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

Kris Hemensley reviews

New & Selected Poems,1978–97 by John Anderson

Zeus Publications at

This piece is 2,600 words or about seven printed pages long.

“Whatever it is that Conservation demands of Australian flora and fauna, John Andersen conceived a miscegenation which conserves a history of perpetual migration.”

THE RELEASE by Thylazine Publishing of New & Selected Poems, 1978–97 by the late Melbourne (Australia) poet John Anderson and its later distribution by Zeus Publications on the Internet provides an opportunity to review his work three years since his sudden death in 1997.
    I’ve always considered the second of his three published collections, the forest set out like the night (1995), represents his major work, his best contribution he believed, to an understanding of the Australian natural environment, perhaps even his most efficacious act in the fightfor conservation on this continent. However, the surrealistically comic poems of The bluegum smokes a long cigar (1978) and the “dream lines” and pantoums of his last book, The Shadow’s Keep (1997), were as crucial, poetically, and would probably have been as productive for him later as formerly his topographical- cum- cosmological project. He may have continued this double-take forever.
    I’ve been tantalized for years by both Anderson’s and his great friend Ned Johnson’s reference to a large quantity of writing similar to that published in The Bluegum, dating from schooldays to his Melbourne University years. Although there was some discussion with Rigmarole Books’ Robert Kenny about The Bluegum selection, the published book was what Anderson offered, though I remember him saying several different selections could have been made.
    Johnson’s description of Anderson’s regular outings in the student press with bluegum-like material and, at the time of his death, of the existence of a mass of unpublished manuscript, attracts me to the prospect of a further volume of John Anderson’s writing. Needless to say, Thylazine’s New & Selected doesn’t include any of this trove. Amongst the uncollected poems on the CD-ROM are some which were posthumously published (the beautiful “Holy Trees”, for example, in Heat magazine), and some gnomic gems combining Bluegum and Shadow’s Keep styles.

the marks she makes on her tummy
her mad cake
her nostalgium, her shooting stars
her pecking at the Yanks
the deaths, the divorce, the oranges she loves
the big and little room
the track between the piano and the pianola
the Chevrolet which never fits between the trees
or plays
her life a nightschool, a bull ant bite and this

But several, quite obviously dream notation, are so unmade they question the editorial rationale: late work they may well be (although due to the absence of dating they could be from any time) but hardly the last word on his poetry. However, if these are to be published then there’s good reason to reveal the juvenilia. (The sleeve-note of Bluegum confessed, “One of my muses is the white faced heron. It formed the subject of an early childhood opus.” I pray that such a work has survived!)
    I should mention that two of the poems evidently written upon his last topographical expedition (in Western Australia,1997) attempt the map poems beloved of the Olson school , or even of Charles Buckmaster in his typically La Mama “projective” foray: unsuccessfully I fear, data-ridden sketches in dramatic contrast to his usual deeply worked palimpsests .
    It interests me that this CD-ROM is released while two of his three books are still in print with Black Pepper Press (Melbourne, Australia). One wonders if a book version of the CD-ROM may be under consideration or if this new publication is a sign of things to come in the poetry world, at least for poets whose continuing availability is in question. Yet, if simple availability were the issue, a web-site, from which the complete works could be downloaded,would seem to be the better option. Thylazine’s attractive site could have been its natural home since John Anderson’s work perfectly realizes Coral Hull’s objectives for poetry and discussion of place and the natural world.
    Technophobe I’ve been called, though technomoron’s more accurate, but I’m yet to be convinced of the superiority of the CD-ROM over the book. It’s not the simplest or most pleasant operation in the world to select and read the poems and like much of the computer experience seems to me a temptation,arousing but rarely satisfying one’s expectation. The living-colour visual images accompanying text on Thylazine’s web-site, including the promotional material for Anderson’s New & Selected, is absent from the CD-ROM, presumably because of cost. Achievement it certainly is, but I wonder if the inability to reproduce the richest possible visual experience suggested by the new technology suspends the CD-ROM somewhere between the traditional book and the web-site?
    The “as yet under-acknowledged John Anderson,” wrote Greg McLaren in a recent review, casting him with Kevin Hart, Robert Adamson, (the late) Judith Wright and Les Murray within the rubric of an “identifiably and locally-specific Australian” poetry.
    However, the Shellyean echo of McLaren’s epithet ought not preclude another of Romanticism’s locutions, namely Soul and its purview. As far as “legislator of the world” are concerned, at this particular juncture and of contemporary Australians, with Wright and Murray superfically recognized but hardly affecting society at large, one must say that all poets are unacknowledged, under-acknowledged. Yet if Soul is involved then neither the socio-political nor the landscape dimensions of Place ultimately define Anderson’s project.

