Friday, October 29, 2004

The Best Australian Poems 2003

(Black Inc., 2003), edited by Peter Craven, is 360 pages long--longer than century-spanning anthologies like Peter Porter's The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse--and therefore does a number on what can be called "the best." Critics reviewing The Best American Poetry frequently mention that poets in the U.S. never produce 75 great poems in a single year, so it's rather difficult to justify that Australia (which publishes 1/10 of the number of poetry books that the U.S. does in a year) needs an annual of this size. That in itself is a reason to read it.

I'm reviewing The Best Australian Poems 2004 (Black Inc.) as well as The Best Australian Poetry 2004 (University of Queensland Press) for Australian Book Review, so I've been reading the 2003 editions, which happen to be the inaugural editions in both series. Since many readers of Verse share an interest in Australian poetry but probably do not know about these new series, I thought I'd introduce them briefly in case anyone would like to seek them out.

As can be inferred from its title, the UQP series is modeled after The Best American Poetry in that it presents one poem each by 40 poets and offers explanatory notes alongside the usual bios. The Black Inc. series offers a sizeable batch of poems by each poet, thus resembling an anthology more than an annual. Oddly, the inaugural volumes in the series are edited by critics, not poets (Peter Craven and Martin Duwell), and the second volumes are edited by poets (Les Murray and Anthony Lawrence). Zero of the four volumes is edited by a woman. Craven was initially going to edit The Best Australian Poems every year, but apparently that plan has been scrapped. The Best Australian Poetry has a guest editor and two series editors (again connecting it to The Best American Poetry).

Concerns about "the best" aside, a 360-page book of Australian poetry must have some excellent poems even if it limits itself to a single year. There is interesting work by John Tranter, Emma Lew, Kevin Hart, John Kinsella, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, M.T.C. Cronin, Gig Ryan, Peter Minter, Craig Sherborne, Javant Biarujia, Peter Rose, and the novelist/poet David Malouf.

But I'd like to call attention to some stunning poems about the latest war in Iraq by Robert Adamson and Jennifer Maiden, which are offered a strange counterpoint by some Bruce Dawe poems.

Adamson is a poet whose work I've admired for a long time, for its commitment to lyricism, the natural world, and politics (including "current events"). Critics often mention the Black Mountain Poets in general and Robert Duncan in particular when discussing Adamson, whose Paper Bark Press has published outstanding books by Australian poets like Kevin Hart, Gig Ryan, Peter Minter, and Michael Brennan as well as the American poet Devin Johnston.

Some of Adamson's poems in this book focus on birds during war (they remind me of Hayden Carruth's poems "When Howitzers Began" and "The Birds of Vietnam").

Here's the epigraph and ending of Adamson's "Flag-Tailed Bird of Paradise":

"George W. Bush instructed 'the enemy' to hold up white flags and stand twenty metres away from their tanks, promising that if they did, they would be spared."

Flunkies fed them
and sultans hovered about them, marvelling
at how they became extraordinary in their deformities,
their cream-coloured plumage shot
through with pale, beautiful rainbows,
their eyes enormous, pink, their tail-flags heavy--
almost too heavy to hold up, but not theirs to withhold.

And here's the end of Adamson's "The Goldfinches of Baghdad":

The ones who cannot speak burn
along with the articulate; the creatures
who are oblivious of prayer, along with the ones
who lament to their God. Falcons on their silver chains,
and the children of the falcon trainer smother
in the smoke of burning feathers and human flesh.
We must sing or die. Singing death as our songs feed the flame.

I haven't read much of Jennifer Maiden's work--probably a book and some magazine and anthology selections in the late 1990s--but her poems in The Best Australian Poems 2003 make me want to read all of her books (and kick myself for not doing so earlier).

Maiden's "George Jeffreys" sequence breaks down into five parts:

1. George Jeffreys Woke Up in Kabul
2. George Jeffreys Woke Up in Kandahar
3. George Jeffreys Woke Up in London
4. George Jeffreys Woke Up in Berlin
5. George Jeffreys Woke Up in The White House

Wherever George Jeffreys woke up, "George Bush Junior was on the TV, obsessed / as usual with Baghdad."

