Poetry selected by Denise O’Hagan
The last months have been a testing time for Australia and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand. Ravaged by bushfires on an unprecedented scale, stricken by drought, and finally swamped by heavy rains, Australia’s suffering has been the stuff of news bulletins the world over—and this was before the Coronavirus pandemic.. Concern over the immediate devastation to people and the environment has been compounded by a growing disillusionment in the ability of politicians to combat the effects of climate change.
What is the role of poetry in a time of crisis, we may well ask, and how has it affected our poets? Encouragingly, it seems to be spurring us on to greater awareness of ourselves and our relationships with others, and towards taking a greater responsibility for our environment – often evident from the poem titles alone.
In his poem ‘it’s climate change, … stupid’, James Walton tackles this subject and its ramifications, striking a sombre note with lines such as ‘you know deep in the strain of things / the time for talking is over’. Warren Paul Glover’s poem ‘We waved goodbye to Venice (and other places, too)’ is equally blunt: ‘the climate change deniers / shrugged their shoulders and moved, simply, on’. Barnaby Smith lays bare the risks of the untrammelled pursuit of economic gain with ‘attentive / agents arranging the scene / for new visitors stopping for a / sunset, assembled as totems on / dry and heavy landlocked hills, / persuaded the view is clean’.
Adele Ogièr Jones’ understated lines carry a potent grief: ‘Swallows did not come this year / and cuckoos are late’; this gentle call to action reminds us that the first step to change is awareness. Michael Leach’s bat-shaped lines are as much a homage as the words they contain to these homeless creatures whose ‘ancient cave walls crumble under the heavy weight of human hunger / for glittering metal’.
The effects of bushfires is a theme underpinning many of the poems. The phrase ‘ashes to ashes’ takes on a darker meaning in Julia Kaylock’s poignant tribute to a mother just buried: ‘“I’d hate to be burned,” she once said,’ set against a landscape of ‘blackened remnants of trees / jagged needles rising from ash-grey earth’. In an oblique reference to the bushfires, Jane Frank decries the ‘tens of thousands of rotting fish / washed up on the Macleay River banks / choked by ash’.
Set against this, there’s a heightening wonder at our natural world. In ‘Night diving, Koh Tao’, featured poet Audrey Molloy marvels at the sea wall transformed at night by her ‘cone of light to a stadium of waving fronds, polyps / Blooming in orange, tan, neon blue’. Paul Scully, enchanted by the nature of ice, spies ‘Filigreed skeletons / of crystal emerge from this slurry / under the massage of the wind’. Julian O’Dea perceives a languid quality to a coastline ‘where the sea gives the land / a sloppy kiss … abandoned magazines / and parched paperbacks, / all teetering on the edge / of a tedium that stretches / for miles’.
The absence of an appreciation of nature is also examined, mercilessly. Gayelene Carbis reminds us of our ignorance of, and often fractured relationship with, the animal kingdom: ‘I am a city girl frightened of a cow outside a fence … The closest I come is roast.’ Ignorance can breed insensitivity to animals and an exploitative attitude, as Dorothy Simmons’ spare, shocking insights into the racing world reveal: ‘The horses / somnambulate stallward, slack / as exhaustion … mute nostrils scream. / The tidal crowd spills over the course / time to lay / their next bet.’
Taking responsibility, it would seem, starts within. Kate McNamara speculates, beautifully, on the ultimate value of the human condition: ‘our tiny lives grey moths fluttering. / Was any of it really worth it?’ Anna Lind, high up in the air in ‘Seat 58B’, is lulled into a similar reverie by ‘Neat rows of bobbing dark buoys, / Flickering beacons of ordered noise’. Irina Frolova’s ‘Australia Day’ forces perspective and obliges humility: ‘I am but a grain / of white sand peppered / on this red land, / … a tiny piece of tabula rasa / after thousands of years of / black history.’ At the other end of the spectrum, the sheer resilience of the human spirit is valiantly and tenderly depicted by Linda Adair, as her ‘worker-warrior’ father refuses to give in to ‘the calm despair of palliative care … and summons his old mate, rage, / at being caught by Death at 56’.