Photo of John Anderson

For Anderson, the kind of ‘nature poet’ he is includes the question, of what nature’s poet ? He possessed a naturalist’s appetite for data and a taxonomist’s infinite inventiveness — thus Hopkins, Ponge, and with them (surely models both?) entered some other making, where the investigation of sheer matter exceeds itself, and the metaphorical, indeed the metaphysical, is released.
    Recall Hopkins, permitting a poetics that’s properly Anderson’s also, thrilling at the cuckoo, trilling its poetic potential, how “the whole landscape flushes on a sudden at a sound” (and the suggestion, maybe, that the cuckoo’s “cuckoo” fills the thrice-hulled landscape, the “hollow / hollow, hollow ground”) — thus the proposition of music , that the sound of what is to be said, regales the normal resonance from another side. The elsewhere of syntax and cadence reorientates reference, so the landscapes Anderson maps and tracks lead ultimately to the types of nature the poet ventures there.
    Proposing the affinity between Balinese music and Australian flora, Anderson writes that its “rhythms are hidden and natural. Subtle enough to catch and lend fluency to the songs of crickets, frogs,cicadas and bellbirds, sometimes disappearing like an invisible songbird behind a static screen of notes. And capable of exuberance, too. Gumleaf glitter in wind is the visual equivalent of a torrent of gamelan.”
    His metaphor crosses sight and sound and locates an Australian event within the larger regional theatre, a remarkable conceit.

