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Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

An Alphabetical Appreciation of the latest Australian Anthology:

Douglas Barbour reviews

Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets by Michael Brennan and Peter Minter (eds)

Paper Bark Press. AU$38.50pb, 328pp ISBN 187674918 0

This piece is 2000 words or about five printed pages long.

A B Cornucopia: a big thick, beautifully produced (as is always the case with Paper Bark Press) volume just chock full of poetry. Calyx offers any reader a wide choice of the many different kinds of poetry newer writers are producing in Australia today. This is a grand menage, a massed choir of contrary voices, a big noise from Down Under. With thirty contributors (and it is good to see that, however many pages each one gets, the gender balance is dead even), it can cover a lot of ground. And if, even with thirty contributors, it won’t fully satisfy those readers (aren’t there always some?) who know someone missing they think should be there, still, generally speaking, Calyx is a fine, wide ranging overview of recent writing from the island continent. On the whole, I enjoyed almost every section, but, like every reader, I have my favorites.

D Editors  and Editing: from across the ocean in Canada, I had not come across Michael Brennan before, but I had picked up Peter Minter’s sharp first book, Empty Texas (also a Paper Bark Press volume). Thirty-somethings, they bring fresh eyes and ears to the anthologizing game, and have done useful work in gathering together poets who have only a few or even no books to their credit as yet. Calyx is designed to get these newer poets out to the public in an attractive and accessible form. I can only hope that it is doing so.
    In their short introduction, the editors basically open the curtains, announce the show, and bow before stepping aside for the first act. Among the criteria they mention are the fact that many of the poets have appeared in the little mags they edited, that they are all poets who began publishing in the 1990s, but ‘that a poet’s age would be of no consequence and that the anthology would seek to represent material from a range of locations.’ If by this they mean locations both geographical and poetic, then they have done a good job, and Calyx is the better for it: there’s a healthy sense of eclecticism at work here. They add: ‘Our primary sense now is that this publication draws together a number of new meetings and conversations in Australian poetry, explores other conversations which have happened to constellate around them, and creates a complex space in which their key tenors can be heard, approached, joined and made to work.’ I’m not quite sure how they intend this sentence to be taken, especially the last injunction. The strictly alphabetical organization of the contents might seem an odd way to construct such ‘a complex space.’
    Perhaps it is the most useful one they could come up with, however, for it is so arbitrary, each reader must set up connections among and constellations of various voices on her own, rather than letting the editors do so. Perhaps it’s for the best that readers are all allowed to construct various mini-anthologies of works they like, works which speak directly to each other, etc. At any rate, many of these writers do seem to be conversing, about how poetry should work, what it should do, how it should do it, what, in some cases, the writers think it should be saying.

F G H Identity: for some poets, questions of identity, and the politics of identity, are terribly important; for others, they are the very things to avoid. In Calyx , there are interesting examples of both kinds of poetry. If there are conversations, there are also arguments, & I applaud the editors for allowing an eclectic blend of differing poetics to play across these pages. Some of these poets – Susan Bower, Peter Boyle, MTC Cronin, Cora Hull, Hugh Tolhurst, for example – use the ‘I’ in what appear to be fairly conventional lyric or narrative ways. Others – I might point to the editors themselves, Emma Lew, Kate Lilley, Zan Ross, Tracy Ryan, James Taylor, Kirsten Tranter – seem to hold the ‘I’ in their poems up to question. Other, still – Louis Armand, Javant Biarujia, Geraldine McKenzie – almost seem to ignore it, at least as a sign of identity assumed or dropped. Readers may find themselves connecting poems, sans reference to the names of the poets, in terms of how stable or slippery their voiced ‘I’s appear. The shift tends to be from a more clearly defined narrative through a kind of apparently lyric cry to a somewhat theoretical discourse, at its best when still ruptured and rapturous in its caustic music, as in Louis Armand’s ‘Composition [after Boyd, Nolan]’:

fixed in mundane matter the prone body —
penumbral man — dissipates, the trace
of an utterly contingient “this” . . .
or dispossessed & devoured by space —
convulsive — the post-galvanic twitchings
of (trans-)coded flesh? dead-level plains
with crow & skeleton tree, concealing
an interior zone of primordial elements —
in-organic-substance as arcane as
salt sulphur mercury — rising phallus-like
from white drought-cracked soil —
the heliod genitals of a mechanized
underworld — infernal seeds groping
upwards to petrified light, flowering
in the negative arborescence of [bushfires, etc. (41)

I like the way this piece undermines conventional aspects of ekphrasis, refusing to describe either the content or the surfaces of the paintings, as such, while finding a material linguistic form to re-present what they do.

J K Literature: does it matter? Once again Calyx refuses to take a stand. Some of its writers clearly care about joining the canonical club that goes by that name; others seem to care nothing about such a name for themselves or their work. That this should be so may be a sign of the major swerve that is the millennium, but it adds to the energy of the whole. One of the arguments much new poetry has with both its own past and mainstream culture has to do with the ways in which not just poetry but literature, as a cultural construct, has been marginalized in a world gobbled up by consumer ideology. An anthology like Calyx , after all, even if it does extremely well, will only reach a few thousand buyers, most of whom already care about contemporary poetry anyway. If this is the case, then it cannot become an agent of cultural change. Or can it, if only in the small, somewhat isolated, arena of poetry? What if all it, & the writers therein, can do is offer interesting, even entertaining, examples of a craft ever more utterly under siege? As readers, will we accept that as sufficient? Well, we still read poetry, and on some level we do so for the...