Human relationships and communication are recurring themes in modern poetry, and this Issue is no exception. In reflecting on past love,the voice of Gabi Reigh is finely analytical as she recalls‘The flayed skins of truths we borrowed from each other / And chafed together like campfire kindling / Willing their sparks to singe us’. Harold Legaspi invites us to be privy to a world where emotions are equally complex and highly charged: ‘Come inside / …Warm up my fear / throw rocks at / my cheating heart’.
Anne Gleeson invokes the breakdown of communication at an international level, when the heavy hand of authority clamps down in 1941 Estonia: ‘In the middle of an almost ordinary night / when the household is silent except / for the soft sounds of breath / a knock / a pounding band, shouts / and the movement of soldiers’. Sarah Jane Justice explores the limitations of another sort of communication, when to ‘thrust flags in each other’s’ faces … spelled out the true distance between us’. The challenges of integrating into a community is also woven into Peter Granton’s quietly compelling ‘Pali town’: ‘Every year I’ve been coming back: / Maybe this time I’ll make this place home.’
The role of children in our society and their relationships with adults are pivotal in this Issue. In his highly structured and precisely titled ‘Sestina for the sixth’, Andrew Brion delves into how the sixth child of an immigrant family ‘from a war-torn home’ will one day ‘Suddenly shockingly taste / Roots she knows which are hidden, that she never can with her eyes see / … Far beyond taste, she’s located her sixth.’
In contrast, Marilyn Humbert’s ‘Blurred lines’ leads us softly yet profoundly into the very different world of another child ‘singing, spider-legs crossed / lining up matchbox cars / with fingers / that will never play piano / or finesse a flute’. Achingly poignant, too, is Kate Maxwell’s mourning of her ‘little pea-sized twins / that never were … / How can it be over / when it never began?’ Frances Olive’s poem ‘mostly, my mother’ also plunges us into the indivisible relationship between mother and child: ‘I have been a million people / mostly, my mother / … I have rolled my face across her face / stealing from public gardens / the roses, the violets / smudged across my face / as a child’s desire / I have eaten all her lipstick.’
Michael Aiken’s ‘Body shaming’, a sharply contemporary retelling of the Greek myth of the boy–beast Asterion, banished by King Minos to a huge purpose-built maze to hide his monstrous form from all, manages to elicit our sympathy for him – and, by implication, for the plight of anyone with a disability: ‘Lost and lonely, abhorred by family, in the dark he begs and pleads for a friend / … craves the insults of the playmates who mocked / him and his malformed birth.’ Fotoula Reynolds reawakens a rather less extreme childhood fear, but one common to many, with her wonderful opening line ‘the classroom of closed minds’ in the days when, at school, ‘The wooden ruler is never far away’.
As always, our poems are full of sharp observations of daily life with a uniquely antipodean flavour. In a ‘neon car park’, Gareth Jenkins notices the many forms of shadows, from ‘Tremble skin touched in the shadows of midnight’ to ‘The shadows of wattles rooted in concrete’. Les Wicks is alive to all forms of life in Surfside Avenue, where ‘a rat – huge- / almost the size of a possum / came through the louvred windows / & grazed the formica like an entitled guest’. Speaking of possums, anyone who has been disturbed by the thudding of possums will relish Robert Verdon’s marvellously succinct description of how‘possum-thunder across the tin roof / wakes half of Ainslie’; while to Tony DeLorger’s meditative eye, ‘koala eyes peer down /from fur-ball highs’ and ‘cicadas drone like chanting monks’.
I’m delighted with a growing New Zealand presence in this issue, too. Linda Collins explores, among other things, the multilayered immigrant experience in ‘the raw frontier of Aotearoa / having to dig kauri gum / to survive’. In ‘Hell’s Gate’, Tracie Lark simultaneously pays eloquent tribute to Rotorua’s famous mud pools and delivers a stinging reminder of the ongoing problem of domestic violence in our societies: ‘The idea of Hurutini’s / bruised, brown limbs, dissolving / in sulphuric mud lava is imagery less / uncomfortable than thoughts of the / reasons why she felt compelled to purge / her body in to Devil’s Bath.’
Thank you, and enjoy the diverse reading our wonderful poets have to offer!