Unacknowledged, under-acknowledged; but acknowledged by sufficient peers to persevere as a poet, Anderson published, was heard at frequent readings in a variety of settings, and was beginning to find a readership, somewhat wider than the different strands of the Melbourne poetry scene, when he died.
    Poignantly his readership increased as he sought mainstream publication for the forest set out like the night, with Angus & Robertson/HarperCollins Ausutralia, Paper Bark (Sydney, Australia), but finally and successfully with a little press, Black Pepper.
    At the time of his sudden death,in late 1997, aged 49, another collection, probably the most curious in recent Australian publishing,The Shadow’s Keep, was provoking a little squall of interest. On one hand, an offcut of his major landscape work, which is to say an exhumation of the secret source of some of his language and an extension of its effects; while on the other, a type of pure poetry, using the arcane but now fashionable form of the pantoum to conjur coherent poems from his dream lines, the one gift of his debilitating sleep apnoea.
    In the context of his first publisher (Rigmarole)’s literary programme, John Anderson’s Bluegum followed Gerard Lee’s surreal fables, Manual for a Garden Mechanic,and Laurie [Laurence] Duggan’s real and imagined geography, East (1976). Though not for a moment compromising any of the poets’ unique contributions, it’s interesting to see how one poet or poetry prepares the ground for another ; how a particular time or within a particular time, a language, of expression or discourse, arises and accomodates its practitioners.
    As far as a reader is concerned, Duggan’s “depth behind the image of an egg”, albeit after the [Melbourne] painter Albert Tucker’s surrealism, is precisely the matter of Anderson’s exploration. “The desire to know one small region thoroughly “ he’d pose, fusing realist and surrealist intent so innocently that his later work would always seem surprising. Similarly, Lee’s apparently guileless solicitation that “There are some who believe in a connection between oranges and the sun”, is indubitably Anderson’s way, one he’d exponentially expand thereafter.
    Neither did the meeting between Anderson and Robert Kenny’s Rigmarole press [in Melbourne] come out of thin air. It could be said that Anderson fulfills important aspects of what I’d call the Melbourne Hippy-Esoteric school of poetry of the late Sixties, early Seventies, involving the La Mama (café-theatre) and Arts Co-Operative scenes, of which Kenny and his press was also arguably a legatee.
    It’s a poetry characterised by the simultaneity of perception and environment or at least of the visionary implication of the attention to the given world, whereby the given is seen through to its visionary meaning. The poets Ken Taylor, Charles Buckmaster, lan Robertson, Michael Dugan, Bill Beard, Alison Hill, Terry Gillmore, Robert Kenny and Walter Billeter,among many others, were possessed of that double optic, disporting an oracularity which claimed John Anderson too.
    Of the several types of poet John Anderson is — that any poet is, entangled as if against proscription (that one is only ever or ultimately only a single figure) — his Wordsworth, after DeQuincy’s reminiscence, offers a basic set. He’s “peculiarly the poet for the solitary and the meditative”, capable of that type of meditation wherein any “impressive visual object or collection of objects, falling upon the eye is carried to the heart with a power not known under other circumstances. “
Ruralist and romantic, Anderson’s dreaming is only ever a slip away from the reverie that unveils both apparent and real. This Wordsworth of mine, John Anderson, traverses such dissimilar poetries as English Romanticism, French Symbolism and American Projectivism, alternating wit and ornament, poetic imagery and prosaic documentation. Perhaps I should also collar Ruskin’s Fancy, vis-a-vis Imagination, and address the forms inhabiting poetry, just as Anderson writes of geographical and botanical forms in that marvellous concordance he calls Australia.
    Ruskin, of course, argues against the “mean and shallow love of jest”, which impedes the work of the imagination. There is, obviously, an essay to be written on Anderson’s humour, the laughter which suffuses much of his writing, but it must be said that for his poems to gather as a project and for that project to achieve coherence, he had to be convinced of its integrity as a serious work over and against the post-modernist mood of irony and mockery, which if nothing else declares against any epic purpose.
    Although Anderson’s joking might be made of the same cock-snookery as inspired other poets of the generation, its purchase is within language rather than literature or politics; a play, what is more, on a level within sight and the gift of dream which preceeds his topographical and cosmological investigations.
    De Quincy practically evokes of Wordsworth a visionary poet, one from behind whom Blake might be reached, and ahead of them both, Rimbaud. John Anderson subscribed to Judith Wright’s view of John Shaw Neilson (1872–1942) as a Blakean kind of mystic and found in his favourite Australian poet an affirmation of his own situation,realizing paradise in an unfashionable paddock, not even Melbourne but the orchard country of Kyabram in country Victoria.
    With Rimbaud, and Baudelaire too, one might move the reference for John Anderson from poetic idea to actual form, for it’s their prose-poem (the third of Rimbaud’s “Illuminations”, titled “Story” and ending “Great music fall short of our desire”, for example, or Baudelaire’s “The Confiteor of the Artist”) which is the engine of his major work.
    It has to be emphasised that in Anderson’s work the geography,the botany, the zoology, the mythology and history, all of the turning of observed, intuited and researched data toward poetry, never cancel its narrator. John Anderson is as relevant to his writing as a conventional autobiographer.
    In a typical sequence from the forest, narrative seemlessly, beautifully, produces authorial inscription. The poem progresses from woodland end forest, to butterfly, tortoise and lizard, which “sees itself in the tree and the tree sees itself in the stars, the stars see themselves in us // All the worlds answer us as they answer each other // One place in the world sees itself in another // I first see myself in the furthest scatterings of Australasia, where I see the furthest order again become visible, through outlines again and again repeated, in a distance of mauve, pale copper,of purple, in the furthest scatterings of the light”.
    The autobiographical John Anderson is, here, in the marrow of his work, a demonstration of what religious studies, especially Buddhology, calls interpenetration. So much for the duller secularism’s nonsense about irrationalism and whimsy.
John Anderson’s substantive vocabulary reveals a dialogue between Australian and British figures across the field of Aboriginal and Asian reference. A prime example in the forest is the contrast,or royal duet, of elm and eucalypt.

