The Best Australian Poems 2009 – Reviewed by Toby Davidson

The Best Australian Poems 2009, ed. Robert Adamson
Black Inc., 2009. pp 239. ISBN 9781863954525. RRP AUD$24.95

Robert Adamson is the latest editor in this highly-successful series by Black Inc, with previous editors Peter Rose, Dorothy Porter and Les Murray all re-appearing as poets. BAP 2009, not to be confused with University of Queensland Press’s simultaneously-released The Best Australian Poetry 2009, has expanded in size to a healthy 239 pages, yet Adamson in his introduction still apologies to those he has been forced to leave out. This larger selection allows more of the poems to communicate to one another, and this is the overarching benefit of Adamson’s selections, often on similar themes, sometimes with multiple poems by (or references to) one poet either side of the human condition.

Adamson’s introduction is nothing if not explicit about his influences and aims. First invoking W.B. Yeats and G.M. Hopkins, he moves on to Australia’s most successful hybridiser of the two, Francis Webb (1925-73), whose long-overdue Collected Poems will appear next year. Adamson continues,

When Australian poetry soars to new heights, it’s usually because poets open up to the whole place … The deep tradition is the one that is reflected in the work of poets such as Randolph Stow, Judith Wright, Roland Robinson and Francis Webb. There are some writers in this anthology who are opening their work up to this tradition by writing about their lives in the poetry of witness.
  
This is most obvious in Phillip Salom’s ‘Reading Francis Webb’, Jennifer Harrison’s nod to Webb’s mentor Douglas Stewart in ‘Kakadu’ and new enshrinings of recent departures into this tradition through Peter’s Rose’s engagement of Bruce Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets and Martin Harrison’s elegy for Dorothy Porter which opens the subsequently alphabetical collection. There are bridges to international traditions too, such as Cavafy’s recurrence in works by Elizabeth Campbell and Fay Zwicky, John Ashberry cannibalised in John Tranter’s ‘The Anaglyph’ or Bob Dylan freewheelin’ into Alicia Sometimes’s ‘This Guitar Kills Fascists’. Thankfully, following Beaver’s example, living Aussie poets are also engaged: Berndt Sellheim honours Martin Harrison, Maria Takolander dedicates ‘Anaesthetic’ to husband David McCooey (also represented for his ‘Memory and Slaughter’), and Debbie Lim’s cites Judith Beveridge, herself included for one of the strongest poems of the anthology, ‘Rain’:

   Rain bubble-wrapping the windows. Rain
falling as though someone ran a blade down the spines
    of fish setting those tiny backbones free. Rain
    with its squinting glance, rain

    with its rustle of descending silk.

Given the seemingly ubiquitous hand-wringing about Australian poetry writers outnumbering its readers (see for example Ian McFarlance ‘What’s Wrong With Poetry’, Australian Literary Review 3/2/09), it’s encouraging to see Australian poetry shrugging its knockers and getting on with the job of doling out strong, relatable, accessible content. For those starved (cheated?) of rain, Sarah Day has that covered:

Mostly, too little rain falls here.
There is only the silence of the sun.

Even in winter after low skies
and the impression of damp

for days and weeks, the earth is dry as dust
under trees. Cracks refuse to close up

in the cold months. This makes rain exotic.
Something to pay attention to.
(‘A Dry Winter: Some Observations About Rain’)

There you go Australia, and not an anaglyph in sight! Many of these lyrical intervals are the aftermaths or remnants of a story, such as in Johanna Featherstone’s ‘Mother Looking into Her Son’s Bedroom’:

Decades of friendship, he
remains bedridden. Once,
with a surfer’s frame, he’d ribbon
through Bronte’s tides. Every
Saturday, with mates, fry
eggs on hot, waxed boards.

Next week, the legal aid
At 2p.m. The past begins
again: police rants,
Kentucky Fried Chicken,
threats to die if the pension
ends. Running out of cares.

Adamson also deserves praise for including two radically different Northern Territory intervention poems, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Intervention Payback’ and Meg Mooney’s ‘Birdwatching During the Intervention’. For those who contend that poets are just self-serving navel-gazers, here are two passionate fists in the face clutching the punitive projection of a national child abuse crisis onto a convenient minority in all its demented, hypocritical glory.

Not all ‘event’ poems are so successful, however; Fiona Wright’s Black Saturday poem is written more for the comfort of the poet than for those to whom the poem is dedicated.  I have concerns, too, about poet’s using others’ lines within their own works. Matt Hetherington’s ‘The words in brackets are from Claire Glaskin’s “A Bud”’ is completely out-pointed by the grace and verve of Glaskin’s stunning debut collection, prompting the question—why not use an epigraph and own your own poem? Stewart Cooke also adopts this self-defeating approach, borrowing thrice from Peter Minter in ‘North Durras Caravan Park’.

Adamson’s expanded BAP allows for increased inter-poetic communications, but also some pretty schlocky populism. Yes, Best Australian Poems is a series aimed at the cross-over market in the lead up to Christmas each year, but did Paul Kelly and Clive James really warrant inclusion? Sure, (some) people love Kelly and so forth, but the minute BAP becomes BAPIPTOS (Best Australian Poems Including Poetic Types of Songs) you’re looking at a different collection entirely, and if other songwriters aren’t included, why the special treatment to Kelly? Do these songs stand alone as poems?

5a.m—you haven’t solved a thing
You’re right back where you started from
And they just won’t go away
They have come to play
These thoughts—until the break of day!
(‘Thoughts in the Middle of the Night’)

Here’s where the band takes over and adds its own lyricism to complete the whole. Poetry, by contrast, is special because it has to rely on its own internal, even refracted, music, but Kelly doesn’t offer this. Worse still is Clive James, who despite his laudable late-term bid to become a bard of some regard, can haul up only tapeworm after tapeworm of ill-interrogated autumnal musings that sense deep down that the boat has sailed, but can’t bring themselves to inform their author, thereby ending their cosy existence. Still, is any publication with commercial aspirations likely to resist slapping ‘Clive James’ on its jacket (particularly when it can be followed by ‘Paul Kelly’)? For the most part, BAP 2009 is a still a strong selection which should be pursued not least for the phosphorescence emanating from its newer stars.    

 

Toby Davidson unsuccessfully submitted two poems to BAP 2009, so sour grapes may be freely insinuated. He is the editor of Francis Webb Collected Poems (UWA Press, 2011), which replaces the incorrect and incomplete A&R versions (1969, 1977).

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