collection by Melbourne-based poet-editor Jennifer Nguyen are about love, grief, and moving on, but they’re also about what it means to be writing about these things, to be:
Writing about love
when you clearly haven’t …
This makes for a self-reflective and particularly writerly collection of poems that charts the existential experience of the Writer from the very verge of despair, where ‘The moon (is) so near and close / it makes me want to dig my own grave’ to the height of sensation where ‘there is no sun / the seconds run long’, and beyond.
The tone ranges from poem to poem, and so does the scenery. Beaches that host moments of rarefied epiphany give way to dreary suburban landscapes where ‘All the places we used to go have gone out of business and become something else’. These are in turn folded up into more intimate settings: bedrooms, for example, where dreams, discoveries and dramatic monologues unfurl. Across the whole gamut the writer-on-writing theme repeats with such steadiness of intent that each poem seems strung out along its common thread: there are ‘final pages’, ‘lines I etched into myself’, ‘a pen that doesn’t write properly’, ‘a short story about / someone who helps pay bills’ – this collection is in many ways the diary of a talented early-career writer reckoning with all the comorbities and contraindications that label represents.
I know what you’re thinking right now,
what names and labels you have for me.
meditations with passing water – Jake Goetz (Rabbit Poets Series, 2018)
The ‘passing water’ in Jake Goetz’s meditations is the Maiwar, the Brisbane River, and the perspective we’re offered on this famous body of water ranges from wide-angled to tightly focused, bird’s-eyed to fish-eyed, retrospective to speculative, introspective to searching. It begs the question:
before the barks of two dogs can a river
be completely understood?
As an ex-Queenslander I tend to approach hometown literature bracing for a heady dose of semi-tropical pollen and mangrove swamp. Of course I wasn’t disappointed: here ‘iron roofs glisten / in the sub-tropical sun’; ‘the wind that is a hand / … brushes the hair / of jacarandas’; ‘the Mermaid / tast(es) the branches of mangroves’ etc. But a cliché is not a cliché when it is unavoidably a fact, and Brisbane is genuinely humid year-round with a sickly tang of nostalgia, so any faithful literary rendition will inevitably reckon with this dimension of its character. It makes perfect sense therefore that Goetz employs a poetics of dérive that in this case embraces archival research, lived experience and a bricolage of historical materials in order to, in the author’s words, ‘juxtapose … personal experience and understanding of the river (with) wider socio-historical factors’.
The most substantial section of the book, a long poem titled Highgate Hill to Hamilton: The Flood of 1892, is a free-flowing meander of associations bounded neither by the geographic nor temporal markers mentioned in its title. The text spills over in time and space, much like the river in deluge. It collects desires, dreams and stories like so much flotsam, and does not shy from the aforementioned sickliness underlying the city’s prevailing tang of nostalgia. The text borrows from and subverts colonial texts to expose the underlying funk, the ‘something rotten’ in the city’s understory: a colonial history literally riven by the Maiwar, and goes …
wading out into all the ways
we live and breathe
and leave off into memory