Maiden is admirably incisive (and funny) throughout, and she must be the first Australian (and maybe American) poet to write about Scott Ritter:

Ex-Arms-Inspector Ritter
expressed an angle that he did not
care about Iraq but just cared that
America would be destroyed, degraded
by lies about Baghdad as dangerous.

The poem's final section begins:

George Jeffreys woke up in the White House.
George Bush Junior was on the TV, obsessed
as usual with Baghdad. And choking
on a pretzel. Who, thought Jeffreys,
would choke twice on a pretzel?
        And who
would leave him twice alone?

After Jeffreys saves Bush with the Heimlich manuever, they watch Condaleeza Rice on TV:

         W said,
'You know, Condy thinks it's okay
to just blow people up with a C.I.A.
missile where ever they are, or who.
She just said that and no one
minded much, maybe your Human Rights
outfit, or another one.
        You know, George, you
let me live because you knew
that if I live long enough the rest
of capitalism's probably over, hey, my
sort of capitalism, anyway, that dirty
puritan profit and revenge thing...'

Maiden's "Costume Jewellery" bears this epigraph:

"Let's get one thing straight. You're behind the counter because you have to work for $6.00 an hour. I'm on this side asking to see the good jewellery because I make considerably more." --reported remark by U.S. National Security Advisor Condaleeza Rice to shop assistant who had pulled out some costume jewellery on seeing her.

The poem itself is a more effective demolition job than any work of journalism I've read on C.R., perhaps because Maiden juxtaposes ("clusters") details so quickly, deftly, humorously.

Bruce Dawe's "Umm Qasr" presents a (presumably American) soldier's thoughts in an ABAB rhyme scheme:

We thought that there'd be flowers along the way
and crowds of glad Iraqis lining streets
(they hanged a woman who waved to us today).

Though I admire the attempt, I think the form mars the poem because it facilitates too many vague descriptions that could apply to any war. And the form does not curb wordiness (e.g., the "that" in line one).

Along similar lines, Dawe's "What Is All War But a Wasting?" opens with the following stanza:

What is all war but a wasting,
And peace like a dream between wars,
An odd restless dream of heart-aching
From which men are forever awaking
To find blood on their innocent paws ...?

Is there a single original thought in those lines?

Dawe's "Flight 93" seems to buy into the "ordinary American heroes on 9/11" story perpetuated by the mainstream U.S. media:

today the Congressional building stands
as it stood then because
those citizen-passengers with one accord
chose certain death in rural Pennsylvania.

Aside from offering little to no sonic pleasure, the poem offers no real thinking--just received ideas in the form of a tribute. Although every anti-war poem is in some sense universal, Dawe's approach in these poems seems too accommodating, too decorous. Perhaps they seem too generalized because the poet has not done the difficult thinking (and research) that Maiden and Adamson have done.

For me, the truly best poems in Martin Duwell's The Best Australian Poetry (which generally leans toward the lyric anecdote) are Jordie Albiston's "Apostrophe," M.T.C. Cronin's "The Flower, the Thing," John Kinsella's "Lyrical Unification in Gambier," Emma Lew's "The Clover Seed Hex," and Peter Rose's "Late Edition."

Robert Adamson and Jennifer Maiden are also represented. Adamson's "Elegy" is in Craven's volume, too, making it twice a "best" poem of 2003. Maiden's "Missing Elvis" mentions "George of the Lethal Injection" a la Elvis:

There is something Elvis-like
in winsome, dyslectic mumbles, but
his vocal tone is better than
his father's: not so prim,
so childlike and super-ego ridden.
W.'s nose is sharper, looks
more deadly than Senior's, like a beak
built to tear not peck, his mouth
a drier, twitchier line. Baghdad
is already bombed again.

The book's web site:

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