In the 5 months of this year, there have been 16 reviews of books of poetry by Australian Women Writers. This is opposed to the 9 reviews for the whole of last year, so poetry readers are really forging ahead!
Leading the charge is Phillip Ellis, who posted 11 reviews. Two of these were of books by Judith Beveridge, whose first collection of poetry, The Domesticity of Giraffes, was released in 1997. Ellis reviewed her 2005 collection, Rock n’ Roll Tuxedo, referring to it as ‘less about music scenes, and more about a wider vision of the world informed by that same music … the poems in it have a strong sense of energy, a laconic musicality and in many of them an almost prosy, but never prosaic, rhythm.’ Her most recent collection, Storm and Honey (2009) is ‘a cracker of a book’, consisting of a sequence titled ‘Three Fishermen’, and a variety of other poems. Her work, Ellis writes, is that of ‘a skilled and disciplined poet who is well aware that hard work makes for easy reading’, which I think is an excellent description of what good authors strive to do.
Ellis also reviewed Kelly Pilgrim-Byrne’s Domestic Archaeology, published by Grand Parade Poets (manned by poet Alan Wearne). Pilgrim-Byrne lives in Perth with her partner of 18 years and their 4 year old daughter, and many of the poems are about fertility and conception. What might normally be considered private becomes very public, deriving, as Ellis notes, ‘much of its power and honesty through the pared-down language.’
Jonathan Shaw penned two reviews, one being a brief but fascinating account of writer and artist Henry Darger as described by poet Julie Chevalier in Darger: His Girls. Darger, as Shaw writes, ‘was a reclusive eccentric who lived in poverty and imagined a vast epic in which little girls take on armies and interplanetary beings. Shortly before his death his landlord discovered the bulky volumes of handwritten manuscript, along with the copious illustrations, and recognised a work of weird genius.’ Darger: his girls is Chevaliar’s ‘poetic record’ of her encounter with him. Describing a prose poem she penned made up ‘entirely of phrases taken from Darger’s writing’, Jonathan writes: ‘it’s full of [Darger’s] cliché, but generates an enormous emotional, quasi-erotic force’. His other review was on Home By Dark by Pam Brown, whose poems had an ‘elliptical, almost throwaway quality – no assertive rhyme schemes, often no clear prose syntax, mostly no through narrative line.’ He attended her book launch in an Erskinville pub, with the footy turned to silent on the telly, a setting which Pam Brown thought ‘appropriate, given the digressions and distractions of the poetry.’
As well as pub book launches, there was one in a garden. Sue of Whispering Gums attended the launch of Suzanne Edgar’s The Love Procession, which was inspired by a painting attributed to Marco del Buono and Giovanni di Apollonio, from the 1440s, which Edgar saw in an exhibition of Renaissance paintings at the National Gallery of Australia. Sue, who enjoyed the varied nature of the poems, thought the title was appropriate, ‘because the collection is about love – romantic and other – and about procession. About the procession of our lives – about love, life and death, about work and the things that keep us going, about friends and family, about nature that travels with us.’
Indigenous women poets
Ellis also reviewed a number of titles by Indigenous authors, including Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s The Dawn is at Hand (1966), published under the poet’s previous name, Kath Walker. Noonuccal was the first Indigenous woman in Australia to publish a book of poetry, We Are Going (1964), which was an immediate sell-out. In his review of The Dawn is at Hand, her second volume, Ellis questions poet James Deveny’s comment that the ‘“propaganda-like stuff’ which might be all right for [her campaigning] addresses on behalf of Aboriginal Advancement is not necessarily good for poetry.’ Ellis concludes that the poems are not propaganda, and that they retain their lyricism. He also muses on this subject in relation to Anita Heiss’ I’m Not Racist, But …., noting that the poems don’t ‘follow party politics, but rather, are informed and infused with a sense of humanitarian compassion and anger.’ The tension between the poetic and the political is the subject of Brigid Rooney’s Literary Activists, which has chapters on Noonuccal and her friend, poet Judith Wright.
Quibbles about Genre
The Stella Prize doesn’t accept poetry, but it did shortlist Lisa Jacobson’s The Sunlit Zone, which was a speculative fiction novel in verse, reviewed by Tsana, Ellen at GoodReads and Bronwyn at Lip Magazine. If I adhered to these guidelines as well, it would mean removing Dorothy Porter’s iconic The Monkey’s Mask, which is also a verse novel (greatly enjoyed by writereaderly and ifnotread), and another of her works, Akhenaten (also reviewed by writereaderly). I don’t feel that I can do this because Porter is one of Australia’s best known and loved poets.
Jessica at Cordite Poetry Review writes on the form and history of the verse novel, and notes that Jacobson’s ‘everyday characters confront both the mythical and the scientific implications of a futuristic lifestyle’ and, through this, ‘the poet extends the verse novel into interesting new territory.’ This tension between the past and future is realised in the language which, as Jessica writes, has the effect of holding ‘the magical and the scientific in a constant state of tension, and we oscillate between both possibilities.’