The elm grows in the medium of a closer starlight

Its green is like the synthesis of sun and sky
Its colour and form are of the cloud zone

The gum is understood in the larger more complex
moving crystal of the stars beyond

The gumtree proceeds outward by a process
of simple division
Like lightning it chases the most
economical route between poles
of energy
The spaciousness within the form
is a function of this process

The elm proceeds
The form is more

Through the gum the galaxies wind down into the earth’s
The earth breathes the sun by elms by day
Moon and stars by gums at night

His political conclusion repudiates the crude nationalism, a form of anthropomorphism when all is said and done, which projects upon regional botany its vainglorious xenophobia. Whatever it is that Conservation demands of Australian flora and fauna, John Andersen conceived a miscegenation which conserves a history of perpetual migration. In his alchemical, rather than historical-political, vision, resemblances and correspondences school perception:

the lizard seen in the lightning, the tree trunk, the stream,
the forked supporting post of the gunyah
the tortoise seen in rounded hills, clouds, rocks, bodies of
leaves, the sun, the campfire circle, the roof of the gunyah

the gunyah seen as a synthesis of the gumtree’s shape

Knowing and calling the names, as of Dahlberg’s injunction to a young Jonathon Williams (the older poet long in the tooth of a repudiation of colloquial modernity), isn’t necessarily more a native than a settler distinction, but it is a warrant of the actual, even as ambition (which is the Australian mark right now, the non-indigenous measure that is), in that circumstance where the verisimiltude of human residence is the poetry’s stake. John Anderson’s writing is a boon for alienated Australians.
    For the immigrant I somehow never cease to be in Australia (I was born in Britain in 1946, spent 1948–1952 in Egypt, 1952–66 in England, and migrated to Australia in 1966), his poetry is a charm, a talisman, a foreigner’s guide. His dream-line, “The ducks fly over in the night and create stillness in a body”, stills my own panic amidst the monstrous megapolis. I stand in his spirit’s wake reciting his poem “The Brachychiton”; in the consoling darkness, a whispered anthem:

Study the leaves of the Bracychiton
And you will be ready for any turn in the conversation

What holds true in a grove of Brachychitons
Holds true in wheatfields and oaks

The kind of thought that I aspire to
Would not disturb one leaf of Brachychiton

I am not self conscious in the Brachychiton
Some are afraid in the Brachychiton
Brachychiton Brachychiton
Enter the Brachychitons

After a while my thoughts fly
When I chant “The Brachychiton”
They sit down and most move around in the Brachychitons
I thought my jeans were Brachychitons
Nirvana Brachychiton. Brachychiton Das Cyclamens.
It is different each time in the Brachychitons

November 2000/April 2001
Kris Hemensley

John Anderson (1948–97) was born at Kyabram, Victoria, and lived mainly in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Apart from the CD-ROM reviewed here, he published three collections of poetry:
the bluegum smokes a long cigar (Rigmarole Books, 1978)
the forest set out like the night (Black Pepper, 1995), and
The Shadow's Keep (Black Pepper, 1997)

Photo of John Anderson (above) courtesy Emma Lew.

Photo of Kris Hemensley

John Anderson's New & Selected Poems, 1978–97 was published on 1st September, 2000 and was available for a short time online from Thylazine Publishing Australia’s electronic bookshop. It is now available through the electronic publisher Zeus Publications at

Kris Hemensley (photo, left)

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