It all begins with a languid click on Robert Adamson as one of the nineteen poets featured in Australian Poetry International at http://australia.poetryinternational.org/. The air of sultry suffocation in the first poem "Canticle for the Bicentennial Dead" hits me physically, mirroring the stuffiness of the sweetly indolent slothfully warm Jammu afternoon.
Before long, I slowly sit up. 'Mitti ki khushboo' (fragrance of the earth). The Hindi poetic phrase wafts into my mind as I proceed. I marvel at the immediacy with which the flavour of a country emerges through its landscape poetry. It probably explains why landscape ends up being mythologized. Why it becomes a part of you. Adamson's Hawkesbury or our Chenab, the river becomes more than a receptacle of picturesque reflections. It becomes a link to tradition, myth and knowledge; a source of all-subordinating calmness; and a doorway to myriad pleasant and unpleasant memories, thoughts and sensations.
If Robert Adamson's landscape can be dreamy, even nightmarish, "putrid" ("Creon's Dream") and meaningless, Kevin Hart's riverside walk in "The River" brings on a communion with nature inspiring deep thoughts as well as a search for direction. And John Tranter's "Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy" on the degeneration-into-failure-to-inspire of life and art starts off as a river-bank contemplation.
I flow along into greater depth, alternating between meandering and getting swirled around by rapids and currents. Several things initially lazily creep into and gradually pummel my mind. It becomes difficult to comfortably slot the poetry. Pam Brown's poems — "Ultradian Rhythm", "Do What", "In Europe", "This is All" and "Front" — for instance, sometimes set outside Australia, start with a wandering as if in a trance through descriptions of the day, grey-ness of summer, repetition of sensations of death, sickliness and poison; poetry and the need for detachment or "neutrality"; religion intertwined with personal feelings while drinking in an Italian scene; the choice of the everyday, the normal, over the exotic even if it is not sweet and the "usual fears" of death and disease, the compromise between social and individual persona and the reminder of passing time with a typically female "unpredictable blood / from the womb". Even if I can pick out a predominant concern or influence in the selection of each poet's work it is pretty obvious that the poets are well-read at least if not both well-read and widely-travelled. Thematically and technically, I have to keep track of diverse threads of knowledge to read all nineteen poets. It is a relief to come across words such as "pastiche", "bricolage" and "collage" when after reading the poems I check with the editor's notes. I am not far off the mark.
Closeness with nature is the take-off point for many ideas and there maybe I can identify touches of Shelley's romanticism. I have also to try and make sense of what is sometimes plainly obscure and place in perspective literary personages such as Mallarme and German poet Enzensberger vis-ł-vis ideas and style: reality versus imagination, the value of literary art, central symbols (Adamson works "with holes, with absence" in "Meaning") that occasionally hit me between the eyes. I try and figure out Michael Farrell with the assistance of the experimental American poet John Ashbery; although I have to confess that after reading Michael Farrell I am left with the urge to fool around with punctuation to see what meanings can emerge by juggling a dot, dash or two. I toy with the idea of placing side by side Tranter's "Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy" and T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland", which is what the former reminds me of, ruing as it does physical, emotional and literary sterility; and comparing-contrasting the antecedents: Classical, mythological, Rimbaud and Modernist.
I involuntarily rewind to my days as a student of cinema, when seeds were sown that help in moving along with M.T.C. Cronin's abrupt cuts from precisely visual scene to scene: fog, a baby "wrestling" with the breast, gunshots and yellow birds taking fright and flight and the silent echo of fear on the edge of a gorge, in a world without comforting answers, where life is like directionless repeated wandering in a bizarre countryside, where being a persimmon is more secure than being human.
It soon becomes a yo-yo swing from philosophy, psychology, religion, ethics, the nature and role of poetry (and its creation) to global conflicts, their politics and characters and habits of contemporary life. A lot is contemplated in a half-asleep dream or trance removed from conscious connections. I smile at Ouyang yu's jibe at the critics ("Being Difficult") and wonder if he believes in freedom (Pam Brown's "leap" in "Do What"?) through poetry ("In a Wakeful Dream"). Vivian Smith throws light on the international poetry circuit and literary translations and Dorothy Porter on the dilemma of the innocent uncorrupted poet versus the one fired by experience. Robert Adamson shows me the role of imagination in overcoming harsh reality of a hard life, John Tranter how codified rules rescue a wandering mind ("The Chicago Manual of Style") even as he ironically moulds a poetic form (the sonnet) into something a little removed from what one would expect. ╩ ╩ ╩Unconventional too but persuasive is Noel Rowe's discussion of Christianity and Buddhism in "Resurrection" and "Kata Beach". Perhaps because of geography, I am tempted to interpret Judith Beveridge's Bahadour's total detachment from the world and concentration on one pristine moment of release with the kite ("Bahadour") as a release from worldly attachments and give a second look to her dice player's ease with destiny ("The Dice-Player"). But the reminder in Martin Harrison's "The Witness" that something deeply personal can be peddled makes me uncomfortable.
J.S. Harry, Jennifer Maiden and Gig Ryan take an anti-war, specifically anti-Iraq war stand. I share Jennifer Maiden's disapproval of the then U.S. Secretary of State's hollowness ("Madeline Albright Wears Two Lapel Pins") and enjoy her pointed sarcasm against the American position. Gig Ryan's titles, "Disinformation" and "His Desert Bequest", do more than label — they paint in some key brush strokes into a picture made difficult by reading poems in isolation. Martin Harrison too writes an 'ode' ("Ode in April") on the less-than-heroic grisliness of war as an end to the energy of life.