If you agree or disagree with these genre conventions, feel free to comment below! I also wasn’t able to cover every single collection here, so do take yourself over to our listing of reviews at the Australian Women Writers page. It’s great to see readers taking an interest in the form, subject matter and sound of Australian women poets, and I look forward to reading many more reviews in my next roundup.
I’m Jessica White, a writer and researcher. I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007) and Entitlement (2012). My poetry has been published Overland, Verandah and Muse, and won the Matthew Rocca Poetry Prize. You can find more information about me at my website. I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.
Thanks for the link, Jessica … I enjoyed being reminded of a poetry collection that I really enjoyed! I certainly think that novels in verse should be treated as novels (as well as as poetry – that’s an awkward sentence!). I didn’t realise Stella doesn’t include poetry in general as I thought it was all forms. Does it not include plays either? I’m not sure that I agree with that but would have to see their reasoning.
Thoughtful round-up Jessica.
Hi Sue, Yes I was surprised about the poetry too. In their entry guidelines they state that books that are ineligible ‘include textbooks, guidebooks, self-help, poetry collections, play or film scripts, books written primarily for children, books consisting of illustrations or photographs, and adaptations, unless they represent a significant and creative transformation of the original text.’ I’m don’t know what’s behind their decisions for this, nor how to find out! I was speaking to poet Bronwyn Lea about it and she said they haven’t ruled out poetry for future awards. I hope they eventually include it!
I can understand some of those but if they allow short story collections, why not poetry ones? You always have to draw the line somewhere though I suppose.
Hi Jessica, I am confused by your posting regarding Julie Chevalier’s fabulous collection Darger: His Girls.
I am confused because, firstly, either you, or the reviewer you quote, Jonathan Shaw, have things completely back to front: “The poet, as Shaw writes, ‘was a reclusive eccentric who lived in poverty and imagined a vast epic in which little girls take on armies and interplanetary beings. Shortly before his death his landlord discovered the bulky volumes of handwritten manuscript, along with the copious illustrations, and recognised a work of weird genius.’ Darger’s poetry, Jonathon found, was ‘full of cliché, but generates an enormous emotional, quasi-erotic force’.
The poet is Julie Chevalier, substantially still a living female writer with two volumes of poetry out with Puncher & Wattmann (the earlier publication was Linen Tough as History), plus a volume of short stories, Permission to Lie, published by Spineless Wonders Press.
The ‘reclusive eccentric’ was American outsider artist Henry Darger (indubitably the male in this scenario) and Chevaliers’ poems, and accompanying essay, go further than most other researchers or interpreters in exploring this unusual man’s complex psychology. And she achieves this with poetry that is original, challenging, empathic and often thrilling.
That brings me to the second reason for my confusion – your double damning (by quote) of Chevalier’s otherwise extremely well reviewed, and awarded work (Darger: his Girls was awarded the 2011 Alec Bolton Prize for an unpublished poetry manuscript). Cliché? If you can find one it is there for a reason; humor, insight, context, subversion. Chevalier is an intelligent, wry and insightful writer who offers fresh perspectives.
Perhaps there is a danger in posting reviews of work you are unfamiliar with? I highly recommend you buy a copy of Julie Chevalier’s poetry, or prose – I’d love to read your response.
jessica, you do no favours to julie chevalier by misquoting jonathon shaw’s review of darger: his girls. darger was an artist, not a poet, and the cliches were from darger’s own words, not those of julie chevalier, she was using darger’s words to write her prose poem.
women writers, especially women poets get little press, little recognition and a small share of book sales in australia. you are doing a wonderful service to women and their writing by promoting it on this blog, let’s make sure that all women poets get their well deserved respect through your accurate reporting.
Hi Dael and Linda,
Thank you for pointing out my misquotations, which I’ve rectified and (I hope) clarified. I’m sorry I didn’t do this immediately but I simply haven’t had time. Our contributions to the Australian Women Writers challenge are entirely voluntary and carried out amidst pressures of work and family, and it is a mark of our dedication to Australian women’s writing that we are doing these round-ups. We do not do the reviews ourselves (except on our own blogs), but rather in these round-ups we summarise what has been written.
My mistake was due to a mis-reading of Shaw’s review rather than any attempt to cast Chevaliar in a negative light. Likewise we neither promote nor criticize poets or writers, but rather report on what our reviewers have found. Reviewing is a subjective business, and no reader is going to enjoy every single work they come across, and I don’t think readers should be dissuaded from posting their honest views. Having said that, I do appreciate hearing your high opinions of Chevaliar and, when I have a moment, will try to hunt down her work. You are of course also welcome to post reviews yourself, and I would love to read them if you do.
thank you for your reply. i appreciate your response. keep up the excellent work highlighting the work of women writers in Australia.