Some recent reviews of Australian poetry books
[»»] 0. Introducing Poetics for ‘Australia’
[»»] 1. Closer to Home: Omar Sakr’s These Wild Houses and the new suburbanism
[»»] 2. The Avant Garde in ‘Australia’: after Eddie Paterson, Philip Mead and Caitlin Maling
[»»] 3. From Wembley: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Carrying the World
[»»] 4. The Boys in Cambridge: Clive James’ Injury Time
[»»] 5. The Boys in Cambridge: John Kinsella’s Graphology
Paragraph One follows: 1:
[Although Robert Wood has reviewed for literary journals in Australia, the US and UK, here he focuses on reviews for recently released books. In a type of suburbanism it covers contemporary poetry from Australia, attending to social, historical and philosophical aspects. For an introduction to the series, and to read the reviews, please click on the links above. To read the Endnotes see the ends of files 3,4 and 5. — J.T.]
This essay emerged from a general and particular set of feelings, concerns, observations about philosophy and poetics. Although it situates itself in regards to ‘Australia’, its primary target is not contemporary poetry that sees itself as being from that place. This subject is simply an entry point for cultivating an interpretive lens that responds to our world now. It offers commentary on individual books as well as the discourses that surround them. Yet when read together I hope that the essay will accumulate into an understanding of language, change and status that allows the reader to contemplate power and place.
My general sense, one that I can intuit from being on the ground and reading literary journals, is that ‘Australia’ still thinks of itself as the whole of the island continent that shares its home. Poets and literary critics in capital cities will often gloss the internal heterogeneity here and fail to truly come to terms with Indigenous forms of sovereignty, which is to say Ngarluma land is not ‘Australian’at all. The ‘Australia’ that I speak of is concerned with metropolitan validation despite its struggles at self-definition and autonomous consciousness.
The rank agreeability with past theorists, invariably straight, dead, white Western European men, emerges most explicitly through the Anglicised importation of references in reviews. This is a symptom of an updated colonialism for the institutionalised critic concerned with status in a way that has internalised a peripheral notion of itself. To see this play out in the particular, one can be pointed towards Toby Fitch’s use of Sigmund Freud in ‘Relive Your Dreams Awake’ in Sydney Review of Books. As Ben Etherington suggested in ‘The Poet Tasters’:
the aesthetic parameters of Australian poetry criticism are decidedly Eurocentric. I don’t use the term to suggest a limitation of individuals. The poetic education and tastes of those in the poetry community are structurally Eurocentric. It seems all Australian poets took the same two courses at university: ‘British and Irish poetry from Wordsworth to Heaney’ and ‘Modern American poetry from Whitman to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’. A handful also took a course on French symbolism. When Australian poet critics say ‘poetry’ they mean a particular verse tradition and a sequence of aesthetic developments. Confining ourselves to English-language poetry, you could count on one hand references in all 2013 reviews to poets from the Caribbean, South and South-East Asia, African and Pacific nations (including New Zealand).
One might be tempted to simply begin addressing this issue through bringing in Othered traditions — of citing the poetries that are absent. And that is certainly one approach that I have supported elsewhere including in my Plumwood Mountain review of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Collected Poems. But the task might be to re-orient poetics in ‘Australia’ as a lens, a way of seeing, as a frame. In that way, Etherington is as problematic as Fitch with his own adoption of Hegel’s ‘diremption’ in his review of reviews.
An entry point for thinking in a critical language of our own making does not inter alia mean the end of the white man, but it might mean the affirmed action of local understanding. What constitutes the local depends on the body of the speaker, but it cannot be defined only by categorical imperatives. This is not then the criticism of a ‘poet of colour’.
If one sought out the language markets, rituals, puzzles of our continent, one would soon acknowledge that there is a poetics that asserts its creative sovereignty as an expression of self not a form of resistance. To see this, one need only cite the commentary by Paddy Roe, Butcher Joe Nangan, Nellie Nadyuway in Stuart Cooke’s George Dyungayan’s Bula Line: A West Kimberly Song Cycle. As much as I pay homage to that articulation, it is only one valence that matters here and now.