I notice the human condition and emotions continue to be of concern. Noel Rowe captures moments of human thoughtlessness ("Bluthorpe Thinks About Probing Mars") and questions the permanence of beauty and emotions ("Bangkok Never Really Sleeps"); Jennifer Maiden explores loneliness, death and dying, evil ("In the Gloaming", "The Cadre", "The Sponge"); Kevin Hart studies a darkness that nevertheless brings peace ("The Room"); Martin Harrison contemplates reality and human nature ("Breakfast"); Kate Lilley deals with loss and recovery from it, self-assured resilience ("I'll bounce back in a year or two" — "It Follows"), "mind-control" ("Where Was I") and an impatience I can relate to towards "dimwit hankering and hollering" ("It Follows").
While I can decode Gig Ryan's concern over the barrenness of life devoid of spiritual growth, spent in working off debts and expenses, I am at a loss when it comes to Chris Edwards without familiarization with the Australian ethos: The Weekend Australian reports, ABC TV, Gardening Australia and so on. I tackle him with a 'must be' attitude and can only appreciate an ability that builds on supposedly commonplace material strewn around. Fortunately, the aggravation has a way out. If I take away some local references and peculiarities, I know the same experience will have wider relevance too. The obvious ones are the immigrant and the Indigenous experiences. ╩
Feelings that emerge through the poems of Ouyang yu are loneliness, alienation, a desire to be free yet the frustration of being bound or imprisoned. I hear the angry Indigenous voice in the ten poems by Lisa Bellear. The stridency of the refrain of "Message Failed", "we do not come in peace", reverberates throughout; but the poignancy of the parallel in "Beautiful Yuroke Red River Gum" between the dying the red river gum trees and the Yarra Yarra tribe, as the takeover of Indigenous lands and life stands symbolized by substitution with England's plane tree, cannot be denied. Ouyang yu is by contrast deceptively gentle, softening the blows with humour. "An Identity CV" blends form, content and aim beautifully.
I am a little envious of the obvious skill with words, style and form. Ouyang yu's "'I Love Sleep'" runs on without punctuation much like talking in sleep or dreaming. The simplicity of the thought yet the complexity of wanting to avoid feeling lonely and unwanted through refuge in sleep! Through years of writing Literature answers I have struggled with character(ization) that Judith Beveridge seems to flesh out, along with cinematically freezing instants, in the blink of an eye — or a few lines! A particularly sharp word picture is the one about how Bahadour "must mint so many steel / suns from a bicycle's wheels each day". "Lufthansa" is almost like sitting in the next seat to John Tranter and admiring the play of light and the precision of the German crew established through equally meticulous words and images. The sensation of Robert Adamson's swish of silk ("Eventail: for Mery in Paris") on the one hand and wasting away ("Canticle for the Bicentennial Dead") is almost tactile.
Feeling like an intruder looking in through a window, I pause at Jennifer Maiden's little picture of sipping coffee in an empty lonely house, sitting till capillaries on calves "form a tartan" in the darkening twilight ("In the Gloaming"); and feel goose bumps at the enervating boredom bordering on malevolence in a murderous wicked witch situation in "The Sponge". I am startled by Emma Lew's idea of life "feebly decent" ("Riot Eve") as wasted, but relish her mini-dramas playing upon deep seated feelings, conflict and the dark thrill of "we see but one night; we contain others" ("Riot Eve"). Martin Harrison's descriptions of a dawn scene, a wind tossed tree, innovative comparisons leading on to reflection sketch things out for me. I learn to regard the onion with fresh respect as its aesthetic, sensory and metaphoric aspects are deliberately and intriguingly played out in J.S. Harry's "On the Outskirts of 'War'"? Inevitably, I enjoy shaking hands with her 'voice' Peter Henry Lepus and with Noel Rowe's Bluthorpe who, notwithstanding his lack of social graces ("Bluthorpe Finds It Hard to Introduce Himself"), has the gumption to wonder if humans are responsible for the wreck of Mars before starting on Earth ("Bluthorpe Thinks About Probing Mars").
Vivian Smith's style has the grace and power of the "clean" and "haunting" tune that "has to sing itself inside of me" ("Tune"). Its delicacy — behind which is a wealth of thought — however, can shock. The quick smooth movement in "Traveller's Tale" from the passion of youth to the stillness of death leaves the jaw hanging open. I read Smith immediately after Chris Edwards. It is like sipping tea from fine translucent porcelain after glugging it from thick earthenware pottery decorated with abstract motifs. I should know — I have both adorning my pantry shelves!╩
I save the best for the last. I grin at Jill in "Trouble", bold and challenging, with a "stomach" for trouble. Just as Dorothy Porter herself punctures high flying notions. I love the metaphor about being "ravished" and can fully identify with the music-cacophony analogy in "Numbers", while the very real sensed fear of the toad versus his fabled magic powers is a great contrast. And the acerbic treatment of poetic modesty and innocence in "Charles Baudelaire's Grave" is matchless. Porter reeks of confidence of thought and technique. I find the nineteen poets an intriguing blend of the deeply personal, strongly individualistic yet widely and internationally connected. My reaction is correspondingly a combination of distance, frustration and identification — and breathless (but satisfied) exhaustion!