Sunday, June 27, 2004

Review of Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets

Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets, edited by Michael Brennan and Peter Minter. Paper Bark Press, $21.

Reviewed by Ethan Paquin

A colleague, reviewing this collection for another journal, remarked in a recent conversation on his belief that Australian poetry was languishing in "amateurish" hands. Conceding the work of Peter Boyle "had moments," his protestation shifted to the "experimental" work of Javant Biarujia, Geraldine McKenzie, and others, none of whom lived up to his standards of "high quality" verse. Then, the realization: just what feeds these tired standards, and what will it take to move on past the influence of the Old School? Can we understand that testing the bounds of expression is not an act confined to, or reserved for, the great yet past-their-prime bards (pick one, any one, from America or elsewhere), writers who have perhaps overstayed their welcome because they’ve instilled the unfortunate public belief that further exploration of language and self are out of the question--or worse, "amateurish"?

If some American readers, thinkers, and writers have trouble with staking new ground, why don’t the 30 younger Australian poets in Calyx? Though they can surely smell, and are probably saturated with, the pervasive grease that is the literary United States--with its bored, waxy compound of theoretical explanations and categorizations, e.g. "Post-Post-Modern Sensibilities" and "Elliptical Poets"--it’s not apparent in this anthology. The overall impression Calyx provides, however accurate or not, is one of a community of poets writing so urgently and fervently they dare cross the Ashbery Boundary--a place where envelopes are not only pushed to the table’s precarious edge, but are folded into hundreds of diving, swirling paper airplanes, propelled by political, national, and geographical issues in a way unique from any other nation. Turning to poets like those Brennan and Minter have selected may not provide our salvation, but possibly something just as valuable: a recognizance and reaffirmation of what it means to retreat into our souls, to question the mechanisms of the word and spirit, to acknowledge humor and suffering and humiliation and distress and joy and do it as it’s not already been done countless times. Michael Farrell aptly starts this ball rolling in his poem "John Ashbery Impersonator." For all its implications, it’s a tender study of a poetry festival onlooker who hides behind bushes, trying to glimpse the man we gather is his personal hero; "i noted everything he said to use later in / a poem in which the silent changes might / occur," we are told, only to discover by turns that such a process turns young, earnest poets like himself into "monolingual ventriloquists." This one-note droning, this copy-cat act of hiding behind the tried-and-true tonal affectations and storytelling of those who’ve written before us--resulting in assembly-line and carbon-copy verse--simply does not appear in Calyx.

Inside there is a peculiar brand of Australian duende that echoes hauntingly, lusciously. It’s felt across the stylistic board: sprawling, avant-garde gems rest comfortably and naturally next to quiet pensum; clearly, the editorial work is as thoughtful as the poetry within. Particularly magnetizing are the seldom-heard (in America, at least) voices of Luke Davies, Susan Bowers, and Kirsten Tranter. Davies’s cyclical conundrums fascinate--"In the landscape / the flesh & // when the flesh is gone / the landscape," from "History of Violence"--and he can strike the right grave tone ("There are older agonies / than churches"), though one wishes the sentimentalism of abstract moments like "The infinite sadness of finite joys / in the season of rain and death // when the magpies sing" packed more visceral and less aethereal heft. Still, it’s hard to find fault with his deft, eerie homage to Stevens, "Passage of Time," a three-part suite examining the "humility of journeys" through the eyes of a hawk:

Always the rat between us and the great rest.

Always the dark shadow of a greater hawk
looming above us and blocking the sky:
oh father with your sparrow bones, death
descends on you and that’s your day.

Bowers’s poems are spare, straightforward, and unexpected. They remind of Holub’s assertion that "poetry is not only about using the senses and the sensitivity and the sensibility but ... using the plain human mind in the way a plain human being is using it while crossing the street." Indeed. But they approach as if a mist that hints of something forgotten or overlooked:

Farms are never by the sea
but this one was.
There was a farmhouse
of course
because farms without
makes no sense.
("Little Red Jelly")

Bowers, like Farrell, gets her jabs in at bloated Americana in "Triptych," examining "Marilyn," "Marlon," and "Elvis" ("I’ll pretend that I’m / in a film with you / while you’re cutting / a bullet out of my leg"). Another long poem, "Space and Technology Series," sounds as if written by a proselyte to techno-speak, to the wonder and fright of scientific creations; the innocent, reverent, and wide-eyed voice within is alarmingly sexy ("When the earth was flat / we could have walked forever, / picking intense cornflowers, / but I know the earth is round / because I see it reflected in your helmet. / And so the cornflowers are obsolete now / and instead we exchange moon- rocks"). Tranter, too, has an ear for the sumptuous and the sensory, for the disjunctive and emotive, and an inner eye for Matisse-like scenery:

Her yellow dress stands still in the heat
The couch is covered in roses in a tapestry
while your letter shows scorched on my hands
It rises, it gathers itself
with a growl, something like jealous
("Her Yellow Dress")

Biarujia, Arthur Spyrou, and James Taylor, the most structurally challenging and innovative in Calyx, certainly deal in organic rather than lyric form, recalling Zukofsky’s proclivity for "sight, sound, and intellection" in their greatly wild, messy, stream-of-consciousness ramblings. Biarujia is as comfortable within the confines of the prose poem or dictionary entry as he is with verse; Spyrou’s "Ode to Sir Philip Sidney" contains a superb balance between meticulous observation of the physical, historical and emotional realms ("we learn to observe / with the pity / of broken clocks // the patience // of a dead saint’s / riven / digit"), rendered in a fragmented style that meanders about the page like Merton’s "Cables to the Ace." Taylor’s "Ambiguity as a Bowl of Milk" is divided into columns, the poem speaking to itself, and his "Forfeit of & For" can literally not be described; here, collage finds its way into poetry with amusing results.

There are many high points of the collection--Kate Lilley’s gorgeous mix of pop and classicism, Adam Aitken’s and Nick Riemer’s stark locales--and those poets who are better-known in American circles, including Louis Armand, Alison Croggon, MTC Cronin, Coral Hull, Emma Lew, and Tracy Ryan, nestle well against the lesser-known Adrian Wiggins, Felicity Plunkett, and Jane Gibian. By no means a flawless anthology, Calyx has got to be one of the best in-roads toward gaining a semi-holistic sense of what’s going on past the international date line.

Back to my colleague and his need for standards. In the end, in gauging the "successfulness" of writing, we must ask not only whether these contemporary Australian poets communicate effectively but whether we, as readers, are invigorated. Calyx is a series of pistons in rapid fire; the level of high energy and perplexity is consistent and fairly unwavering. As a bonus to the Australian-Australasian neophyte, glancing at its catalogue of cultural references, one sees the points of contact throughout this vast land converging in one spot, and it is dynamic. If these, along with being dissatisfied with time-tested ways of probing psychic, geographic and personal landscapes, are the hallmarks of a group of "amateurish" writers, who needs professionals?

From Verse, Volume 18, Numbers 2 & 3 (2001). All rights reserved. For more information about this issue, see Arielle Greenberg's poem below.

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