TEXT review

Tasting the range of poetic styles

review by Steve Evans



Southerly – The Poetry Issue
Vol. 69 No. 3
Kate Lilley (ed)
Brandl & Schlesinger, 2010
Pb 240pp Subscribe at Southerly home page


The journal of the English Association of Sydney, Southerly normally blends new prose and poetry with essays and reviews. Vol. 69 No. 3 is a special poetry issue edited by Kate Lilley, who says she chose poems that ‘struck me most with their enargia (vivid invention) and distinctiveness’. There is no doubt that is true of much of the material, but whether readers will be similarly struck is another matter. Many of the poems resist the use of both straightforward imagery and a linear, cohesive narrative structure, and their novelty does wear off in places.

Not all reading should or can be organised to fit expectations of traditional structures and uses of figurative language, though. The fact of variety in styles here is pleasing, even if some poems are notably more engaging than others. Even as some of these poems jar, deliberately or otherwise, they may remind us of our own default reading modes when we approach a poem, and draw personal habits into question.

In his famous ‘Introduction to Poetry’, Billy Collins refers to student readers of poetry and their tendency to analyse in pursuit of a poem’s distilled essence: ‘I want them to waterski / across the surface of a poem / waving at the author's name on the shore.’ One might have this in mind when reading Michael Farrell’s four poems, all entitled ‘lyric’, that comprise tangential fragments. The last begins:

It blocks mt fuji.
In the fog you see
a pot & a truck
eggshell feather falling, a sparrow knocks.

Does Farrell mean us to be thinking particularly about how we read a poem, or is he asking us to simply surf across the top of it? The lack of linearity and readily integrated content does not necessarily undermine the poem; there is always the skimmed view available from above, and the pleasure of startling conjunctions that function as good metaphors will. Farrell has said in conversation that he sees the process of writing his poetry as being akin to composing hymns. His ‘lyric’ poems underline the fact that the best instructions for how to read a poem are still contained in the poem itself.

The poems in this issue, then, may be more centred on the voice and suggestion rather than the literal and direct, thus defying analytical pressure. Ken Bolton’s long ‘Luminous Hum’ wanders in a casual epistolary manner that plays with space on the page as if to consciously defy tighter forms. Rosemary Huisman’s ‘Tesserae’ is a picaresque prose poem, with the emphasis on prose, that presents fragments of small-town characters’ lives. It does coalesce; the whole, as they say, clearly being larger than the sum of its parts. Alison Croggon’s ‘from Beowulf Unplugged’ plays with a time-honoured device, the crudely translated poem. It is prefaced with a note explaining that the poem is based on processing her translation of Beowulf ‘through a dictation application’. Unfortunately, it turns relatively flat after the first few lines. P O’s ‘Albert Namatjira’, on the other hand, is a witty and exuberant series of observations that settles into a more somber reflection on the artist’s life, able to embrace both:

It’s against the Law to hypnotize a person, and make them
Stand outside a shop window, like a mannequin.


The Lor-I’tja came to his grave, in a cab
In bare feet
Clutching a small posey of flowers
How does a song bird fly 2,000 miles?

More conventionally, Geoff Page and Tom Shapcott contemplate the in/significance of human affairs in their separate poems. Page’s character is a miner who feels the weight of the worlds above and below ground in the deft ‘The Mine: 1953’, while in Shapcott’s ‘Weeding’, the narrator is washing hands after a day in the garden:

…outside the weeds are batched in green plastic bags
As if the job has been done. Wait, says the earth,
And we all wait. Nothing stays motionless forever.

There are reviews and essays in Southerly too, the latter including John Tranter’s ‘Dream-work’, which is an excerpt from his doctoral exegesis. If one can overlook the curious decision to refer to himself in the third person throughout, this is interesting at least for his assertions about the importance of acknowledging one’s influences. Tranter raises the ghost of Ern Malley as emblematic of his own continuing desire to experiment, a restlessness that more poets might find productive for their own work. This might seem an odd comment to make given that some of the more marginal poetry here is not wholly successful but there is material to reward a reading that favours elision and fracture.

Both the more usual poems and the edgier work in this special poetry issue of Southerly have their appeal, though I can’t help feeling that Joan Houlihan’s provocative essays on the contemporary denaturing of the poem could well have taken some of the latter in this issue as examples. What readers expect in poetry can be suddenly revealed to them when it is denied, when they are confronted with something different and thus more challenging than their usual diet. That process can be strangely exciting, even when discomfiting, and a number of poems in this issue achieve that result.

Southerly is not confined to print. Each issue has supplementary material such as essays, poetry and further reviews that can be found in its companion outlet, ‘The Long Paddock’, attached to the main website: http://www.brandl.com.au/southerly/.

If you want to taste the range of poetic styles in Australia, the country’s oldest surviving literary magazine, Southerly, may be just the place to go. Be prepared for an eclectic selection.



Steve Evans works at Flinders University and is poetry editor of TEXT.


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Vol 14 No 2 October 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb