This is a review, written by Ali Schnabel of The Best Australian Poems 2015.
Various; edited by Geoff Page
In the thirteenth year of the landmark Best Australian Poems anthologies, guest editor Geoff Page describes his logic in assembling this year’s collection:
“So that such poetry may be more widely appreciated, the readers I have had most in mind are those who may read poetry from time to time but have no particular commitment to it. They will probably read literary fiction -and be devotees of the more intelligent television series- but they will also suspect that, at some level, the human desire for patterned language is as strong as its need for narrative.”
His statement of intent is well reflected in the content: each poem in the collection is rich and masterful without being inaccessible: there are no brain-draining indecipherable pieces in here, but that doesn’t mean that Page has wasted his time by creating some sort of ‘Australian Poetry for Dummies’. There’s a great mix of structure, language and theme to The Best Australian Poems of 2015; Page has curated an exciting and emotionally hefty collection. The book is roughly organised according to theme: we cycle through everything from food to politics to Aboriginal Australia, family, travel, war and mortality.
Fiona Wright’s 'Sweet Potato' is an early stand-out, speaking to the way in which a supposed healthy lifestyle and disordered relationship with food and our bodies can intertwine:
My cereals had lots of sugar in them, so
now I just eat eggs. Consistency is the main thing.
You’ve got to listen to your body,
The reader is taken on a journey that the protagonist isn’t privy to: the cognitive hoop-jumping they engage in betrays a deeper neurosis, an insecure and complicated attachment to food that is easily extrapolated from Wright’s flowing, easy prose.
Lucy Dougan’s 'Bump & Grind' is an early foray into the theme of family dynamics that recurs throughout The Best Australian Poems of 2015. Describing a mother coming to terms with her daughter’s maturation and coincidental breakaway from dancing, the feeling of nostalgia and reluctant acceptance is perfectly captured:
Much later you’ll slash the tutu,
wear it over jeans,
and I will harvest the rose buds
of which the sewing on
gave me so many small wounds,
and they’ll get dusty in a red cup
on my desk
the year that you start bleeding
and I stop.
Dougan encapsulates the to-and-fro of reflection, disappointment and acceptance, flitting back and forth between them as if her own daughter is standing behind her, begging her to stop embarrassing her.
In a similar vein, Kevin Brophy’s 'Firstly' grapples with the more tangible loss of his father through re-reads of his old letters. He captures the awkwardly endearing essence of his dad as expressed through his letters:
He begins shakily but formally,
With an organised and disciplined, ‘Firstly’:
Letting me know, firstly, that the postcards
Have been arriving
Brophy’s clipped couplets resonate with the ‘blunt-crafted purpose’ of his father’s writing, eliciting a familiar warmth that is all about ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’.
Another fine example of the mastery of structure and form in the collection is Joe Dolce’s 'Blondi', a reflection on Hitler’s relationship with his titular German Shepherd. Dolce kicks off with flowing prose:
Eva Braun preferred her Scottish terriers,
Negus and Stasi, and hated Blondi,
whom she secretly kicked under tables
Yet he does away with brevity as the poem progresses:
Blondi, propaganda star,
portrayed the Fuhrer as animal lover,
but doubting potency,
of the final cyanide capsules,
Hitler ordered one
tested on Blondi,
who died instantly.
The grim and abrupt ending parallels the role of the famous dog in the Nazi propaganda machine – harkening to the dual roles Hitler played as both champion of the German people and abhorrent war criminal. Dolce manages to take a relatively innocuous subject matter to great new heights just by mastering the alteration of form.
As the collection nears its end, we approach themes of mortality: death, aging and loss. Les Murray tells of the frustrations of aging in 'Vertigo':
Last time I fell in a shower-room
I bled like a tumbril dandy
and the hotel longed to be rid of me.
Murray grapples with a cycle of emotions, from the aforementioned frustrations of ‘having a fall’ to the shame of having one's house modified for mobility (that’s time to call the purveyor/of steel pipe and indoor railings). There’s no time for reprieve, however, as life is short and the realities of old age are scary:
having left your balance in the car
from which please God you’ll never see
the launchway of tyres off a brink.
Rounding things off beautifully is Clive James’ 'Japanese Maple', a gorgeous sentiment and sweet musing on death:
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort,
So slow a fading out brings no real pain,
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain.
The rhyming structure of the poem bestows a musicality to a subject matter that may otherwise be morbid; instead, 'Japanese Maple' takes a wonderfully celebratory stance:
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
The bittersweet feel of 'Japanese Maple' is a microcosm of the rest of the work in The Best Australian Poems of 2015: sometimes pleasant, sometimes confronting, yet always emotionally hefty and near-tangible in the amount of life brought onto the page. Celebrating the outstanding work of a pleasing variety of writers new and old, male and female, Aboriginal, multicultural or otherwise, Page has assembled a great collection that resonates with the themes of the year in Australia and the ever-present themes that make Australian poetry so unique and compelling.
The Best Australian Poems 2015 is out now through Black Inc.
Ali Schnabel is a a writer from Melbourne, Australia. Her work mostly features in literary magazines that live under her dad's Playstation controller. @alivonschnabel