Gil Scott Heron Is on Parole

Gil Scott Heron Is on Parole
Maxine Clarke
Picaro Press, ISBN 9781920957940, $15

It seems as if Maxine Clarke wins every poetry slam she enters. Clarke writes poetry and produces freelance articles, often dealing with African descendants in a white culture. More importantly, she performs her poetry. The stage suits her well, and her vernacular is powerful and funny: the sooner she is available on YouTube the better for her now-growing reputation.

Her poetry regularly leaps from the book into the reader’s throat, vibrating down the oesophagus. The downside is that when Clarke’s words are forced to lie flat on the page, you can see they have only two registers: sex and politics. These are bottomless subjects, and should be enough for most poets. She blends the two beautifully in ‘open letter to the president’:

the way you flash that baaad
black smile at me across
the morning paper page
as if to say hey / it’s just you and me
in that voting booth on polling day
young lady / so let’s make a baby

When, however, she strays from these topics or tries to build upon them, the poems grow weaker. The first page of ‘unmiracle’ is sassy and moving; page two isn’t. This may work perfectly well on stage but it may be excessive to load up two full pages when one would have done.

Clarke is one of the most compelling voices in Australian poetry this decade, and we will watch with interest her artistic development.

The Circus
Ken Bolton
Wakefield Press, ISBN 9781862546899, $19.95

In his new collection of narrative poems, set among travelling Italian performers, Bolton sits you down inside a location, or amid characters, and then knocks around the place to see what happens. A circus elephant strolls by from time to time, sometimes singing or giving its opinion. The poet deigns to lift a tent-flap or two, but assures us, as Paolo does his sister: ‘You’d only have to stand there, catch things when they’re finished with them, hand them things.’

Sometimes it doesn’t connect – ‘Can you make a living in Livingagnon? / He wonders, broodingly’ – but mostly Bolton’s laconic cool works fine. You know you’re in for a treat when the back cover admits, ‘I intended to … – but then I forgot …’ He is one of the most recognisable, emulated and influential poets writing in Australia.

The poetry is about acknowledging influences: these sources are Tarantinoesque (if a little self-referential), from friends to visual and literary artists to old movie stars. Like earlier collections derived from his Rome sojourn, perhaps he is sometimes ‘Too close to the telly’.

Bolton treats some poems like dreams and the passive poet-observer can produce limited insights. Readers may find themselves seeking out Michael Fitzjames’ terrific linocuts, getting the idea from nearby text, then moving to the next illustrated site. Nevertheless, The Circus is one of the most agreeable poetry books produced in years, and deserves, like the poet’s oeuvre, serious scholarly attention.

The Sonnet According to ‘M’
Jordie Albiston
John Leonard Press, ISBN 9780980526936, $24.95

Albiston is a lively and diverse poet. She has been a mentor to some and collaborator with others. Her own poetry experiments with attitude, ethics and structure.

She poses herself restrictions in her new book: the poems are all sonnets, and their titles begin with ‘M’, though she allows room to manoeuvre (the sonnets are fourteen lines but rarely iambic, and titles may also start with ‘em’). Other elements take the reader beyond single poems: sequences, musical themes and generational voices weave through Albiston’s collection.

Play and subterfuge rule. Rebuffing reader expectations, the opening poem, ‘me’, is an alphabet poem (A to G) that objects, in every stanza, that the portrayal is ‘not me’. Three female voices – past, present and future – guide us through the collection. The poet’s voice begins with death and travels backwards, reviewing her life, and finishing in a time before her birth.

This is a large advance on her previous collection, Vertigo (2007), whose musical affectations were sometimes twee: operettic rather than operatic. The musicality in the new book is employed in a more sophisticated manner, employing discreet formalities. The games and cracked reversals can produce a cheeky lyricism: ‘everything’s so fragile but it’s a beautiful! / night everything’s so beautiful but fragile (‘memory’)’.

The Human Project: New and Selected Poems
Martin Langford
Puncher & Wattmann, ISBN 9781921450211, $27.95

Langford’s politics consist of more than belated swipes at John Howard: ‘What meanness / have we given in to?’ He expresses a complex moral perspective when meditating upon a world in which justice is possible and insists: ‘no country has had a civilized route / towards civilized spaces’ (‘To the Germans’).

This collection consists of poems selected from earlier books, followed by eighty pages of new pieces. He ranges over topics, yet The Human Project is strongly unified, examining how kindness fits with being human.

There can be navel-gazing – he is ‘word-haunted’ (‘The Predators’), prying into how imagination and writing works – and his exploration of political correctness is notably middle-class. Many of Langford’s poems deal with bourgeois comforts, such as a holiday home alongside the Hawkesbury (‘sinking a few quiet ones’ riverside, he has ‘landscape plans’) and listening to classical music (‘Head full … of Cosi’). However, these topics are legitimate means of creative investigation. His consideration of what is left after modern literary criticism is contained in the powerful image of a dying animal, ‘unable to move – / though alert to each breath’ (‘Thinning the Poem’).

Langford has a talent for portraying political and Australian landscapes, and in reflecting human voices. For example, he has a rare knack for observing adolescents: ‘her whole body pleads, / in its twisted withdrawal, for the seat she can’t find’ (‘At the Olympics: Handball’). This writer speaks his mind, employing carefully ethical and poetic engagements.

Stephen Lawrence

Stephen Lawrence has four poetry collections published and his PhD concerns poetry published in Australia in the last decade.

More by Stephen Lawrence ›

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