M N O Pleasure of many kinds to be discovered in these various texts. Sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes it seems easy, but just about all of them insist that it be mutual, an engagement of reader and writing coming together on the textual mat. Among the more stringent pleasures are the deliberately ‘experimental’ texts of an Armand, a Biarujia, a Lilley, or a Minter. But what does the term mean any more anyway? Most of these writers have learned in an international forum, and some of their mentors have been the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets in the USA. Equally, other poetics of an international reach have interpellated the writing here. Alison Croggon is, for example, working on her own translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and I think one could argue both Rilke’s and Celan’s influence on her work.
    But it is precisely the way in which anyone can choose a range of influences from around the world that makes it all the more difficult to itemize influences (if it was ever truly possible). Each writer will have found so many possibilities in so many different texts. Moreover, given that every poem is a kind of experiment, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding (at which point it is no longer an experiment), then the apparently more straightforward poems of an Aitken, a Tolhurst, a Croggon, or a Cronin may prove just as defamiliarizing, just as sharply exhilarating, as the overdeterminedly disruptive works of an Armand or a Biarujia.
    Readers, at any rate, will emerge from their encounters with the poems in Calyx having had a good time with at least some of them. For me, the pleasure was both general and genuine, and, in different ways, almost continuous; I found very few works I didn’t enjoy on some level.

Q R Significance: few books of poetry have any significance in the larger consumerist culture of multinational commerce. But in the interstices of the world machine, even in its World Wide Web (as Jacket itself demonstrates), writers continue to write, publish, read, and discuss poetry. World-wide, that’s not as small an audience as one might think, and for them, for us, Calyx is a significant addition to the poetry of the present. While there are many older Australian poets who are still not as well known as they should be outside their own country (and the same could be said for Canada and New Zealand), it is definitely good to have this large and various anthology of new voices to peruse. Calyx provides an exciting and vibrant glimpse of what’s happening among the newer writers in Australia now.

T U Variety: a given, and something I’ve been pointing to throughout this review, but let me reiterate: Calyx offers a wonderfully rich range of poetry between its covers. One could lament, depending upon one’s biases, that there is too much of one poet and not enough of another, but each and everyone gets an opportunity to show something of what he or she can accomplish. I would say that the level of craft is high throughout, whether it be in visually acute poetry, prose poetry, or rhythmically intense verse. I come across a lot of rhythmically slack poetry in my reading, but, generally speaking, the poets of Calyx either choose a slippery prose or make their lines work. Among those who use prose, I especially liked Kirsten Tranter’s sly insinuations:

when I speak to you, it’s like an address to someone standing just behind you, an eye over the shoulder, as thought you are unable to decide if the words are directed to you. I sense anxiety as the words begin to curl out in their perfect spiral. I try hard to speak directly, to fix you in a point of light not dusty and filtered but clear, when I will recognize you and know you have been all along belonging to me, shifting like a triple shadow.(307)

Not to mention the prose moments in the work of both editors. I was also impressed by the variety of line and stanza forms in many writers, among whom Adam Aitken, Louis Armand, Alison Croggon, MTC Cronin, Emma Lew, Kate Lilley, Peter Minter, Dipti Saravanamuttu, Arthur Spyrou, and James Taylor come to mind.

X Y Zest: not to be dismissed lightly. The editors conclude their introduction: ‘Above all, the poets in this anthology write hopefully, candidly, and urgently. We hope that you will be excited by the challenges and obliquities of their various modes of engagement, experimentation and inquiry, and that they will continue to invigorate Australian and international poetry for some time to come.’ I can’t resist providing some examples:

cunning lips, split
by your knowing

flesh-music, carnal
staves of labour,

the wet dry flourishing
and crumpled wings

in the new air
           (Croggon 101)

What will memory do to us?
We loved the nights and were taken,
all in our velvet dresses, to grind
stardom down to its dusty elements.
           (Lew 174)

Just as every drunk has a manuscript,
unlimited emotions need chemical assistance
to achieve a plateau of friendliness.
Blushing can be a mark of respect
but in this case I was past caring.
Anyone can get trigger-happy
with the right cocktail of provocation.
           (Lilley 187)

Content is a slippery glimpse, or the light
of these bodies, authenticated grace stretched blue under laying out the notes
the Pacific Highway riddles . . .
           (Minter 218)

always has a signature; it’s just mostly
the cheques bounce.
           (Tolhurst 295)

I’m always grateful for wit, too, and there’s a lot of the best Australian vintages here. Calyx lives up to the hope expressed in such terms as ‘urgently,’ ‘inquiry,’ and ‘invigorate,’ and in the energy and intensity of its best writing it achieves a level of excitement well worth any reader’s time and money.

Photo of Douglas Barbour

Douglas Barbour is a professor in the Department of English, University of Alberta, where he teaches creative writing, modern poetry, Canadian Literature, and science fiction and fantasy. His critical books include studies of poets Daphne Marlatt, John Newlove, and bpNichol (all ECW Press 1992), and Michael Ondaatje (Twayne 1993). Volumes of poetry include Visible Visions: Selected Poems (NeWest Press 1984), Story for a Saskatchewan Night (rdcpress 1989), and, most recently, Fragmenting Body etc (NeWest Press 2000 and SALT Publishing 2000). Lyric / Anti-lyric: essays on contemporary poetry (NeWest Press, 2001) has just been published.

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